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.

On Being Black and Being Sat in the Back of Literary Events

Rosa Parks: an introvert who changed the world.

I wish I could find a phrase that instantly informs the sweet, perfectly nice, very liberal and progressive white organizers of literary events that if you’ve only got four black guests in a room of over two hundred, you don’t sit one of those black guests in the back of the room, especially if she’s been nominated for a prize.

Not near the back.

In the back.

In the back, by the doors, which open up on the left to the women’s bathroom and on the right to the man’s bathroom.

I wish I could remind the organizers that when one of the honored, invited guests is an older black lady from the Deep South, being sat in the back of the room by the doors which open up to bathrooms might trigger her racially and make her think of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

Being in the back might make an honored, invited, black guest feel ashamed. That might hurt her feelings.

That might make her wonder, did you really mean to honor her, or did you mean to remind her that she’s not as special as she’d like to think she is?

And why were you so nice to her and, in the past, why have you talked about racial politics–and yet, you can’t pick up on what sitting in the back of the room means for a black person from the South?

That might make your honored guest feel insane.

That might make her run a dozen, strange scenarios in her mind, when she needs to be getting sleep so she can get to Church the next morning. It might make her miss Church, where she was supposed to be praising the Lord, Who has assured her, there are no Negro seats in Heaven. Everybody gets to sit up front when they get to Glory.

I wish I could find something to say that would seem kind and polite, but in all these years, anything I think of seems ungrateful–after all, I’m an invited guest. Considering who my ancestors are, I should just be happy to be there. My unspoken objections have seemed angry and, well, BLACK.

Whenever I’ve practiced my objections in the mirror, they have made me feel like crying. And if I actually uttered those objections to someone and actually started crying, that would make me seem like a hysterical woman of any race. And I don’t want to be that person.

And I don’t want to hurt my literary career by making trouble. I want to be the “good” black person that white people love to be around. I want to be life of the party–but not in an Uncle Tom way. I want to be fun, but not too fun.

I want to make money from my writing. And if I make money, at some point, somebody will think to put me in the front of the room.

But at this age, I’ve started wondering, I’ve got maybe thirty-five or forty years of life left. And when will this mythic-sitting-in-the-front-of-the-room moment happen for me? Haven’t I been “good” for a really, really long time? How much money do I have to make to sit in the front? Is there a specific, monetary amount down to the cents?

Once, I was really excited not to be sat in the back. I was in an auditorium for the event. I was an invited guest at the event–although I hadn’t been invited to the luncheon, nor to the dinner, which really hurt my feelings, but looking back, this was probably a good thing, because sometimes, I get tired of eating by the bathroom.

Anyway.

I’d been escorted to the second row of the auditorium. I was thrilled. And then, right in the middle of the event, someone white approached me. She was an official with the organizers of the event.

Whispering, she told me, I had to move to the back. I whispered back, and I asked why, and she said, there wasn’t any room for me to sit on the second row. I glanced around. I was surrounded by empty seats. I gestured to those seats, and she said, those seats were being saved for someone else. Honored guests.

I really wanted to cry, but in a normal voice–not a whisper–I told her, I wasn’t moving.

Whispering, she told me, I had to move.

I told her–still in my normal voice, which was trembling a little bit– please stop talking, because I really didn’t want to cause a scene.

Then, I looked ahead into space, just like Mother Parks. I hoped my ancestor was looking down on me from Heaven where she sat in her front seat. I hoped she was pleased.

My Drama, Myself

Image

Originally uploaded at Winchburgh Drama Group

Today is the day after Father’s Day, and this is the first year that I thought I would get past it without having an emotional meltdown.

I’m married to a nice guy, and I gave up meat, a diet change that opened my spirituality in ways I never thought possible, and I decided that this is the Year of the Book.  Actually, the Year of Two Books, if God says the same: one poetry book and one novel.

And yes, I’m determined to finally clean all this crap that I’ve been accumulating for years out of my house, too. I’m not saying my house looks like an episode of Hoarders, but I am saying that when the service man came a few days ago to install a new thermostat, I was truly embarrassed.

I followed him around the house, kicking things out of the way with my foot, and making wistful excuses. He told me, he’d seen worse, and I felt sorry for him, because, like, I hadn’t seen worse, and I truly prayed I never would in this lifetime or the next.

Sidebar: Don’t hate. Y’all know somebody out there is giving me an “amen” and an “ashé.”  You ever try to write everyday and keep a clean house without a full time housekeeper? If you have and you’ve succeeded, shut up because I resent you very much. I say that with all the love I can muster.

*

Recently, I realized that a really big breakthrough for me, artistically, emotionally, spiritually and every other way was beginning and fully entering the process of forgiving my father, who sexually abused me.

Let me explain that, for some people, they need to get a dictionary and look up what “forgive” means.

Forgiveness does not mean that you pretend that the transgression against you never happened. It does not mean cheesing in some lowdown person’s face and showing all your teeth. It doesn’t even mean that you still don’t experience pain. It means, you set aside bitterness and you don’t expect the person who hurt you to make amends.

For me, the “not expecting amends” thing was easy because my father has been dead over twenty-five years. But the hard part—the extremely tricky part—is that I still have “cloudbursts” of pain, all the time, while I’m go letting of the bitterness, piece by piece. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m not bitter about my father, but I will never get to the point where I’m going to pretend he was a good guy. To do so would be to lie.

