Party People, Party People: Friday Good News Roll Call!

 

Hey Y’all:

It’s Friday morning, and I’m up far too early. Alas, I did not just get paid. (That’s an Old School Jam reference. Y’all young’uns don’t know what I’m talking about.) But since I’ve been writing steadily, I get up with the proverbial chickens. Also, I try to get in at least one Yoga practice a week, so I don’t cuss people out. (Don’t act like y’all don’t know what I’m talking about.)

But I’m also up early because I’m pretty excited since this has been a good news week for me: I was included in two new books on poetry that just came out!

Wingbeats II: Exercises and Practice in Poetry, edited by Scott Wiggerman and David Meischen

Here’s an excerpt from the description of the book:

“Whether you want a quick exercise to jump-start the words or multi-layered approaches that will take you deeper into poetry, Wingbeats II is for you…You will find exercises for collaborative writing, for bending narrative into new poetic shapes, for experimenting with persona, for writing nonlinear poems. For those interested in traditional elements, Wingbeats II includes exercises on the sonnet, as well as approaches to meter, line breaks, syllabics, and more..”

I have an essay called “The Happy Blues” included that talks about how to write this usually sad poetic form with a twist.

You can order Wingbeats II here!

AND

Poems of the American South, edited by David Biespiel.

Here’s an excerpt from the Foreword to the book:

“This anthology begins with the hymns and rhythms of enslaved people who were shipped to this continent four hundred years ago against their will. Enslaved Africans brought with them the roots of American poetry and, as a consequence, there’s been an ingrained sensibility about the tragedy of human bondage in Southern literature; as William Faulkner famously said, “The past is not dead. It isn’t even past.'”

I have a poem included called “Portrait of Unknown Provenance of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the Child of an Unknown African Woman and Admiral Sir John Lindsay,and Her Cousin, the Lady Elizabeth Murray c. 1779″ 

You can order Poems of the American South here!

Thank y’all for sharing in my good news! I’m always so grateful for my work to be supported and acutely aware of how blessed and lucky I am.

Have a great weekend!

Love,

Phillis Remastered

Teachable Racial Moment: On Fingers Pointed in Black Faces

Usually, my blog posts deal with African American community or political issues, and I talk as one cultural insider to another cultural insider.

However, I’ve realized that sometimes, well-meaning, really nice White people (of which there are many, by the way) want Black folks to talk to them in non-angry, non-confrontational, and patient ways about Black cultural issues they don’t understand.

So I wondered if it might be useful for me to write blog posts that break racial things down for good White folks who mean no harm—and who either have Black friends or are in the midst of acquiring friendships with Black people– and are just trying to navigate these racial waters that ironically (and to me, bewilderingly) have become far more treacherous since the election of our first Black president.

Sidebar: I use “race” as a shorthand because that word usually means “Black” or “People of Color” to White people. But really, “race” is not a real, like, biological thing. It does not exist except in people’s minds. What I actually mean when I say “race” is “culture.”

I hadn’t even planned to post again this week, but I’ve noticed the online furor on Black social media concerning Governor Jan Brewer’s pointing her finger very close to President Barack Obama’s face. The response from White folks? Some are upset, but I get the impression they don’t really understand why we African Americans are so troubled. Some of us are even enraged.

So I thought that it might be time to write a Teachable Racial Moment post.

Ok, here goes: If you are wise, you will not ever put your finger–or your whole hand– in a Black person’s face, unless you know you want to immediately engage in a knock down, drag out, fight-to-the-concrete physical brawl. It’s actually a well-known signal for “let’s fight right this moment” in the Black community. When I say “ever” I mean not in this present lifetime, or even after death, if you encounter another Black angel in Heaven. Because that angel is still liable to get into it with you and risk being de-winged.

I don’t know when the finger point in the face became such a grave insult to Black folks, but it has been for at least fifty years. And what does the gesture mean anyway?  It means derision. It means disrespect. And above all, it means power to the pointer.

Sidebar: Have you ever seen a mother (of any cultural background) in the mall with her disobedient toddler? She finally gets exasperated and leans down and begins to scold the child—by pointing her finger in his or her face. And what happens? The toddler starts crying, and then gets it together and starts behaving better. Thus, the finger point in the face is not a gesture between equals. She who does the pointing is establishing herself as a superior to the person being pointed at.

Okay, and now, I’m about to reveal a Racial Secret. Are you ready? I’m going to put this in italics so you really get it.

Because the finger point gesture establishes superiority, the gesture is even worse if a White person does it to a Black person, due to the history in this country of White supremacist violence and cultural demeaning of Black folks.

