The Girl Hiding Inside Me Wears Red, Black, and Green

Last week, as I read about the courage of Jemele Hill in addressing the disturbing messages coming from the White House, my own racial cowardice was thrown into relief.

Those people who know me would be shocked by my calling myself a coward. After all, I was a red, black, and green diaper baby, a child of Black Nationalists.

Matter of fact, I was just talking to a beloved friend and asked them, “Where did that scrappy girl go? I used to be so strong.”

I used to be fierce and courageous, and my nickname was “Big Country.”To paraphrase my beloved Lucille Clifton, that girl is still inside me.

No, I don’t like to cuss folks out anymore. Number one, I’m trying to meet Jesus one day and after I die, I don’t want Him telling me at the pearly gates, “I already done heard about you, girl.” Then, he’ll turn to St. Peter and say, “Bruh Pete-Pete, go ‘head and wrap a  plate for Honorée, ’cause she ain’t staying.”

Number two, I’m too scared of germs and too old to get arrested and spend the night in jail.

Number three, I always wanted to be one of those chill, serene people. You know the ones who speak in whispers and always make folks feel good about themselves? That’s who I’ve always wanted to be, I was tired of people I knew–other black folks–calling me “crazy.”

And I was tired of white folks calling me “angry” and “frightening.” They didn’t have to add a “black woman” to that. It’s just assumed. Any time you’re darker than a brown paper bag and somebody calls you angry, you know they mean “angry black woman.”

I’ve tried so hard to seem non-threatening that even now, when just reading about the rise in white supremacy can give me mild panic attacks, I’m trying to make other white folks feel better about their stances on race relations. I want to be that serene black woman, not the angry one.

In the past ten months, since the presidential election, there are white folks who never spoke to me –who would give me what I called the “eye-slide”–who now go out of their way to talk about the “state of the country.”

Y’all know what “state of the country” means. It means, right about now in America, the racists are unabashed.

It means that Bull Connor (of Birmingham, Alabama fame, for all you young’uns) has risen from his grave like a character on The Walking Dead and the Ku Kluxers are feeding him brains.

Recently, I ran into somebody who wasn’t “studin” about me in the past for ten years. Never wanted to talk, but now, they flagged me down to talk about “where the country was going.”

And you know what?

The Girl Formerly Known As Big Country would have asked that white lady  “What do you want from me?”

And in addition, T.G.F.K.A.B.C. would have told that white lady, “Oh, now you can speak to black people?”

T.G.F.K.A.B.C.  would have told that white lady, “Don’t be trying to be nice because you feel guilty, now that the Nazis and the Ku Kluxers and all them is back riding and you all horrified and what not, after you was ‘Feeling the ‘Bern’ and sat out the election. You should have voted for Hilary and I’m fresh out of chocolate breast milk. I can’t do a thing for you now.”

Instead, I smiled and said, “Yes, things sure are horrible.” And I kept smiling as she kept talking and made my nerves bad.

But then, even though I’ve lost 38 pounds and I work out and try not to go shazam! when I eat anymore, I came home and scarfed down a bunch of homemade roasted chicken wings. I was so upset at my cowardice, I took it out on myself. And I did that because I had people-pleased. And not even regular people-pleased.

I had soothed somebody’s white guilt:  I had white-people-pleased.

Even though those homemade, mostly-healthy wings were off the chain–or whatever the kids are saying these days–I was still mad at myself. Because why am I trying to be nice when I’m the one who’s scared to leave my house in this Red State?

When I’m the one who always makes sure I have both my driver’s license and my faculty I.D when I go walking–always in broad daylight–in case I get stopped by the campus police and my word that I’m a tenured, full professor will not be enough?

And when I’m the one who’s terrified to talk about race in my classroom because if a black woman talks in a reasonable, calm voice about the actual history of this country–a country where at least three generations of my family were held as slaves– she might be seen as “frightening” or “aggressive”–and then, she might lose her job?

I can understand feeling scared about what could happen to my body. I can understand about being afraid to lose my job.

But when did I become such a coward that in my own free damned time–when I’m off the clock and should be drinking a green smoothie– I still feel the need to soothe the racial guilt of somebody who hasn’t spoken to me in ten years, and somehow, I’m the one who ends up with garlic chicken-breath?

There is a girl inside me, but she’s hiding. She’s a girl wearing red, black, and green and she is unafraid.

She is tall and big and sweet, even though she talks loudly because that’s the volume of most southern black folks, and there have been people who loved her–and who still do. They don’t care that folks called her crazy. They liked her the way she was. They liked the woman she became.

Can’t I be both that girl and this woman? Can’t I be calm and courageous, too?

Can’t I be serene and turn my back to previously rude white folks who need to feel better now–because I’m the one who’s truly at risk as a result of last year’s election?