My father was not a good guy, by any stretch of the imagination. For some people, my saying that is not forgiveness and it’s not healthy. To those people, I will say this: I have finally gotten past hoping my father is rotting in Hell. That’s pretty healthy.

And I have finally gotten past needing to dismiss the good things he gave me. Yes, believe it or not, there were some good things he gave me, like a great smile, a brilliant brain, a love of books, an ability to eat healthy, organic food without gagging, and a fearlessness when it comes to discussing issues of race in mixed “race” company.

Considering that I grew up with a fear of the dark and the horrors that it brought, a distrust of men, and a sense of emotional isolation, I’d say my embracing the good things about my father and no longer wishing his torture at the hands of Beelzebub and Them constitute “healthy forgiveness.”

I had no intention of writing about my father today, as I did a while back on another Father’s Day.  I wanted to let the “good African American fathers” have their day. The black community gets a lot of shade thrown its way, and especially around the subject of absent fathers, so I didn’t want to spoil yesterday.  But when I sneaked on Twitter, I kept seeing hints about the not-so-good black fathers.  In fact, the founder of For Harriet, the black feminist blog, tweeted yesterday that she “most certainly wasn’t turning down blog posts about good black fathers”; she just hadn’t received any yet.

Yesterday, I tried to keep it classy for African American community solidarity. No snarky comments about deadbeat dads in general, and no specific comments about my own father who, ironically, had great credit and paid bills in our household, and never once denied his paternity of his children. (Though God knows, sometimes I wish he had.) And honestly I had no intention of writing this particular blog post in this way.

Originally, this blog post was supposed to be about writing, what I needed to give up in order to Finally Write My Books. I even made a list:

#1 Get rid of bad eating habits, because eating badly leads to bad health and that leads to feeling badly and that leads to lost pages.

#2 Stop checking my email before my writing session, just in case someone sends me something upsetting.

#3 Stop answering my phone during writing time, because I know I like to talk on the phone.

#4 Stay off the Internet, except for a very short period every day. (I changed my personal Facebook page to a public page because I found that I was spending literally nine-ten hours a day on Facebook. I could not stop checking to see if someone had clicked “like.” Twitter I can control. Of course, this is also what I say about chocolate, so I might be in complete denial.)

#5 Avoid drama, because that leads to either my ending up in bed in the fetal position, depressed, or it leads to #1, “bad eating habits.”

I had the whole “writing” blog post mapped out—then about two hours ago, I received an email from a family member, discussing my father. (Please refer to #2 concerning the checking of email before beginning a writing session.)

I sat down in front of the computer with the intention of writing for several hours, having completed all my rituals in preparation: a shower, the brushing of my teeth, completion of my morning prayers, and the brewing of tea.  I put on my “Writing Anxiety” music playlist that I had carefully compiled, songs that soothe my spirit and remind me that I am a blessed child of God and I am living a purposeful life.

My family member meant well. I know she did.  She didn’t mean to hurt me, and to take me back to a bad place, but all of a sudden, after her writing me about my father, I felt dirty, ashamed, and helpless. I started weeping. Clearly, I had not followed my “#5 writing advice” about avoiding drama.

Okay, dang.

I had entered full-blown drama. Avoiding drama isn’t just about not cussing people out in the middle of the street, though that’s a good beginning. It’s about understanding that, no matter how well-meaning people are, they’re working with what makes them happy first, not what makes me happy first.  That’s just human nature. And since I’m working with what makes me happy first, too–which is admitting my father was a child molester and an abuser of people with less power than he had– there’s going to be conflict. Clearly.

My family member was being sweet in her own way, trying to include me in a “celebration” of my father, a man who was a very successful professional member of the black writing community. It never occurred to her that by “celebrating” my father, she was calling me a liar by implication, for how could I–of all people– logically “celebrate” a man who made me afraid of the dark and who damaged my sense of self-worth?

Just like many other Father’s Days, I felt ashamed to be the daughter of a man who had done these things to me. My shame, not his–because guess what? He’s dead and I’m still here, fighting to keep things together in the aftermath of his breaking fool in the dark.

I felt as if, once again, I had transgressed against my family and by extension, the black community, by refusing to lie and say that my father was a good man. Once again, I asked myself, why couldn’t I just lie about him? It would be so much easier. Why couldn’t I just keep my mouth shut?

*

Y’all know that recently, I got married. My husband is Senegalese, and he told me a proverb: “You can’t chase two hares at one time.” I’ve thought about this a lot in the past few months, repeating this proverb to myself. Just this morning, before I checking my email, I thought about it.

Could I really do all the things I wanted to do: have a good marriage, lose weight and improve my health, and arrive at a creative place I’ve been walking toward for the past nine years? And could I do all that and live in truth? That seemed like a lot of hares to be chasing, and since I broke my ankle a few years ago, I’ve got a steel plate in my ankle and I can’t even run no more. Not that I could even before I broke it, okay?

This morning, around the same time that I received my family member’s email, I received a notice of a blog post from one of my favorite new blogs (or, new to me). It was a post about “letting go of toxic relationships” and it was right on time. (If you’d like to read it, click here. I loved it.)