Nice Non-Racist White folks, this may seem silly to y’all. And I get that. Right now, you may be saying, “Dang, Black folks got too many rules! It’s so hard to keep up with y’all!” That’s true. I won’t deny it. So many rules, even I have a hard time keeping up.

But consider that, individually, we all have rules that help create a space in which we are happy.

For example, I despise egg whites. (No racial pun intended here, I promise.) I will eat whole scrambled eggs willingly, or baked into cookies, cakes, etcetera, but if given a boiled egg, I will only eat the yolk. The thought of an egg white omelet is one that moves me almost to physical pain.  It’s so slimy and disgusting.

So one day, I was visiting my mama and she was making potato salad. And she was chopping up boiled egg whites to mix into the potato salad. Now I live to eat my mama’s potato salad. Nobody makes it better. So I was watching her chop up those egg whites and I felt tears come to my eyes, because I knew I wasn’t going to eat that potato salad with those egg whites in it. I was so disappointed and I felt really betrayed, too.

Mama looked up and saw my face and said quietly, “Honi, you know I already made your potato salad without the whites, darling. It’s sitting in the refrigerator right now.”

That’s what I mean.

Mama could have said, “Look, get over it. I’m not making two separate potato salads to please your rusty grown behind. What am I, your personal chef?” But she didn’t. And just like she knows I won’t eat egg whites, I know she despises the dark meat of chicken and I’d never try to serve a chicken thigh to her. It’s these little things that lead to understanding between two people.

And this leads us back to Governor Jan Brewer. After she pointed her finger in President Obama’s face she followed up in a media interview by saying she “felt threatened” by him. But remember when I said above that the finger point in the face was both an aggressive act and one attempting to establish superiority?

If anyone felt threatened, it would be President Obama, threatened by Governor Brewer’s attempt to not only belittle him, but also because he probably suspected that later, she’d try to flip the racial script on him. Which she most certainly did.

Here’s that flipped script:  she, the Little Helpless White Lady, felt afraid of him, a Big Ole Scary Black Man. (Refer to the film, Birth of a Nation if you aren’t familiar with this tired script. It’s only a bit more tired–and dangerous–than the Big-Breasted Loving Black Mammy Who Lives To Take Care of White Folks Kids With No Pay script in Gone With The Wind.)

So, let me get this straight.

Governor Brewer felt afraid of President ObamaShe felt threatened by him. After she poked her finger in his face and attempted to humiliate him. And let’s not forget this was going on in front of cameras.

Yeah, okay. I completely believe her.

This flipped racial script of Governor Brewer is very old, and has several versions, but it has proven useful throughout the years for the shell game of White supremacy, as when a Black man was lynched whenever a White woman accused him of looking at her funny.

I’m not playing here mentioning the funny look. It was the unofficial law of “reckless eyeballing” created by White southerners, and many a southern Black man swung at the end of a rope for committing that supposed crime. The case of Emmitt Till was a variation of “reckless eyeballing,” because he whistled at a White woman and ended up murdered.

Just because President Obama doesn’t talk about that racial script doesn’t mean he isn’t well aware of our nation’s troubled history concerning White women and Black men, which is why he walked away from Governor Brewer. I’m pretty sure that, as a Black man, he was angered by her culturally transgressive act, but he had the presence of mind to get himself together before he broke all the way fool on the tarmac with that lady and not only ended up in jail, but went down in history as 1) the first Black president and 2) the first president who physically assaulted a woman in public.

But he saved himself, because President Obama is an Old School Brother. And it is never acceptable for an Old School Brother to hit a woman, whether or not she has committed an act of aggression. And let me tell you that you don’t really want to know what would have happened if Governor Brewer had pointed her finger in the face of another Black man—not an Old School Brother but one of these Young Knuckleheads With No Sense.

Eh, Lord, it would have been so ugly. And that’s all I’m going to say.

Polite, kind, respectful, self-controlled, and full of common sense: that’s how Old School Brothers get down. And by the way, that’s why I really adore them. And that’s why, despite the fact that President Obama hasn’t been a perfect leader (at least in my opinion), as a Sister, I feel extremely proud of him. And I bet Mrs. Obama does, too.

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Guthrie Ramsey’s New Single from THE COLORED WAITING ROOM (Available Today!)

Today, I’m so excited because I’ve been waiting for weeks for the release of the first single from Dr. Guthrie Ramsey’s musical project, The Colored Waiting Room and it’s finally here!  Much of Black Social Media has been buzzing about this project for weeks. I know I have.

Before I get to the sassy part, let me give you the fussy, academic stuff. Please be patient, now.