I’m determined to find that lost girl, because I miss you so much, Big Country. Come on out, baby. Say “hey” to me.

Thowback Jam: "The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Dating to an Uppity Black Woman"

Originally uploaded at Zazzle.com

Hey y’all,

Since I have some brand new readers, I just felt like spreading the some Black Woman’s Gospel again today. This is from Phillis Remastered archives. I hope you enjoy it!

Love,

Honorée

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“The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Dating to an Uppity Black Woman” (July 19, 2010)

………J

I have a dear friend who explained to me a while back why so many Black women have such a hard time dating out there. She says that because Black women are so devalued in the public eye—the media, etc., we become devalued personally, too. Thus, we don’t have as much romantic currency in North American society as, say, White women.

I don’t disagree with my friend, who is brilliant. Who can argue that Black women are constantly being low-rated in the media, and in rap songs played by trashy Negroes passing by in their 1965 beat-up Buicks that they put thousand-dollar rims on? The negative onslaught is obvious.

My solution to the current Black-on-Black dating situation facing Black women is to encourage Sisters to stop worrying about Black men, and to start tending to their own self-esteem. Instead of lowering standards and dating men who are clearly unworthy or worse, sharing a part of a supposed decent man with another Sister, we should start embracing our uppity. I mean, we’ve tried everything else, like throwing our pride to the side–at this point what do we have to lose by celebrating ourselves first?

I’ve already established that I am unabashedly uppity, and that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with smart, fabulous, and super-cute. But I am reclaiming the phrase “uppity”–and trying to make it positive– because I’d like more Black women to be asserting their uppity. Or rather, come out of the closet and admit that they are uppity already, and just hiding because they are afraid of people asking that age-old question all fabulous Sisters are asked: “Who does she think she is?”

Because for the past, like, forever, there has been a concerted effort to convince Black women that we don’t have a right to think well of ourselves, especially when it comes to dating. The attitude is, “How dare Black women have self-esteem when the Black community is having such a hard time?” (Like one can’t thrive if the other is doing well.)

As I told my friend, I know who my Master/Mistress is, and that is not the media, Steve Harvey, or some trifling Negro blasting misogynist curse words at me from his stereo speakers in the name of some other trifling Negro’s alleged musical/artistic license.

Above all, I am allergic to desperation when it comes to dating, and this not only includes dating Brothers, but all colors of the male persuasion. But my embracing my fabulousness does not take care of the lack of training that some Brothers have when it comes to approaching, much less “courting” Uppity Sisters.

So I decided to write an Idiot’s Guide for those men—of all complexions, because frankly, the numbers out there speak to  shortage of Black men to go around. However, even those Brothers who are there need this training, so for simplicity’s sake, I use Brothers as my first example.

Now, I don’t want anybody to get bent out of shape, so first, let me say, I am not calling anybody an “Idiot.” It’s just a way of writing a reader-friendly handbook.

And also, some men don’t dig women who think well of themselves, so if you don’t dig our kind, this post is not for you. I won’t try to convince you that if you thought well of yourself, you’d want a woman who thought well of herself, too. So don’t be leaving mean comments for me below, because it’s not going to change my Uppity Opinions, anyway. I say that with the deepest of  love and respect.

Ok, let’s break this down. These are just the most important rules, and, I hope, the most obvious.

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#1 Uppity Sisters are smart. Get used to it.

It is never a good sign when a Brother enters an Uppity Sister’s living room, sees her bursting bookcases, and exclaims “Dang! You READ all these books?!”

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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#2 Uppity Sisters don’t have a shelf life.

Because Uppity Sisters see life as a journey instead of a literal death sentence, they don’t believe that they peak at twenty-five years old and then go downhill after that. An Uppity Sister works on herself, physically, mentally and spiritually. So actually,  she’s better in her thirties and forties than she was in her teens and twenties; in fact, she’s grateful to be older and wiser. Yes, she acknowledges that some things are beyond her—like bad perms and spandex. And thank God.

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#3 Uppity Sisters are legends in their own minds.

An Uppity Sister does not pretend to play hard to get. She is hard to get. It doesn’t matter how cute you are or how much money you make. It doesn’t matter that the statistics barraging an Uppity Sister tell her that a Black woman has a greater chance of winning the Power Ball lottery while being bitten by a rabid dog on her journey climbing up Mount Everest than getting married to a Black man–an Uppity Sister is not pressed about all that, because she’s got a hustle, self-esteem, and she’s never had a problem attracting men. Ever.

So do not expect that her romantic desperation will work in your favor because she doesn’t have any romantic desperation.

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#4 If you don’t have any money, provide some services for an Uppity Sister.

Here’s the deal: nobody cares about whether you can pay your bills and it’s tacky to talk about that, anyway. If you want sympathy concerning your finances, call up your mama.