I’m not saying that my family member is toxic. That’s not the relationship I’m talking about. My relationship is actually with my guilt. I have to stop feeling guilty about claiming what I have to claim, in order to be a healthy person. I have to stop feeling guilty about telling the truth. I can’t lie about the pain of my past, but I have to find a way to acknowledge it without feeling dramatic, ashamed, and a freak of (family) nature.

Surely, it’s a struggle, but my husband is right about those two hares. I can’t chase my happiness—which involves a bunch of things—and chase drama at the same time.  So I’m not going to and that’s that.

I guess this year was a good Father’s Day, after all. And I’m going to try not to have chocolate today. I’ll let y’all know how that works out.

Crying Foul On The Faux: Hip Hop Feminism

When I started this blog, I noticed the number of Black people who call themselves “cultural critics” or “public intellectuals.” I thought that was great. The more of us who are looking at the Black community’s issues and looking for kind, human ways to solve them, the better.

But then, I noticed there were a few people who espoused so-called radical politics, but who seem to be reinforcing the “okey-doke”: the same-old status quos in the Black community, just with a fresher, younger vocabulary. Some of these people called themselves “Hip Hop Feminists.” And in order to get along as a new and struggling Black Public Intellectual (BPI), I bit my tongue sometimes about glaring disconnects between what these folks said their politics were and what actual agendas they supported.

Despite my troublemaking stance, I keep quiet for my own good. I did that because in the Creative Writing community, I’m already known for having a hard time keeping my mouth shut, which is (probably) why I’m not a famous poet and paid in full.

I can get on folks’ nerves. And I can be abrasive as well. But I’ve noticed that I tend to be abrasive when someone I thought was supposed to stand for one thing all of a sudden does a complete turn. And the turn happens usually in the process of “branding” him- or herself in some way that’s supposed to further an academic career, either one already existing or one just beginning.

Kind of like I pretended to be all bold and “keeping it real” but actually, I kept quiet because I wanted to be known as a BPI. Get it?

Now, nobody ever said I was Black Girl Jesus. (I have my flaws and faults; I’m sure you’ve noticed some of them already, if you’ve been reading this blog.) But I can say, my blog doesn’t count as a real “hustle” for me and it doesn’t further my “real” career, either. First, a blog doesn’t count as publication at my university; I have to produce a book-in-print to be promoted to full professor or get a merit raise. Also, since most of the well-regarded BPIs out there hold doctorates and I don’t, I’m also excluded from that cohort as well. I hold a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and I don’t teach cultural studies or literature, etcetera , I teach kids how to write poems and short stories.

I started this blog by myself. It is completely homegrown, and it costs only a few dollars a year to maintain. As you can see, it’s not fancy in the least. And to date, I’ve never been asked to offer my “expert” opinion on some part of Black culture in the mainstream media; nobody ever asks me to speak for “Black people,” only for “Honorée.” As I’m fond of saying, this blog is for me, my mama, and people who need me to keep it real.

Anyway, a few days ago, I was in the middle of my regular, twice-weekly, online rant on Jay Z, the rapper I admittedly love to hate. I said that I looked skeptically at any feminist who supported Jay-Z’s work, and that it just wasn’t possible to lift up a misogynist and be a feminist at the same time. I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was by the irate response from several Twitter folks, not the least of whom was Dream Hampton, Jay-Z’s ghostwriter for his book, Decoded, and his actual friend. (I didn’t even know Ms. Hampton followed me on Twitter. I must say I was very flattered, even though she got me told in front of God and everybody.)

Then there were other women, several of whom identified as feminists, who used the sad and ridiculous excuse that in “99 Problems,” Jay-Z wasn’t referring to women as b-words, but rather, men.

Oh, okay. Then that makes all the rest of the b-word and h-word references in his music absolutely acceptable. I’m completely nose-deep in The Jay-Z Fabulous Koolaid now.

Here’s what precipitated my rant (other than, of course, the fact that I don’t understand how a marginally talented and very rude and mean-spirited guy like Jay-Z is now King of Hip Hop, when there are much more talented MCs out there who even seem to have some home training): Supposedly there was a poem a few days ago in which Jay-Z had agreed to stop using the b-word, because of his love for his brand-new baby girl. Then, there erupted many thousand Facebook and Twitter beefs between those people who wanted to hold Jay-Z accountable for his past behavior, and those who were saddened or, indeed, enraged by the accountability crew’s refusal to forgive.

But then, in the middle of all that uproar, Jay-Z’s “poem” was discovered to be a forgery. His representatives issued a public statement to that effect. Which basically meant that Jay-Z reserved the right to call women—and let’s admit it, Black women—the b-word. The h-word was never even part of the discussion, by the way.

As I pondered what had happened, I ran through my memories of other “feminist” BPIs who had supported Jay-Z’s music in the past, talked about his brilliance in Decoded—a book that wasn’t even technically penned by him, but by Dream Hampton, a Black woman—and who most recently, made excuses for his grave and years-long misogynistic speech-acts.

And I wondered something: how many of these Faux Black Feminists find themselves caught in the middle of issues that require them to demonstrate, like, actual feminist principles instead of, say, hustler principles? For example, if you brand yourself as a male or female “Hip Hop Feminist” and then, it occurs to you that a “Hip Hop Feminist” might be, like, an oxymoron, then what? You have to start your career all over again, and you have to reestablish your brand, too. And who wants to do that?