Hailing from the “Up South” Mecca of South Side Chicago, Dr. Guthrie Ramsey is a former elementary and high school music teacher who earned his Ph.D. in musicology at the University of Michigan. He’s the author of Race Music: Black Cultures From Be-Bop to Hip Hop (University of California Press, 2003), which was named outstanding book of the year by the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. Dr. Ramsey also has the distinction of being recognized as a Thurgood Marshall Dissertation Fellow at Dartmouth, a DuBois Institute Fellow at Harvard, and a recipient of the Lowens Award, from the Society for American Music for best article on an American music topic. Currently, he’s the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA.

Now here’s the good part.

What I like about Guthrie Ramsey is that he’s a “regular brother” who just happens to also be a seriously brilliant musician with his own Philadelphia band, Dr. Guy’s Musiqology. And you’ll see his brilliance and the beauty of his music when you download (for FREE) and listen to “Stolen Moments,” the first single off his new CD, The Colored Waiting Room, sung by the inimitable Denise King.

But you now why I’m even more excited? Because “Bruh Guthrie” (as I call him) asked me to contribute a “meditation” for the first single!  Here are a few lines from what I wrote:

….now when can you come over? Maybe around midnight, later? It’s been a while. (If you like, I’ll say please.) I miss you. You miss me. Of course, I know you do. You miss how we…

Sidebar: Y’all didn’t know that side of me, did you?  Please don’t tell nobody that sometimes, though I am always ladylike, I’m not always well-behaved.

To read the rest of my “Stolen Moments” meditation inspired by the beautiful single sung by Denise King, and also to see a fabulous short film about the entire project known as The Colored Waiting Room, click here and scroll down.  (It’s a different site from the download site.)

And have a great weekend! I know whenever I listen to new music, it always makes me feel good.

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Join me TODAY at 1:30pm EST on Left of Black!

A few weeks back, I taped an episode of Left of Black. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this show, this is the weekly webcast hosted by the fabulous and splendid Dr. Mark Anthony Neal (aka Dr. MAN) of Duke University and produced by the John Hope Franklin Center of International and Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke.

Guess what? Today, my episode of Left of Black is airing on Duke University’s UStream at 1:30PM EST!  I’m so excited!

I’ll be talking about my Phillis Wheatley poetry project, The Age of Phillis—that’s when I make nice—and then, I’ll be talking about some more controversial subjects, like Slutwalk and Touré’s controversial article on Michael Vick, which I sliced and diced a while back on this blog. Y’all know me. I like to cause plenty trouble. (And you know you like it.)

You can catch the episode STREAMING TODAY at 1:30pm EST on the Duke University Ustream. Here’s the link. 

In addition to me, Dr. MAN will be joined by E. Patrick Johnson, author of Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a minute, so this is my opportunity to get a bit of a preview. I know I won’t be disappointed, because I’ve heard wonderful things about this timely, important book. And I’m a southerner, so I’m definitely interested in reading Sweet Tea.

So, join Dr. MAN, E. Patrick Johnson, and me TODAY at 1:30pm EST on Left of Black!

If you miss the streaming episode, you can always see the recorded episode. Go to either Mark Anthony Neal’s Twitter page (click here)   OR you can go to Left of Black’s Twitter Page (click here).

And if you aren’t following me (Honorée Fanonne Jeffers) on Twitter, you know you want to! Here I am.

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Speak Up Sister: Black Women, Hair and Exercise–A Much-Needed Survey

Just a little while back, I posted a blog post “Are you too fly to be fit?” (Click the link here to read it.) In that blog post, I included a link to a short post on Facebook by a Sister-Physician, and do you know, she actually contacted me?! It was pretty exciting, I must confess.

The sister’s name is Dr. Rebecca Alleyne who is conducting a research project on Black women, hair, and exercise. (Once you scroll down, you will see her extremely cute picture.)

Dr. Rebecca is a bad (meaning good) Sister. And she needs Black women’s help for her research. Read on (below) to see how sassy she is and everything she’s done and will do. And click here for the link to the survey.

Now, before you Sisters say to yourselves, “I do not have time for this. I have lots of stuff to do, and that does not include filling out a survey,” think about what I said in my blog post, “Sister, Love Thyself” about taking time to take care of yourself.

When have you ever known a doctor to only be interested in Black women—to do something that would help only Black women? Let me tell y’all, this is a very rare occurrence and an extraordinary one, and frankly, I feel pretty special that Dr. Rebecca contacted me. And I feel grateful to her for wanting to do something to help out Black women.

So read on and find out all about Dr. Rebecca Alleyne and her incredible work. You know you want to!