So, if you don’t have enough money to take an Uppity Sister out to dinner or the movies or the Chaka Khan concert, you need to try planting some flowers around an Uppity Sister’s house, doing three of those four loads of laundry she’s got backed up, or painting that red accent wall in her living room. Think Tea Cake from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Matter of fact, read the book, since it’s on her top ten all-time favorites list, and any man trying to get next to an Uppity Sister needs to be on intimate terms with Sister Zora, a pioneer of the Uppity Brand.

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#5 Good sex will not save The Race–great sex won’t, either.

Passing out sex willy-nilly is not one of the responsibilities of being a Race Woman. So stop with the fireside chats about “How to Save Our People”—or “African American Literature”, if you happen to be an English Professor–thinking this is going to pave the way to your getting some. Instead, try “Woman, you are so beautiful, it hurts my eyes,” or–my personal favorite–the old-school maxim, “Girl you are so fine, I will drink a quart of your bath water.”

Because an Uppity Sister has to be told how beautiful she is before moving forward with you.

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#6 Do not suggest a casual sex relationship to an Uppity Sister—let her suggest it to you.

Nothing turns off a woman with self-respect more than a man rolling up on her talking about he “doesn’t want a relationship”–even if she only wants a one-night stand.

I mean, lie to me, Pinocchio.

I’m not assuming that there aren’t any Sisters out there who don’t just get all mushy inside when a Brother rolls on her with, “Shorty, can I get some?” I’m just saying, none of the Uppity Sisters I know get turned on by that, unless there’s a little role play involved with someone they are already—ahem—well-acquainted with.

An Uppity Sister needs at least the bare minimum of courting before getting romantic, even if it’s just for her peace of mind and pride. So instead of shutting things down, shut up and be nice and you might get a little casual lagniappe, if you’re lucky.

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#7 An Uppity Sister does not share a man.

Enough said.

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#8 Try a Little Tenderness (Part One)

You don’t demand respect from an Uppity Sister. You love it out of her.

Strong women aren’t strong because they have to be; they are strong because Weak ain’t cute—even Weak-With-A-Man ain’t cute, though sometimes, those Sisters who have been broken down romantically try to convince you how lucky they are to have their piece of a man, even when their misery is screaming a Mahalia Jackson Greatest Hit at you.

A kind, dependable man who loves a strong woman is the man you want to fry chicken for, and by the way, wear very impractical, expensive lingerie at 3 o’clock in the morning for as well. He might even get a sandwich–with the big piece of chicken–and a glass of red Koolaid afterward, too, if he plays his cards right.

I think of that scene in The Color Purple (the movie), where Harpo asks the Brother who is now dating Sophia, his estranged wife, “How you gone let a woman with six kids come out to the juke joint?” (Or something to that effect.)

And the man says to Harpo, “My job ain’t to tell her what to do. My job’s to love her, and take her where she want to go.”

There it is.

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#9 Try a Little Tenderness (Part Two)

If you are kind to an Uppity Sister, expect kindness in return—not worship.

Here’s the final, and most important rule: an Uppity Sister doesn’t feel like slobbering all over you for being nice, just because there are a lot of not-nice Brothers out there. She just feels like being nice in return—that’s her responsibility, not overwhelming gratitude for finally finding this rare Canary Diamond of Black Man who actually knows how to act right.

Sidebar: And she shouldn’t slobber all over you to make you feel like a man. That’s the job of your therapist.

Definitely, if you want to get next to her, you need to be nice. That’s both simple and extraordinary, but it’s not because you are A Black Man. It’s because you are extraordinary in and of yourself, no matter what color you are.And here’s the thing: if she’s an Uppity Sister– a woman who thinks well of herself–it will be so easy for her to be kind back.

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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.

Throwback Jam: "Sister, Love Thyself"

Photo by United Press International, 1956

Dear Y’all:

I first wrote this blog post (see below) almost two years ago, when my blog was just getting started and I had just a few readers. One of my dearest friends in the world had kept asking me when was I going to write something just for Black women, and “Sister, Love Thyself”  is what was placed on my spirit. (I’ve added a dedication for my friend, but other than that and the correction of typos and mistakes, it’s the exact same post.) For a couple of months, I’ve been thinking about running this post for my newest readers; this week seems to be the perfect time for it.

Love,

Honorée

PS

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November 16, 2009

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“Sister, Love Thyself”

………….for Crystal Wilkinson

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

Before Mother Parks sat down that day on the bus, she had done all sorts of work for the community as a civil rights worker, but she wasn’t given time to speak at the historic March on Washington–neither were any other Black women, except for one lone female speaker: Josephine Baker (who had lived out of the USA for quite some time by then.)