But guess what? If  you’re sitting up on the TV or radio, representing Black people or Black women, saying that you are an activist in the service of Black woman’s empowerment but you are not demanding Black public cultural behaviors that promote Black woman’s empowerment, that’s not cool. And that’s not honest, either. Your career is how you make money. Helping Black women is supposed to be about your heart and soul.

I know what I’m saying is provocative. And I know that this post is going to lose me many BPI connections that I have built over the past year and a half. And that thought both saddens and scares me. But you know, as my granny used to say, “It just bees like that.”

As a poet who does not have a Phd and most importantly, who’s never made a dime as a cultural critic, I have not only the opportunity, but the responsibility to challenge what I believe are some very damaging BPI practices going on right now, by both Sisters and Brothers.

I have the responsibility to say, there are principles for a cultural critic who purports to help the Black woman. It’s one thing to write about the brilliance and artistry in Hip Hop music. It’s another to tether one’s feminist politics, career, and popularity to Hip Hop’s MCs (and their cults of personality), the overwhelming majority of whom damaged both Black women’s public image in the White “mainstream” as well as her self-esteem in her own Black community.

And it is very hypocritical to pretend that Hip Hop culture has been positive, when it has not only supported misogyny against Sisters, but also, created an ugly dynamic that attempts to dismiss as “classist,” “racist” or “generationally out of touch” any critics who want to hold both the MCs and the culture responsible for the normalization of misogyny within the Black community.

I’m not saying real Black Feminists don’t like to dance to Hip Hop music or don’t like the beats. We do. I’m not saying there aren’t some great non-commercial MCs. There are, indeed. But I am saying that Hip Hop culture is not about to save any Black woman. Real Black feminists don’t keep shaking our booties on the deck of the sinking ship, SS Hip Hop, just because after everyone has drowned, we hope we might find a lifeboat and then, some dollar bills floating on the top of the water.

And we don’t tether our feminist politics to a cultural institution that has degraded Black women out loud, in public, and gleefully for over fifteen years now and counting. Sure, we can invest in intellectual production on Hip Hop Music—articles, books, speaking engagements—but we can’t push a personal political agenda of Hip Hop Feminism when female empowerment is not at the top of the Hip Hop agenda, but rather apologizing for Hip Hop culture is at the top of that agenda.

To wit, “Yeah, okay, MCs talk real, real bad about Sisters, but the music is brilliant. And you know, sooner or later, Yeezy’s going to get him some therapy.”

We must take an honest look at our Black Public Intellectual brands. And if those brands are not consistent with what—and who—we say we stand for politically, then we have to change accordingly. Or, we should stop pretending. Because despite what Hip Hop has told us, the hustle is not the ultimate goal. The mental and emotional health of the Black community is.

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“Remember, Christians, Negros Black as Cain”: The (Ongoing) Need to Defend Black Poetry

In 1773, when Phillis Wheatley, an unfree Black woman, published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, she became the first African American to publish a book of poetry and shook the foundations of philosophical, scientific, and literary notions about people of African descent. For example, in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, the philosopher Immanuel Kant ranks different races, and going further, argues, “Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling.”

There were plenty of readers who, while fascinated with Wheatley’s racial (and presumably to them, exotic) background, still spoke and thought highly of her. On October 26, 1775, Wheatley sent a poem and letter to George Washington, then leader of the colonial Revolutionary forces. Washington responded to her on February 28, 1776, and he referred to her as “Miss Phillis” in his heading. These two written acts were revolutionary their own right; given the social status of Black folks in the colonies at that time, it was bold of Wheatley to write Washington, and it was a transformative act on the part of Washington to consider—and record—a Black woman as a lady.

Yet when Thomas Jefferson, a key intellectual architect of the Revolution, chose to write about Phillis Wheatley’s poetry in Notes on the State of Virginia, he dismissed her: “Religion, indeed, has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet.” It is interesting that Jefferson’s contemptuous assessment of Wheatley’s poetry occurs in the same section in which he implies that Black women engage in bestiality:

Are not the fine mixtures of red and white.. preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the oranootan for the black women over those of his own species.

During Wheatley’s time, her work was not just proof of Africans’ intellectual capability, but their full humanity when placed alongside that of their White counterparts. By placing Africans in the monkey’s embrace, Jefferson attempts to take away the gains that Wheatley’s poetry accorded an entire race of people. This may seem to be an unrealistic claim—until we take Kant’s assessment of Africans into account.

Since Jefferson’s dismissal of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, there have been too many attacks to count over the years on Black poetry, but two more stand out, because the attacks focus not just on critical analysis of African American poetry, but also, on “canonical” Black poets, in particular those who are revered in the Black community.

*

In 1963, the poet Louis Simpson wrote a review of Gwendolyn Brooks Selected Poems in New York Herald Tribune Book Week.  Thirteen years before, Brooks had won the Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen; she was the first African American to do so, and instantly, Brooks became one of the “Great Black Firsts,” one of the numbers recorded by the African American community in its battle against the continual onslaught of racism. As a “First,” Brooks came to represent Black achievement—and, like Wheatley, an example of Black humanity. It would seem that Simpson was aware of Brooks’ importance to Black cultural production and the connection of that cultural production to Black America in general , for he begins his review with a dismissive assessment of the entire Black Poetic Body:

Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems contains some lively pictures of Negro life. I am not sure it is possible for a Negro to write well without making us aware he is a Negro; on the other hand, if being a Negro is the only subject, the writing is not important.