And please don’t forget to pass the word on to other Sisters. And if you are not Black or a woman, please pass the word on to a Black woman you do know, and you will be appreciated. In fact, I appreciate you already–seriously and with so much love.

If you are a Black woman, not only should we Sisters be loving ourselves individually, we should be loving each other collectively. And sometimes, sending along good information is the best way to love somebody. Believe that.

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Dr. Rebecca Alleyne

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“Survey on Black Women, Hair, and Fitness”

…………..by Dr. Rebecca Alleyne

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My name is Rebecca Alleyne and I’m a board certified physician.   I’m a breast cancer surgeon by training, but I’ve developed a strong interest in preventive health over the last few years. You may wonder why a breast cancer specialist is interested in exercise.  Recently several studies were published linking exercise habits and risk of breast cancer.  There are also studies linking body fat content and breast cancer risk, particularly after menopause.

This year I am conducting a research project on Black women, hair and exercise.   The study is a survey of Black women, their hair care habits and their exercise habits.  It’s 13 questions altogether and should take about 7 minutes to complete.  My goal is to get at least 1000 responses to the survey.  More would be even better as larger numbers mean more powerful evidence of trends.

I’m interested in “the hair thing” because of my own behavior.  When my hair is in a higher maintenance style, whether straightened, kinky, or using extensions, I don’t work out as much.  Many Black women I know report the same thing. I was curious about this.

I looked all over the National Library of Medicine and I couldn’t find a single published study on the topic.  Since I could not find a good study, I figured I’d just do one myself.  The study is a small epidemiology study that I am funding completely on my own.  There are no pharmaceutical or hair care companies involved. This is truly a grassroots effort.

Besides being a physician, I am enrolled in a Masters in Health Administration program at the University of Southern California that begins August 2011.  I plan to use the university’s resources to do the final statistical analysis and get the results published in a peer-reviewed journal.

This may not pan out, there may be no link between hair maintenance and exercise.  But I have a hunch it will.  And the only way to find out is to ask a lot of Black women some questions.

What good will that do? My hope is it will encourage women to be aware of how our beauty habits affect our exercise routines, and consequently our health.

I want every woman to find a fitness routine she loves and a hairstyle of any type that allows her to engage in that routine with no restrictions.

If you have Black female friends or family members who may be interested in completing the survey I would greatly appreciate it if you would forward this survey to them.  The more Black women answer the questions the more accurate the trend numbers are, so feel free to send to as many people as you can.

Thank you again for participating, and if you have questions or concerns about the survey feel free to contact me at rsalleyne@gmail.com.

Link to the survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/speakupsisterexercise

Sincerely,

Rebecca Alleyne, M.D.

Chocolate Breast Milk: A Review of The Help

Warning: this review contains LOTS of spoilers.:-)

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In 1923, the Virginia chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy enlisted the help of Senator John Williams of Mississippi to put forth a resolution to build a national monument dedicated to the Black Mammy. Several prominent leaders of the African American community, including Mary Church Terrell, rallied against the monument and it was never built.

But by that time it was too late: the Black Mammy had been immortalized already in 1912 in another monument at Arlington National Cemetery, the Confederate Memorial. It depicts a “frieze” containing “six vignettes…includ[ing] a black slave following his young master; an officer kissing his infant child in the arms of her mammy…”

This is the public image of the Black Mammy, but for many of us, Black and White, we have intensely personal experiences with her.

For me, it was summer, circa 1976, and my family and I were visiting my mother’s mother, Grandma Florence. My sister Sidonie, several cousins and neighbors, and I decide we would integrate the White pool in Eatonton, Georgia. Bolstered by my mother’s donation of 50 cents for each child, we begin to walk across the railroad tracks.

We arrived at the pool, which we discovered was nearly three times the size of the pool we’d been swimming in. As soon as we placed our small Black bodies in the pool, the White children got out, but after a few minutes, one decided to get back in. The little girl spoke to me; she was about 3 or 4 years older.

“You’re related to Florence, aren’t you?” she asks. “You look just like her.”

I had never heard my grandmother’s name without a handle on it. “I am Mrs. Florence James’ granddaughter,” I said.

“Oh, I just love Florence so much! She used to clean house for us. When you go home, tell her ‘Miss Sally’ says ‘hey’.”

I talked to the little girl for a while, not really because I wanted to, but because I wanted her to notice that I kept stressing that my grandma should have a “Mrs.” in front of her first name. I used my most proper tones, but the little girl never took the hint.

This was my first experience with the figure of the Black Mammy, someone who belonged to her employers, whose love is assumed, even required. She doesn’t work for a paycheck. The money is incidental; the real compensation is her pure joy in laboring for her White employers. But she can never be an equal, even to a child. And she was my blood.