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

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

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

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

Tangent: I’ll never forget years ago, in the aftermath of that “other” March—the Million Man March—Essence magazine had this whole spread on the March. But Black women weren’t even invited by Minister Louis Farrakhan to attend the March, which was billed as a “Day of Atonement.” I kept asking myself, if this is a March for men, why is it in a women’s magazine?

And then there were my other questions: if a brother wanted to “atone” for what he had done to his wife and/or the mother of his kids, how come he spent hundreds of dollars to travel hundreds of miles away from her to say so? I mean, he couldn’t get a babysitter and take a sister out to the Red Lobster within a twenty-mile radius or something?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kim was the one who insisted that I start this blog. Really, she pushed me to start it because she knows that I needed to say certain things out loud, in public, even if it makes other people uncomfortable to hear them. She’s not in this crazy, writing world of mine, where the publication of a poem in a journal that only a thousand people read—out of the three hundred million people in the country—can define a person’s self-worth, and can determine whether your peers will speak to you at the annual Associated Writing Programs conference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God helps those who help themselves.”

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Some Post-Mammy Questions For Today

Originally uploaded at cafepress.com

Dear Y’all:

I have really appreciated the many hits on my review of The Help, and the new readers who have found my blog. I thank y’all so much for the love.

And so, for those of y’all who don’t regularly read this blog, I’d thought I’d introduce you to the real me. And if you still like the real me, come on back and read again. And if you don’t, well, I’m not going to change, and it’s been a long time since I thought about doing so. I’m not going to lie to you.

Anyway, I want to complicate this issue of public representations of Black women and ask some very difficult questions that occurred to me this morning.

Do the images of the Black Mammy and the historical inaccuracies of the Civil Rights era–the past–depicted in The Help movie do any more damage to the public image or private self-esteem of Black women than, say, the following (below) rappers calling Black women (at least one of) the following (below) various demeaning, cruel epithets in public–on their Cds–in the present?

Demeaning And/Or Cruel Epithets

H*

B*tch

Trick

Jump-off

Hooker

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Hip Hop Artists Who’ve Used At Least One Of The Above Epithets Frequently

Too Short

Ice-Cube

Dr. Dre

Snoop Dog

Biggie Smalls

Tupac

Lil Kim

Jay-Z

Kanye West

Lil Wayne

Common

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Why will we Black people rally the academic and artistic troops and write all kinds of reviews and responses to The Help, when Watch the Throne by Jay-Z and Kanye West came out two days before that movie, and I counted at least 20 uses of the word “b**ch” on that Cd, and in one song, Kanye raps about throwing his personal body fluids on a woman’s face? How come that doesn’t work Black academics and artists into a blog-writing fury?

If Jay-Z’s and Kanye’s hearts are still considered to be in the “right place” when they demean (presumably Black) women, why can’t we assume that the heart of White southerner Kathryn Stockett (the author of The Help) is in the same “right place” when she produces a demeaning representation of Sisters?

I’ve heard the following excuse for Black male/female Hip Hop artists calling Sisters out of their name: “Well, if you know you’re not a [fill-in-the-blank demeaning epithet], it shouldn’t bother you.” Taking the same simple line of logic: If you’re an African American woman and you know you’re not a Black Mammy—or if you love  an African America woman and you know she’s not a Mammy–then why should The Help  bother you so much?

Sidebar: You do know I was put on this planet to cause trouble, right? I can’t help it. My great-granny was a root worker.

By the way, my regular readers know that I am not someone who uses profanity in my blog, and I do not like to publish comments that contain profanity, either. (Yes, I am a Southern Lady.) I didn’t want to water down the impact of the epithets by using asterisks, but I did, since 99% of us who are grown will know the word.

Ok, that’s all for now.

I’m hoping to have something you can feel–to quote from Sparkle for all you old heads–on Monday. Until then,  have a wonderful weekend and whether or not you come back to the blog, I hope I’ve done something good for you, even if only for a little while.

Love,

Honorée


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Chocolate Breast Milk: A Review of The Help

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

—-

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.

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.

Father’s Day And The Ghosts of Negroes Past

Daddy as a toddler

Last year, I wrote a post about my father and why I dread Father’s Day each year. This year is no different. I started working up a to a sad two weeks ago, particularly because this is the second year in a row that Father’s Day has been preceded by strange occurrences.

Early last year, a good friend of mine passed and that was horrible. And this year, I’ve had a parade of Ghosts of Broke-Down Negroes Past to contact me. (GBDNP for short.) It seemed that every man I had dated since college showed up. Yes, I did say, “What. The. Hell?”