He then goes on to say, “Miss Brooks must have had a devil of a time trying to write poetry in the United States, where there has been practically no Negro poetry worth talking about.” And in those few short sentences, Simpson attempts to make quick work of a tradition of Black poetry that (in 1963) went back over two centuries.

Simpson went on to publish several books of criticism, and apparently, his attempt to dismember of African American poetry did not affect his career in the least. When Simpson’s review was reprinted in On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation (2001), it included a statement by Simpson:

I am glad to see my review of Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems reprinted because this gives me an opportunity to set the record straight…I had said in my review that black writing that concentrated on being black was of limited interest. I did not mean to suggest that black writers should not speak of their blackness—only that they could write about other things as well.

Here, Simpson acknowledges that he might have hurt some folks’ feelings—presumably Black folks’ feelings—but will not acknowledge that, in the same way that he assumes that the inferiority of Black poetry speech acts should be taken prima facie, his contemptuous speech act detailing what he views as the inferiority of Brooks’s poetry and the entirety of African American poetry should be taken in the same way.

*

A few days ago, Helen Vendler published a review in The New York Review of Books  on Rita Dove’s anthology, The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry. After Brooks, Dove was only the second African American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry (in 1987, thirty-seven years after Brooks), and thus, holds honored status in Black literary circles.

We are now in the twenty-first century, and so, in the past, a review might have taken months to make the rounds among poetry circles; now, it takes a matter of days. There have been poets on internet social media (such as Facebook) discussing Vendler’s revew and Rita Dove’s subsequent letter in defense of it.  Many, if not most, of the White poets that have discussed Vendler’s review have been outraged, but they have missed the context in which most Black poets take Vendler’s review—as part of a ceturies-long, ongoing attack on the Black Poetic Body.

All critics view themselves as experts. In order to argue something, the arguer must view him- or herself as an expert on the subject. But there’s a difference between arguing about a subject and arguing based upon one’s place in the world. Helen Vendler’s arguments against Dove’s editorial choices are based upon what could be called White Privilege Literary Largesse. She doesn’t mind that Rita Dove includes a few poets of color —what she calls “minority” poets– in the anthology; what Vendler minds is that Dove has the audacity to place those poets on the same level as the White poets.

Vendler hasn’t always had a problem with Rita Dove. In times past, she has been a champion of Dove’s work, as when she included positive assessments of Rita Dove’s poetry alongside Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Jorie Graham in The Given and The Made: Strategies of Poetic Refinition (1995). However, once Dove started making her own canonical gestures by editing her own anthology Vendler moveed from being Dove’s champion to her attempted vanquisher.

First, there’s an attack on Dove’s choices, as when states, “Multicultural inclusiveness prevails,” and then Vendler proceeds to tally up pages given White—all male—poets versus Black poets. This already shows that Vendler isn’t engaged in the usual pedestrian criticism of the table of contents, and it becomes even clearer when Vendler moves from page counts to an attack on Rita Dove’s person, as evidenced by the following:

How is it that Dove, a Presidential Scholar in high school, a summa graduate from college, holder of a Fulbright, and herself long rewarded by recognition of all sorts, can write of American society in such rudimentary terms?

This passage is telling because it shines a light on the issues Vendler has with Dove-the-Black-Woman and not just Dove-the-Editor. Vendler wants to know how Dove could be so ungrateful, because she was “rewarded” so much. “Awarded” would imply that Dove deserved her many accolades, simply because she’s a brilliant poet and hard worker. However, “rewarded” implies that Dove was given advantages in exchange for something. And what exactly does Vendler think that something should be? Ignoring the fraught history of this country? Pretending that Black poets besides “Carl Phillips and Yusef Komunyakaa”—the two Black poets who don’t need “special defense”—don’t exist?

But what remains unspoken speaks volumes: Vendler really means, how is it that an Uppity Black Female Poet dared to get out of her place? How dare she make her own editorial—intellectual—choices without checking with anyone first? And that anyone would be Helen Vendler.

And finally, there is this passage, the ultimate attack on the Black Poetry Body:

Dove feels obliged to defend the black poets with hyperbole. It is legitimate to recognize the pioneering role of Gwendolyn Brooks, just as it is moving to observe her self-questioning as she reacted to the new aggressiveness in black poetry. But doesn’t it weaken Dove’s case when she says that in her first book Brooks “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”? As richly innovative as Shakespeare? Dante? Wordsworth? A just estimate is always more convincing than an exaggerated one.

In other words, the best Black poets can’t ever tangle with the best White ones. And it’s ridiculous for anyone to assert that–especially another Black poet.

*

There’s been a lot talk this year among poets about “race” in poetry—“race” meaning “black people” or “people of color.” I’ve talked about this issue on my blog, that “race” is a concept, going back to the eighteenth century. Thus, when I write about black people, I’m not writing about race. I’m writing about full participants in humanity—and I’m writing about this humanity as a given, which is something Phillis Wheatley couldn’t take for granted.