I’ve thought on that sunny afternoon many times. I was a child who’d been raised with a sense of my own middle-class entitlement, but in a few seconds, that girl stripped me of that, and reminded me of what my place was supposed to be–beneath her.  She didn’t mean the slightest bit of harm, but she harmed me anyway.

*

Yesterday, I went to see the film, The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same title, about the friendship in 1960s Mississippi between a privileged White woman and a group of black domestics. There have been several well-known Black entertainers who have endorsed the film, not the least of which is Viola Davis, the actress who plays Aibileen, the main Black character. Filmmaker Tyler Perry loves the film as well.

And there have been individual Black women online who have tried to counter the “bad press” generated by other Black women who have reviewed the movie negatively; both Martha Southgate and Valerie Boyd have been disappointed in the movie in different ways. But other Sisters praise the movie and say that we Black folks need to understand that all stories should be told. We should not be classist, especially about the past.

Yet, I write about working class Black folks and domestics in my own fiction constantly, so in this case, it’s not the story of Black domestics that I resent–or that the story the movie is based on was written by a White woman. And I don’t resent seeing Black women looking unglamorous in frumpy uniforms onscreen. I’m not embarrassed by them. Why should I be, when I’m related to women just like them?

What I resent are the tone-deaf depictions like the ones I saw onscreen yesterday. For example, there are no Black husbands in this film onscreen; there are three Black men in the film, but presumably, all of them are single. Aibileen overhears Minnie’s husband beating her when the two women are on a phone call, but we never see the man. (He’s the only physically abusive domestic partner in the movie, by the way.)

And we never find out who impregnated Aibileen years before and gave her a son. Was Aibileen’s an immaculate conception? Was she once married but now a widow or divorced? Was she abandoned by her son’s father? He’s never mentioned, to my recollection.

There are many historical issues with the film as well. The White husbands of these women are benevolent, fuzzy creatures, yet at this time in Jackson, Mississippi, the White Citizens council (mentioned only once in the film) was in full force, and they were public face of the domestic terrorist group, the KKK. We hear of civil rights activist Medgar Evers’s death, but we don’t see the killing, and there’s a vague “they” who seem to be responsible for Evers’s assassination; but again, there are no fingers pointed at any of the White men we see onscreen.

The meanest person in the film and the person with the most power is a White woman. A woman without a job. And she is cartoonish in her villainy, making it very simple to pretend she’s not real.

This film focuses on giving power to Black women, but none of them can claim that power without White assistance. Martha Southgate already has written eloquently about the fact that Civil Rights was not the purview of White Southerners, but rather Black southerners.  You would never know that by looking at this movie.

Even when Minnie, the other main Black character (played by Octavia Spencer), decides to act alone on her rage, she does so in a way that is (to me) morally transgressive; when her employer fires her, she bakes a pie using her own feces as an ingredient and feeds it to the woman in retaliation. As I sat there in the audience and listened to the guffaws of the White moviegoers at the “feces pie” scene, I could only think, what has become of a woman who gathers her body waste in her actual hands and cooks with it, in her own kitchen? Where were her children while she was stirring up feces? How can she or her home ever be clean again?

For me, it was not the humorous, empowering moment it was intended to be, but rather tragic and pathetic. It made me want to weep for Minnie. And equally as important, if Minnie had ever informed her Mississippi employer of her actions in real life, she would have been strung up and lynched, or at the very least beaten violently.

But the most disturbingly unrealistic aspect of this movie is that we never see the personal lives of the Black women who work as “The Help.” Almost every time they appear on screen, they are either tending to White others, or they are talking about White others’ goings on. To see this movie, one would think that these Black women had no other concerns than the Whites they work for. However, the White women—even the villains—all have personal lives separate from the Blacks’.

For me, the lack of Black female interior life was what angered me the most—that and the lack of any real affection toward Black children in the movie. No Black children were embraced or kissed in this film, while White children were hugged and kissed all the time, the implication being that yes, Black children were emotionally neglected, but this neglect was for the greater good: so that the children of White women could receive it all.

*

There already is Oscar buzz surrounding Viola Davis for her depiction of Aibileen. But I can’t help feeling extremely disappointed in Davis and the other Black women who agreed to act in this film. These are Black women who are plenty old enough to know the history of their foremothers but who either didn’t notice what was wrong in the script, or didn’t speak up—if they had, this would have been a different movie, despite the issues with the book.