Men from fifteen or more years ago, when I didn’t know how to dress, wore unfortunate hairdos, and didn’t have an emotional backbone to speak of.  In particular, one past GBDNP “friended” me on Facebook. He was the only man out of my past collection that would have been suitable as a mate, at least on the surface. He was smart, hard-working, seriously pretty—and dark brown-skinned, unlike my daddy (which used to be very, very important to me when I was younger. Not so much now.) Problem was, this GBDNP was completely lowdown, and in addition, he was one of them intellectual, double-talking Inscrutable Chocolate Sensei types that you’re never going to get any apology or emotional truth from.

Usually, past lovers showing up doesn’t bother me. Once we’ve had a real relationship, a GBDNP never gets another chance to make a fool out of me, not matter how fine and chocolate he is. After all, if he had acted right I would have never broken up with him in the first place; we’d be married right now with some Inscrutable Chocolate Juniors running around.

After my last conversation with this particular GBDNP, though, I started having strange dreams of my daddy. In past dreams, I’m terrified of my father; then, I end up fighting him in the dream. I’m hitting him or kicking him, and it doesn’t take a therapist to figure out that’s all my anger coming out.

But in dream of a few days ago, we were sitting in a car going somewhere and he was trying to talk to me, calmly; he put his hand on my arm for emphasis–gently, not in a pushy way–but I kept talking loudly right over him. “I’m not trying to hear that, Daddy,” I said. “So please just shut up right now. And don’t be sitting so close to me, neither. You stay over there on your side of the seat.”

Before this, I hadn’t had a dream of my father in a few months, and I haven’t had one to disturb me in about a year, not since I experienced what I think of as my “womanhood epiphany.” Yet here I was, letting my father bother me again, after he’d been dead for twenty-five years. I woke up from that dream completely sad and drained. My bones felt heavy. Then, I started coming down with a cold, even though I had been taking vitamins and taking good care of myself.

And so, finally, I decided it was time to do what I’d resisted for so long: forgive my father.

I’ve thought about forgiveness for years, but couldn’t get there. No matter how much I loved my daddy, he wasn’t a nice man, at least not inside our home.  There was no happiness in that home; the only happiness I remember is from visiting my mother’s family Down South in Eatonton, GA. I never wanted those summers to end.

The happiness I have in my life now is not the kind you might imagine, where you effortlessly float into  joy as a natural consequence of wisdom. I’ve met some of those naturally wise people and frankly, sometimes they get on my last damned nerve, all that  serenity and whatnot.

No, since my childhood, every bit of happiness I possess, I have clawed for. It was a bare-knuckled, back-alley fight, and I was determined to be happy to spite my father. I wanted to show him that he had not succeeded in destroying me. Every time something good in my life happened, I would talk to his spirit and say, “See, I told you so, Daddy. I won. You didn’t.”

Of course, I know that’s not healthy, so don’t be shaking your head at me right now. I didn’t say it was healthy. I said it was a fight.

And in the same way I fought for happiness for myself, I fought against forgiveness of my father. My resistance had a lot to do with the anguish I saw raining down on my family, so much of it because my father hadn’t dealt with his own pain, but expected us to put up with his meanness out of a sense of his own emotional entitlement. He denied his wife and children the knowledge of his insides and then blamed us because we didn’t understand him. He would be so nice, and then, a sudden rage would come out of nowhere. I learned to be constantly on edge as a child and not to trust anyone.

After my father died, several Brothers that I dated stood in for my father in different ways. I tried to understand them and carry their emotional loads, too, hoping that would make them treat me better.  But sometimes, I thought about my emotional load. Besides Jesus, what Black man had ever gone out of his way to know me? What about my pain? What about my feelings of not being a full woman in this racist society?

Certainly, the message I received from my father was that I wasn’t lovable, pretty enough, or a good girl. As an adult, I retreated into my rage against Black men.  I decided if Brothers wanted to do me wrong, and then, when I got an attitude, call me “an angry Black woman”, I would oblige them and then some. Just try me and see how angry I could get. I can’t tell you the number of Black men that I have verbally eviscerated using the defense of “don’t start none, won’t be none;” there used to be nothing that gave me greater pleasure than to take a Black man’s pride from him. I admit it, and I can’t say I’m sorry. But once I grew emotionally, going toe to toe with anyone took too much energy. Sure I go off still, but far more rarely these days.

A while back, I’d stopped trying to get present boyfriends carry the burden of my childhood pain, but I learned these past few weeks that no matter how much I have grown, and fought for happiness and peace, the past was going to keep coming back, if I didn’t finally deal with it.  As one of mentors likes to say, there are no accidents. Even if I couldn’t give the burden to anyone, it was still there.

I knew it was time to forgive. This was the final frontier.

When I rose yesterday morning, I had to remind myself that I’m forgiving Daddy not because I am making amends to him and/or saying he was a good person and a Positive, Strong Black Man. He was what he was, good, bad, and in between, and he hurt me terribly.  But a grown woman doesn’t find her joy to spite somebody, even a mean somebody; she finds joy to celebrate herself.