And the obvious question is why does no one say that White folks are writing about “race” when they write about themselves? (No one except Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark, of course.) No, when White folks write about themselves, they are writing about America. They are writing about unraced universal experience. They are writing about the ultimate human existence.

This condescending critical assessment of Black poetry has been in place since Jefferson first took up his pen, and informs the sort of contemporary scholarly/intellectual condescension of Simpson and Vendler, because when one attacks African American cultural production, that attack goes to the heart of an issue that is both moral and intellectual, and which goes back to Enlightenment philosophy. Now, it’s not that Black folks aren’t human; only the meanest White person would say something like that. But what’s implied is that cultural production assumes humanity from the start. It also assumes something else: privilege.

In Rita Dove’s introduction to her anthology, she assumes her own kind of privilege, intellectual privilege, and her right to claim that privilege galls Helen Vendler, for if Blacks and other poets of color are not included in Dove’s anthology because of multiculturalism, but rather, on their literary merit alone, then the whole American literary landscape not only changes in the present, it also reconfigures the past. And Helen Vendler and others like her are terrified of that prospect.

* The title of this essay is a line taken from Phillis Wheatley’s poem, “On Being Brought From Africa to America” in Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London: A. Bell, 1773.

Works Cited

Brooks, Gwendolyn.  Annie Allen. New York, Harper and Row, 1949.

—. Selected Poems. New York, Harper and Row, 1963.

Dove, Rita. “Defending an Anthology: Rita Dove in Reply to Helen Vendler.” New York Review of Books 22 December 2011.

—. The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry. New York, Penguin, 2011.

Jefferson, Thomas. “Query XIV: Laws.” Notes on the State of Virginia.

Kant, Immanuel. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Trans. John

T. Goldthwait. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Simpson, Louis. “Taking the Poem by the Horns.” New York Herald Tribune Book Week, 27 October 1963, 27.  Rpt in Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation (Under Discussion) Edited by Stephen Caldwell Wright.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.

Vendler, Helen.  “Are These the Poems to Remember?”  New York Review of Books 24 November 2011.

—.  The Given and The Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Washington, George. Letter to Phillis Wheatley on February 28, 1776. Writings Vol. 4 Edited by John Kilpatrick. (1931).

Wheatley, Phillis. Letter to George Washington on October 26, 1775. Phillis Wheatley: The Complete Writings.  Edited by Vincent Carretta. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

Tough Talk: Stop Complaining About Troy Davis And DO Something

Troy Anthony Davis

It has been four days since Troy Anthony Davis was executed—murdered—by the state of Georgia, despite the recanting of witnesses in his case and all other kinds of holes in his case. Many of us signed petitions, while others (like my close friend Howard University Professor Tony Medina and twelve HU students) physically protested the executions; still Brother Davis was executed. Many of us are sad, bewildered, shocked, and angry.

Alright, we’re upset–now what?

Many of us African Americans—including me—were on the fence about the death penalty. We have a saying down south (where I’m from): “He needed killing.” But after the emotional devastation I experienced over Troy Anthony Davis’s state sponsored murder, I am now one hundred percent against the death penalty, even when the accused or convicted is guilty. And I decided to do my small part to abolish it. Here’s what you can do.

Number One: Educate yourself. This is the easiest first step.

There were a lot of my White friends on Facebook and Twitter who were completely stunned by this execution. They just knew something was going to happen at the last minute. Frankly—and I say this bluntly—I could understand White folks not knowing any better, even Good White Folks.

But what really blew my mind is that Black folks seemed completely unaware about the fact that Troy Davis was not an isolated case, that the United States had been doing a version of this to Black folks since Reconstruction. They didn’t know the real history. They only knew hearsay.

My Black Brothers and Sisters, I’m going to have to keep it real with you. I mean really, really real. Are you ready?

It’s a common saying that if you want to hide something from Black folks, you hide it in a book. Black folks, why don’t you stop talking so much to each other—when neither one of y’all has read a [insert expletive adjective] thing? What is all that talking supposed to do? How is that supposed to help these Brothers on death row?

Yes, I said it. It had to be said.

But I’m not just talking to Black folks here. My Good White Folks who are reading this post, you need to know this America history, too, so you can help change this country for the better.  Understand that this is an ongoing issue and stop being taken over by guilt and do something. So here are some readings for everyone:

Amnesty International has an excellent document that discusses race and the death penalty, “United States of America: Death by discrimination – the continuing role of race in capital cases.”  YOU REALLY NEED TO READ THIS DOCUMENT BEFORE YOU READ ANYTHING ELSE.

Once you’d read Amnesty International’s document, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It gives a background about how the prison system connects to the history of segregation and discrimination against African Americans in this country.

Then, read about how this all connects up. David Oshinsky’s Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice  and Douglas A Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II are two books that talk about (among other things) the practice of arresting Black men for petty crimes like “vagrancy” and then keeping them for free labor.

Number Two: Find out what the following organizations are doing to help Brothers on death row. Then join them. And if you can, donate some money, even if it’s just $5 or $10.

Think about those scenes in It’s A Wonderful Life when every time a bell rang an angel got his/her wings. In this case, every time you give money to an organization that is fighting against the death penalty, you raise Brother Troy’s spirits—and the spirits of all those Black folks lynched and executed in the past—just a little higher. You know you want to do that.