And how many Black women who are defending this movie don’t see the serious flaws, either, the glaring historical and emotional anachronisms throughout? Instead, they are bending over backwards to try to understand a continuing legacy of White southern paternalism.

At the very beginning of The Help, Skeeter (played by Emma Stone) poses the question to Aibileen, “How did you feel, leaving your own child while you took care of other people’s children?”

That question is never answered.

Aibileen’s son’s life isn’t explored, even in flashback; she only talks briefly about the horrible way in which he died.  We only see his picture. It is as if his only contribution to the movie is to provide motivation for Aibileen’s later actions, after he’s dead. Her mother’s love, her mother’s grief, is condensed into 2 or 3 minutes. And in reality, she doesn’t claim her own voice—as a mother, as a woman, or someone who has her own inner mystery. She has no voice unless someone White is in the room.

Much has been made of Viola Davis’s acting skills, that in this one early scene the weighted absence of her silence somehow says it all. And it does, but not to answer the question posed to her; rather, it says something about the novelist who wrote this book and Tate Taylor, the writer who wrote the screenplay.

They just didn’t get it.

Nobody’s calling them racists—at least I’m not—or mean-spirited, or out to bring down The Black Community With A Big C. They just didn’t get it. They didn’t get anything about the real Black women who lived in Mississippi in 1963, those women who endured and resisted without “help” and worked in White folks’ kitchens and raised and loved Black children and hoped those children could avoid the lynch mobs to push the next generation to something better.

That story would have been a tougher one to tell–and a tougher one to swallow for a moviegoer who craved the Jim Crow Cliffs Notes; it probably wouldn’t have been funny, but neither was Mississippi in 1963.  But not only did Stockett and Taylor not get those Mississippi Sisters, they didn’t even get the universal human condition. And that’s just a colorblind shame.

Watch the Throne: A Twitter Salon

Originally uploaded at eurweb.com

Okay, so I actually downloaded Jay-Z’s and Kanye’s new CD Watch the Throne off ITunes.

Yes, ME.

I, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, in reasonably sound mind and body bought and paid for a Hip Hop CD. And it’s not my first one, either. Or my second one. I actually listen to Hip Hop. I contain multitudes like Whitman, y’all. Don’t sleep on me.

I’m also going to see the movie The Help, too. But that’s another blog post. So stay tuned.

Anyway, why did I buy Watch the Throne? Because on Wednesday (today), August 11, at 9pm EASTERN, I’m joining the critic and Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal for a Twitter Salon to discuss Watch the Throne. Along with us will be two equally fabulous and sassy individuals,  the Hip Hop scholar and Lehigh University professor James Braxton Peterson and the scholar and University of Pennsylvania professor Salamishah Tillet. (And if you already don’t know where I get my paychecks, you can discover that by clicking the “About” button above.)

You know you want to hear what we four intelligent, complex and opinionated Black folks all have to say about this CD, Jay-Z and Kanye West—and I think we might even surprise you.  But you need to be following at least one of us on Twitter to catch the discussion. Our Twitter handles are below:

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (that’s me) is @BlkLibraryGirl

Mark Anthony Neal is @NewBlackMan

James Braxton Peterson is @jbp2

Salamishah Tillet is @salamishah

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And join us today, Wednesday, August 11, at 9pm EASTERN on Twitter and see what the fuss.:-)

Coming Out of the Black Nerd Closet: A Meditation

Originally uploaded at http://awkwardblackgirl.com/

This week, The Black Nerd has been all over the web. A couple of days ago, the actress/writer Issa Rae premiered her seventh episode of The Misadventures of AWKWARD Black Girl. This web series about a nerdy Black girl and her many humorous situations as a result of her nerdiness has become an instant classic.

By popular demand, Rae decided to extend the series by another five episodes. In order to do that, she had to raise $30,000. She started the campaign a while back, and August 11, 2011 was the deadline. She’s got six days to go, and she’s already raised $35,000—and people just keep giving money. That’s how much we Black nerds love us some Awkward Black Girl. (Click here to see all 7 hilarious yet poignant episodes) 

A couple of days ago, Rae published a piece on Huffington Post about the notion of being Black.  And she mentioned another web series that I’m now immediately hooked on as well, Black Folk Don’t, which explores the notion of stereotypes about Black folks both without and within the African American community. Here’s the first episode, and I’m pretty sure it will blow your mind just like it did mine. 

Then today, I received in my email inbox an article by Salamishah Tillet about the 25th anniversary of She’s Gotta Have It, the quintessential (in my opinion) Black nerd movie. I was a student at Clark College in Atlanta when this movie premiered, and I remember driving way out to Buckhead with my then-boyfriend to see it–and feeling as if I had arrived at the most familiar place there was. Nola was me.