As Lucille Clifton (my favorite poet) wrote once, “Won’t you celebrate with me/what I have shaped/into a kind of life?”

Forgiving my daddy completely—which might take a long, long time—doesn’t mean what happened between him and me was okay. It means that I finally can lay this burden down, by the riverside, the roadside, or outside my house before I walk into the sanctuary of my home.  And that doesn’t mean that I won’t remember what happened in my childhood. It just means, what happened won’t have anymore power over me.

Soul Food: Embracing My Inner Old Black Lady (Part I)

Grandma Florence, circa 1990

My maternal grandmother was the worst singer of church songs, ever. I mean, Florence Paschal James could not sing a lick. Maybe that’s why it took so many years for me to love the Traditional Spirituals (or what used to be called the Negro Spirituals).

After a Sunday morning of Grandma Florence’s reedy, off-key singing, all of us in the house would head out to Flat Rock Primitive Baptist Church for Sunday services. Flat Rock was a church of mostly old folks who dragged their grandchildren along. The songs dragged as well, as the song leader led the congregation in what I now know is called “line singing.”

There was “shouting,” too, as one or more of the old ladies would catch the Holy Spirit, start screaming, and fall into the arms of one of the church members. Then, they would fan her with a church fan that had a blond Jesus on the front and the name and address of Rice’s Funeral Home on the back. Mr. Rice was the African American mortician in town; to this day, I don’t know where the White folks in Eatonton, Georgia go when they need to bury their dead.

Those summers represented my first and most lasting experience with spirituality, and for many southern Black folks, my early memories of church are extremely familiar, but I did not and still do not follow a traditional path to spirituality, at least how that path tends to look in most African American community(ies).

These days, I’m a radical Black Feminist Christian and sometimes I think there are maybe ten other people like me in the world (if I am lucky.)  And so, there’s no comfortable spiritual model for me.  This has been a problem for Sisters going all the way back to the African American spiritualist Jarena Lee, the first woman authorized to speak publicly by the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Within my own family, which is populated with fundamentalist Christians, I’m something of a pariah because I don’t go to church. Mama, who is a feminist but also a devout Catholic, finally gave up on my attendance, though on Christmas and Easter, she’ll gently remind me that I can always go back to church; it will be there when/if I need it. “Thank you, Mama,” I say, in that childhood, exasperated cadence of old.

And then, there are my “strange” theological interpretations of The Word.

For example, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with being gay, despite the “Sodom and Gomorrah” section of the Old Testament. One reason is that particular section of Genesis is full of extremely problematic contradictions: Lot first offers his daughters to a crowd of men to gang rape who circle the house, instead of the male guests the crowd wants to “know.” After Lot’s wife is turned into salt, Lot commits incest with those same daughters, though it is framed in scripture as the daughters plotting to ply him with alcohol so that they may “preserve the seed” of their father; once he’s drunk as Cooter Brown, they take—ahem—advantage of him. That’s just completely nasty, ok?

So some man offering up his female children to be gang raped and then having nasty incest with them are both perfectly fine—but being gay (even in a committed, loving, monogamous relationship) isn’t? What kind of sense does that make? Nonsense.

Also, although men wrote the biblical scriptures, there are many, many examples of faithful women in those scriptures.  In the New Testament, all of the Twelve Apostles abandon Jesus when he’s arrested by officers of the Roman Empire, but ironically, it is his female followers who remain faithful all the way through his execution. And despite some problematic sexist moments for Jesus in the New Testament, he performs (for me) the ultimate feminist act: he trusts a woman with his spiritual mission.

Mary Magdalene was the one Jesus revealed himself to on the third day when he rose from the dead; she was the one who went and spread the Good News. To me, that is clear evidence that Jesus was a Colored Male Feminist. He may have been celibate, but he clearly preferred the ladies’ company when it came to doing the real work of God.

In the Black church, it’s Ladies First, too. I think about those old Black women of my childhood who got happy at Flat Rock Primitive Baptist. Catching the spirit was how they experienced God, how He arrived in their souls.  And I think about those church fans; they had the picture of a White Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes, but when I was a young girl, my grandma Florence had a vision of Jesus. In the vision, he was a Black man with nappy cornrows down to his shoulders.

What you need to know about my grandma Florence is that she was nobody’s racial radical and nobody’s feminist, either. (Though in her youth,  she did once beat a grown man senseless, and at the time she weighed only about a hundred pounds and stood at five feet three inches. That’s another story, though.) In fact, just the opposite. Born in 1909, grandma did not believe in challenging the White power structure in the least. But when she had her vision of Jesus, she took it as a sign from God, and never questioned it as the truth, up until the day she died.  She also spoke publicly about it.