Amnesty International was involved in the fight to stop Troy Davis’s execution for a long time. They are the leading human rights organization in the world. (I am now a member of this organization and I donated money.)

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. The name says it all. (I am now a member of this organization as well and I donated money.) When you go to the site, there is a list of folks that are scheduled to be executed. Y’all, it’s a long list. In addition, here is a great “primer” compiled by NCADP that will you get started with your anti-death penality activism: 10 Ways to Help Abolish the Death Penalty.

The Innocence Project is an organization that specializes in exonerating folks who have been unjustly accused and convicted. I know some of y’all are still unsure about helping guilty folks avoid the death penalty—this organization is for you. And I am not hating on you, either. Look, every little bit helps.

Finally, Number Three: Don’t forget Troy Anthony Davis.

Don’t forget how you felt at 11:08pm on September 21, 2011 when the state of Georgia murdered Troy Davis. Don’t forget your sense of outrage and your sense of helplessness when that killed him.

Don’t forget how your heart went out to Troy Davis’s family, waiting for their brother and uncle to be executed. Don’t forget how you wondered what sort of emotional torture he was going through for FOUR hours, strapped to that gurney, while he waited for the Supreme Court to stay his execution. And then, he was killed anyway. Don’t forget your horror at being a citizen of a country that would do such a thing.

Do not forget that Brother—our Brother, whatever race you happen to be. Honor Troy Anthony Davis’s sacrifice.  Please get involved.

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Because I’m From Georgia, I Remember Murder (for Troy Davis)

A while back, I posted a “Decent People Action Alert” about Troy Davis, the African American man who was convicted back in 1991 for killing a White police officer, Mark MacPhail. The foundation of this case was shaky from the start.

I meant to post again a couple of weeks ago about Mr. Davis and urge folks to take action about his case–and you can still do that by clicking here and please, please take action. But I told myself I was really too busy to post.

That isn’t the truth. The truth is, I stayed silent because I just didn’t want to think about Troy Davis; I knew it would bring me down real low. But I’m already there: I woke up this morning to the news in The New York Times that Troy Davis had been rejected clemency by the Georgia Board of Pardons, which means he will be executed tomorrow, barring a legal miracle.

I don’t mean to be defeatist, but it’s hard not to be because I’m from Georgia and I know the ways of that state. Along with my summer memories of crispy fried chicken, shamefully delicious peaches, beautiful landscapes, and traditional spirituals sung in clapboard churches, I remember the stories about the murders of Black folks told by the members of my African American Georgia family.

I hate to put this so bluntly and (perhaps) rudely, but White folks have been killing Black people for blood sport in Georgia for a very long time.

Take the lynching of Mary Turner in Valdosta, Georgia in 1918. Miss Mary was eight months pregnant when a mob seized and lynched her husband, Haynes. When Miss Mary threatened to call the Law, the mob turned on her. They hung her and cut the eight-month-old fetus from her womb. The baby cried out, and then, the mob took turns stomping the baby to death. There is now a full-length book about this event, Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching by Julie Buckner Armstrong.

Or, let’s take the story told in Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America by Laura Wexler, the story of the murder of two Black couples by a group of White men in Walton County, Georgia in 1946. It was discovered that one of the men was (possibly) having an affair with a young, White woman and the White outrage over this led to the killing. Though the FBI got involved, no one responsible was ever named or convicted. Incidentally, my mother was thirteen-years-old when this killing happened, and she vividly remembers the news of it.

And then, there are the stories that never made it into the History books, like that of one of my mother’s neighbors, a school janitor. He would stay late after school, ostensibly to clean, and a White lady schoolteacher would stay late, too, ostensibly to prepare her lessons. But everybody in the Black community knew the truth, that they were going together, and I guess one of them informed, because one day, a White man found the couple making love. So the lady schoolteacher accused my mother’s neighbor of rape, and eventually, he ended up in the electric chair.

This is Georgia. This is what we Black Georgians remember in the blood. And there are literally hundreds of these stories from back in the day. But now, in Georgia, they just murder Black men using the legal system; they don’t need to lynch in secret anymore.

When I heard about Troy Davis, I didn’t have a lot of hope that he would escape execution, and neither did my mother. After all, he’s Black, he was convicted of killing a White police officer, and he’s in a pro-death penalty state that has a long history of executing Black men, both legally and extra-legally. However, I signed a petition against the execution. But now, it seems that Mr. Davis is going to be murdered under the guise of “execution.”  I suspected it was going to happen; still, it hurts me just the same.

In The New York Times article today, Anneliese MacPhail, Mark MacPhail’s mother was quoted as saying, “I’m not for blood. I’m for justice. We have been through hell, my family.”

I feel badly for Mrs. MacPhail and I mean that sincerely. I can only imagine her pain. I’m not a mother, but I do know what it’s like to lose a family member, and I’ve lost friends to violence. I don’t want to seem unsympathetic, because every mother’s child is important to her; yet, when I focus on that word “justice,” something inside me shifts to irony .

Executing Troy Davis is about Mrs. MacPhail’s  wanting the person who killed her child to suffer. I understand that desire. And that’s why I believe in life incarceration for murderers, because I’m not one of these folks who think a Bible held in a killer’s hand and a quick “I’m sorry” is going to wipe away a crime and the need for a criminal to make amends. No matter how racist the American justice system is against Black men, I wholly support criminals “doing time.”