No, I wasn’t that open with my sexual freakiness, and I didn’t have three lovers at the same time (something I’ve often regretted, by the way), but her quirkiness, her creativity, and her lack of shame about who she really was—that’s who I wanted to be but didn’t yet have the courage. Tillet’s article focuses on Black women’s sexuality as portrayed by Nola. But to me, the most important part of the film—and for me, what fuels Nola’s sexual liberation—is Nola’s nerdiness.

At the end of the article, Tillet asks the question, “What happened to black bohemia all grown up?”

The answer is, it went into the closet.

*

I’ve been a nerd, a bohemian, an outsider, a whatever-strange-something-you-want-to-call-it since I was born, probably even in-utero. My father held a BA and MA from Columbia University, and in the early 1950s, he hung out with James Baldwin and Grace Paley in Greenwich Village. And he dated (and presumably had sex with) many, many White women; let’s face it, dating Outside Of The Race at some time or other is one of the (expected) modern requirements for being a Black nerd.

My mother holds a degree in French from Spelman College. I’ve told this story before, that when I was born, my mother said she looked in my face and saw who I would be; she decided to name me after the French literary master Honoré de Balzac and the political writer Franz Fanon.

I was the youngest child of three, and my sisters didn’t like to babysit so my parents took me everywhere they went. To political meetings. To fancy restaurants (where my daddy watered down red wine and let me drink it). To my father’s poetry readings. And to French films with subtitles.

“I can’t understand what they’re saying, Mama,” I would complain.

“It’s all right, Baby. Just read the bottom of the screen and practice your big words,” she said.

Until I was 14, I lived in Durham, NC, a bastion of Black middle- and upper- middle-class success; at the time, it was rumored that there were 25 Black millionaires in that small city. I attended all-Black schools in Durham until sixth grade, and I was ridiculed for the way that I talked—“like a White girl”—for the food I brought for lunch—sandwiches on homemade (by my mother) organic brown bread—and for wanting to talk about the books I read at home.  Books without pictures and longer than 50 pages.

Then, I transferred to a predominantly White Catholic elementary school in Chapel Hill, the next town over, where I thought I would be so at home, but not only didn’t the White kids read any of the books I did or engage in any of my nerdy activities, but also, that’s the first place someone called my hair “nappy.”

The next year, I went to a public junior high school in Chapel Hill, again predominantly White– and that’s the first time I was ever called a “nigger.” And there was a special class set aside for the Black girls in 7th grade, and soon enough, I found out this special class was for “sexually promiscuous” girls.  The White lady who taught the class told us that Black girls were “faster” than White girls–even though the first time I ever heard about fellatio was from a White girl in gym class– but as far as I knew, all the Black girls in that class were virgins; I know I was. And after I told my mama about the class, she called up the school and gave them a few choice words. I went back to school in Durham that next fall.

*

Junior High and High School disabused me of the notion that White People Land was a place where happiness resided for Black nerds, and by the time I entered graduate school, I learned to take each White person I met on an individual basis. But sometimes, no matter how sweet my White friends were, I just got so tired of the surprise on their faces when I mentioned that I had read—not just heard—about Tolstoy. Or that both of my parents had graduate degrees. Or that I grew up in an actual house with flowers in the yard and not in the projects. I got tired of being told I was “exceptional,” because I knew Black folks just like me.

My experience of surprising White folks has continued my whole life. When I strike up a conversation at the grocery store or the mall, and I tell them I’m a tenured college professor I always get “the look.” A couple of times, I’ve even had White ladies–strangers– say to me, “Oh, I’m so proud of you!”

The White surprise is one thing, but the near-hostility from non-nerdy Black folks has been the most painful. I can take the “you think you’re so cute” accusations, because I know I look sort of different, and in a politically incorrect context, the word might be “exotic.” I’m brown with the African-Mestizo features of both my maternal and paternal lines, and I have so-called “good hair,” inherited from my mother’s mother.

But the accusations that I think I’m better than other Black people, those really hurt, and they have followed me throughout my interactions with my folk. So, I have tried to be Black in stereotypically recognizable ways. I let my accent move into the southern drawl of my mother’s folks, and I learned how to be fluent in Black vernacular. I finally got some rhythm and learned how to dance; thanks to yoga, I can still drop it like it’s hot, as inappropriate for a tenured college professor as that may be.

Sidebar: Even in the writer’s community, there are “official” ways of writing “Black,” ways that alert the reader that he or she is about to enter Black People Land. Thomas Sayers Ellis has a beautiful yet ironic poem about this in his extraordinary first book, The Maverick Room.