Like grandma, I can note my own signs from God. Years ago, before I came to live a whole-hearted spiritual life, I was living in Talladega, Alabama with my mother, and there was a Black male minister who worked at the historically African American college that was named for the town. He was a nice guy and he liked to talk to my mother all the time. If I was in my mother’s office, he would talk to me, too.  He always referred to God as both male and female.

One day, I asked him how a strong, feminist woman could ever be a happy Christian. I’d noticed that in the Black churches, women were discouraged from speaking, yet in our community churches, women represented the largest population. And he said to me, “Honorée, I don’t know that a truly strong, Black woman can ever be happy in this sexist world, period. But God made you this way on purpose. He/She never makes any mistakes. He/She makes mystics to question folks about faith, to keep them honest and true to His or Her word. And Honorée, you are a mystic.”

A mystic? I didn’t live in a cave, I didn’t wear loincloths, I liked to have sex outside of marriage, and if anything, I looked at religion as a figurative crack pipe for weak-minded people to suck on. I wanted to laugh in this brother’s face, but I was polite and didn’t say anything in response to him, because again, he was a nice guy, and besides, my mother was sitting right there.

When I look back, having that conversation with that minister in Talladega was one of the defining moments of my spiritual life. He saw me, so clearly, even when I didn’t see myself at the time. (A decade after that, I encountered into a young Native American sundancer, a Mvskogee student of mine who asked me, out of the blue, “You have visions, don’t you, Professor Jeffers?” That was another defining moment.)

It’s taken me all these years to look up what that minister called me, a “mystic.” It means “one who believes in mysticism.” And “mysticism” means “the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be obtained through subjective experience.” It doesn’t say anything about where you live or whether you like to get naughty every once in a while.

So those ladies from Flat Rock Primitive Baptist were mystics. When they got happy with the Holy Spirit, they had a “direct knowledge of God or spiritual truth.” My grandma was a mystic; when she had her vision of a Black Jesus that was her “subjective experience.”

I’d been defensive about how fundamentalist Christians criticized my feminist/womanist beliefs and made assumptions about my approach to spirituality, but at the same time, I’d been condescending toward my country grandma’s spirituality. I’d thought that she couldn’t be anyone’s mystic because she hadn’t been the best reader, she’d spoken in non-grammatical English—what we now call the “Black vernacular”—and she hadn’t been to anybody’s seminary and couldn’t tell you where one was located if you asked her.

Yet she was someone who believed God talked to her, even if what He said contradicted the teachings of her church, as her vision of Jesus had. (It was no mistake that Jesus was a White guy on the front of those church fans; they had been made special for the Black churches in that town.)

So if being a mystic was good enough for Grandma, the ultimate Old Black Church Lady, it should be good enough for me, too.

As a Christian, I’ve been told by other Christians—presumably better and more faithful Christians—that there is only one way to believe in God: by reading the Bible. The Word will give me everything I need, and what I needed was to stop being a feminist woman who didn’t believe that a man had more power than I did.  But for me, a strong-willed, questioning grown woman who’s paying all her own bills without a man to “head” my household, I’ve had to go back to those Old Black Ladies to find my way on my brand-new, modern holy path.  But I will admit that I had to learn to sing the Spirituals all by myself.

A Long (Elastic) Goodbye

In November 2009, I had my uterine fibroids removed; it took me seventeen years to make that decision. During those years, I tried everything to shrink them or make them stop growing, but they kept getting larger. By the time I did discover that a low-fat/high fiber diet, exercise and stress management would help me keep my fibroids from growing and maybe even shrink them, they had become too large and were causing serious health problems, though I kept up a public front.

During the final eight years that I had fibroids, I endured solicitous pats on my stomach from other women, and that dreaded question, “When are you due?” (Even men felt as if that was a polite question for them to ask.) I started trying to avoid both people and looking at myself in the mirror, and at times I did feel like an oddity of nature. Strangely, though, I learned to love and accept myself inside a way I never had in the past.

And I learned to love elastic-waist pants.

I first encountered these pants when I had a serious weight gain back during my first real relationship, in graduate school.  It was 1991. My boyfriend was thin and his metabolism was freakishly high.  I adored him and wanted to make him happy, so I learned how to cook the richest foods I could find in the Better Homes and Garden Cookbook, like homemade chicken potpie with a butter crust.

I gained fifty pounds in a year and a half.  He, of course, stayed the exact same weirdly thin weight. Then, we broke up, but not before I went looking for new clothes and discovered the immeasurable joy of wearing pants with snap-and-give waists. By the time I lost forty of those pounds, I’d been diagnosed with fibroids, and discovered that as long as I didn’t dip below a size fourteen, I could still get pants with elastic in the waistband.  Who in her right mind would relinquish this kind of pleasure? It was a soul mate situation.

Years passed and I found the upscale “women’s” section in every department store in every city I moved to. The more money I made, the more I paid top dollar for my clothes, and even if I didn’t like my body, I draped it in the best fabrics and styles I could find. (WAY cuter than the pants in the picture up top, okay?) As my fibroids grew, I discovered that it didn’t matter if I lost weight. My hips grew narrow with weight loss, but my waist continued to expand. So, I had to keep buying my clothes in the “women’s” section.

Elastic was a good friend to me; it made it possible for me to wear pants in the first place, and once my tummy got really large, I just gave up dresses and skirts altogether, for the most part, because they were so unflattering. Frankly, though, nothing really flattered my body anymore, so I settled for comfort, and that became most important, as I started working on myself emotionally and on my writing career. For the first time in my life, after a miserable childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, I was really happy. I’d started loving myself, despite what I looked like on the outside.

But a year and a half ago, I decided that my greatest act of self-love was to finally have fibroid surgery. One of the reasons I waited is that I’d been afraid of getting “butchered,” but then, my university switched to a better insurance that allowed me to choose my own hospital and my own surgeon. My doctor was a brilliant man who’d taken his surgical fellowship at Harvard, and once my post-opt morphine drip wore off, he told me, “I had to give you a vertical incision because the fibroids were so large, Miss Jeffers, but don’t worry. I cut in the natural separation between your muscles. I made sure you can have a six-pack, so get ready for some great changes in your life!”

Bless his heart, he actually said the above a couple of times when he came to check in on me at the hospital, and then twice again when I came back for post-surgery check up. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and tell him, I didn’t care what he did when I was under. A waistline was not in my future, much less a six-pack.

After surgery, I kept all my elastic-waist pants, but I noticed that they looked strange on me. The waist bagged and the crotch of the pants was way down to my thighs. I was forced to buy regular pants with no snap-and-give. Also, I had to purchase a belt because my new pants fit my hips but were too big in the waist; this is a common problem with Black ladies, but I’d never paid attention to Sisters complaining because the fit of clothing had been the last thing on my mind when I had fibroids.  A few months after my surgery, I gained some weight, but it didn’t matter; my waist was still nearly a size smaller than my hips.

But I kept my old pants, anyway. I planned on getting them altered. You just don’t throw away quality clothes on some whim.

I’m now twenty-five pounds over the weight that I was when I went into surgery, but because  I lost nearly twenty pounds of fibroids and all of that weight was in my stomach I look very different. When I run into people who haven’t seen me since before surgery, they always say, “Oh my goodness! You’ve lost so much weight. You look fantastic.”

Correction. When I run into men, they say that. Usually, the women say nothing about how different I look, although these were the same women who were full of advice about what I should do about my body when my stomach was poking out to, like, Utah. They would tell me they were “frightened” for my health. Or say, “You would be such a pretty lady if you did something about those.” Sometimes, they would ask me, “Are you sure you’re not pregnant?” And then they’d give me nightmare stories about their last babies that were conceived right before they went through The Change. (Which is a a little ways off for me.) But now that I have a couple of curves, I get no “wow, you are such a pretty lady” speech. It’s a little confusing.

This past weekend, I decided to clean my closets of all my old pants. I had to accept that I didn’t have the time or money to get them altered so they looked right on me, but as I pulled my pants off their plastic—never wire—hangers, I said to myself, “These are great pants! Look at this material! I paid $80 on sale for these pants!”

Giving up my fibroids with all their attendant health problems was the best decision I could have made, and I know I am lucky to have come out of surgery with no complications and with a much smaller mid-section. I’ve made even healthier choices after the surgery. I’ve been a vegetarian for eight months and recently, I decided to give up sugar and take up Ashtanga yoga as well.  Yet saying my final goodbyes to my elastic-waist pants and to all the memories of when I chose comfort over vanity—well, I’m really, really sad. I know it sounds silly, but I wept salt tears when I packed those pants away to donate to the Salvation Army.

Me and my pants, we had some times. We traveled the country together; I gave the first important poetry reading of my career (in 2000 with Terrance Hayes and Natasha Trethewey) in a pair of elastic-waist Capri pants that I made myself from pink silk shantung. That silk cost $30 a yard, but I didn’t care, because everyone said how cute I was.

We had our tough moments, too. We endured the intrusiveness of well-meaning, nosy heifers in grocery stores. But we survived those embarrassments and became stronger, and finally happier.

Now, I’ve got to forge ahead with some flimsy, low-rise pants that cling to a butt I didn’t even know I had; those kind of pants don’t really count. But I have to believe I can go it alone. And I have to believe there is a nice lady somewhere, one who is waiting to open her heart and home to all my pants with the snap-and-give waists. Right away, she’ll see how easy they are to love. I hope she remembers not to use wire hangers.