And I’ve seen some of these writers’ “ways to be Black.” You write poems about history. (I do that.) You write poems about jazz or blues (I do that.) You write poems in the vernacular. (I do that.) But Black people most certainly do not write poems about nature (I do that, too.) Nature writing is a Negro No-No, which is why Camille T. Dungy’s groundbreaking anthology, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Writing is so extraordinary as well.

And I tried to make myself smaller in various ways to appease non-nerd Black folk. I cut my “good hair” down to the scalp. I stopped talking about the books I read. I dated brothers from the ’hood who always seemed to turn on me and blame me for the material lacks of their childhood; if one of those brothers broke fool in a physical way, I never would call the police on them because I didn’t want to be one of “those” uppity Sisters who didn’t understand a Black man’s pain.

It didn’t matter what I did; the charges of “uppity” and “classist” have followed me for over thirty years. But I know now that American people of all races have a hard time acknowledging the complicated ways that blackness exists. And they don’t recognize that nerdy Black people don’t always want to be White, either. We all don’t yearn to jump inside Marsha or Greg Brady’s skin.

Some of us don’t put whiteness up on a pedestal, even if we choose to marry or date or love White folks. Some of us work in predominantly White environments not because we worship White people but because we need to pay bills. Some of us love both “high” and “low” Black culture–even the stankest, most embarrassing parts of that culture. We love our history, even the painful parts. And we don’t believe that in order to be intellectually profound that we can’t eat fried fish on Fridays.

With the hush puppies, ok?

*

As a writer, I spend most of my time alone, and for the most part, I like it that way. But until this week, I didn’t want to admit that I’ve hungered for a nerdy community made up of folks from the African Diaspora; I love my non-Black friends, but there’s nothing like the cultural shorthand of people who “get” you, who might (or might not) have relatives named Pookie or RayRay, and who recognize the notion of Double Consciousness, and not just by reading about it in The Souls of Black Folk.

But I never thought I would discover a Black nerd community. I knew there were individuals who felt like I did, but I didn’t know we all were lonely and isolated, faking the funk, as it were. This week, I saw that we’ve been pretending. I found my community, and not a moment too soon. It was getting crowded up in that closet, with all my argyle sweaters and whatnot.

Now, I’m out in the open and unabashed. And me and my Black nerdy crew are rolling deep.

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

Black Folks’ Invention Number 1001: Memorial Day

Black Union Soldiers

Y’all know we Black folks love us some Memorial Day.  Back in the day, I had a friend—well, okay, me—who used to take off the Thursday before Memorial Day and party all weekend until Tuesday morning before I had to go back to work, and I really wasn’t commemorating anything. It embarrasses me, but I have to be honest: it was all about a party.

And though I’m a vegetarian now, I still get a little sad that not eating anything that had parents means I had to give up, like, actual meat. Which meant I couldn’t eat barbecue. But who knew that before I gave up eating dead things, I was partaking in African American history, gnawing all on those rib bones and trying not to get grease on my cute holiday outfit?

It turns out we Black folks invented the actual holiday of Memorial Day, and not just the holiday barbecue.

Today an Op-Ed about Memorial Day came out in The New York Times, written by David W. Blight, a professor at Yale University. Citing archival materials (and y’all know I love me some primary historical documents!) Dr. Blight dates the very first Memorial Day back to the actions of freed slaves in the year 1865.

Here’s an excerpt:

But for the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day, we must return to where the war began. By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender.

Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.

To read the rest of the article, click on this link. (But first, put the pig meat down because you don’t want to get sauce on your keyboard.)

And after you do that, think about talking to one of the old folks in your family who served in the military. Ask him (or her) to tell you the story before the story dies when he (or she) does.  These stories are important and shouldn’t be lost, but so frequently, by the time we remember to ask the elders certain questions, it’s too late.

I really regret never asking my father about his time as an army lieutenant during World War II, but a few years ago, I was talking to my mother’s brother Thed about his tour in Vietnam and I gotta tell you, I don’t think I heard my Uncle Thed get so animated ever in my whole life as he did telling that story. (Uncle Thed is one laid back, super-cool brother.)

In many communities of color, the service (despite all its issues) was the one place African American men could ascend to success and have some dignity at the same time. I’m anti-war, but I am not anti-Soldier, anti-Sailor or anti-Marine. I have too many Black men in my family who served and in a dignified way, including my father, my uncle Thed who retired as a Chief Petty Officer from the Navy, and my father’s great-grandfather Charles Flippin who was a Private on the Union side during the Civil War.

So Happy Memorial Day, Y’all. We deserve those ribs, don’t you think?