Mark MacPhail won’t be coming back, but his mother’s grief will return, even if a mother’s son won’t. And that’s why she wants justice–but her grief will be back whether Troy Davis is innocent or guilty of killing Mark MacPhail, and whether he is executed tomorrow at 7pm.

So really, is executing this man about justice?  Supposedly, justice was done when Troy Davis was found guilty of murder—if indeed, he was the actual culprit. (And frankly, there is a lot of doubt about that). What justice will be had by killing him, especially since there’s so much doubt lingering in this case?

And what if I decided I wanted Mrs. MacPhail’s kind of justice for what was done to Mary Turner, Haynes Turner, and Unnamed Turner Baby?

What if I wanted that kind of justice for those four young people lynched in the canebrake that day?

What if I wanted that kind of justice for my mother’s neighbor, electrocuted for falling in love with the wrong White lady?

Who dies because of them–who dies because of all those hundreds murdered in our Black past?

If we are all honest about the death penalty, it’s not about justice—it’s about retribution, a blood cost. An “eye for an eye.” But if the White citizens of Georgia are honest, there are plenty of us Black folks out here who could start tallying up our own blood cost—in the names of our own murdered dead—if we were so inclined. Fortunately, we are not. At least, not the sane Black folks among us.

When some of us African Americans ask for reparations for slavery, and reparations for the racial terror our ancestors endured in the aftermath of slavery in the South—the forced labor of Black men in the southern states, the lynchings, the rapes—make no mistake, it’s not money we really want. It’s remembrance. It’s justice for our dead.

We don’t want some Disney-Goes-to-Hollywood portrayal of our ancestors’ pain like we saw in The Help movie. But at the same time, if we Black folks start really remembering all that horror done to our kin in the past, it might drive us crazy. And we might seek our own retribution, but we know that’s not the way. That’s why we talk about reparations instead.

I think about Mrs. MacPhail. She’s been in pain for a long time, over twenty years. Her child is dead, and the man she believes—knows in her heart—killed him is still alive and walking around, even if he’s walking in prison. That’s not right to her. She wants her own justice.

Believe me, I know exactly how she feels. I want my own justice, too, for the hundreds of my Georgia Black folks who didn’t get their day in court, the way Mark MacPhail did. Who were murdered and dishonored. Sometimes, their blood cries out so loudly to me, it screams a song in the middle of the night. I’m not exaggerating here for the sake of my argument. I’m telling you the stone-cold truth.

So I just do the only thing I can: I think about a Black man who is probably going to die tomorrow, even though I hope he won’t. Then, I pray to a good God who has an infinite memory and who knows what really happened. After that, I forgive my own trespassers. Then, I write a blog post and hope it touches one person’s heart–just one. Then, I try to forgive again.

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Hip Hop and the Brokedown Contract

Recently, I was involved in an online discussion with three African American cultural scholars about hip hop artists Jay-Z and Kanye West and their latest collaborative CD, Watch the Throne. Since that discussion of a few weeks back, I’ve been increasingly bothered by what I see as the apologist stance of fans and hip hop scholars alike for the misogyny, rampant materialism, and apolitical nature in most of  commercial hip hop music; this apologist stance comes in the middle of a very politically charged time in American history, when White Supremacy is gaining more open popularity among  moderate White conservatives.

It’s no secret among my scholarly and creative colleagues that I expect more sense of a political conscience and consciousness from commercial hip hop artists, and that I am continually disappointed.  My friends and colleagues argue that since commercial hip hop is a product of post-Civil  Rights America, with its materialist mores, I shouldn’t require the sort of political “core” from the mainstream version of the music. But last night, while in the middle of a heated discussion, it dawned on me what is really wrong with hip hop: the music fails in its contract with African American literary and historical traditions.

I’m not the first person to point out that hip hop has its roots in African American literature, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to draw parallels between hip hop and, say, early Black resistance narratives. For example, during the Revolutionary War era Belinda, a former slave of the house of Issac Royall, petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature for reparations and won (though she’d have to come back around another time to eventually be paid those reparations).  In her petition, Belinda executes an extraordinary move: she not only discusses the tragedy of slavery in the Americas, but also, she refers to the Yoruba gods of her homeland, the “orisas.” This locates her as someone both deeply American and still deeply African, stretching her community and spiritual loyalties across both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Less than a century later, the slave narratives were used by northern abolitionists to gain sympathy for their anti-slavery cause. These narratives differed in the details, but whether written by males or females, the narratives retain the same three-part structure: the “lowly” life of slavery with all its attendant miseries; then, the realization that freedom was a right of all human beings; and finally, the capturing of freedom which leads, of course, to a better life for the former slave.

In Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave, he describes slavery as a state vulnerable to physical cruelty, and he talks in gentile terms (for us, but direct at that time) about the sexual brutality toward unfree Black women.  Once he realizes he must be free, he becomes a better man and when he gains his freedom by running away, he dedicates his life to service of others. This three-part structure—identification, exploration, and resolution–marks the slave narratives as early blues prose texts.

But what does this all have to do with hip hop?

First, I’m not calling any hip hop artists slaves here. Let’s be very clear about that. I’m simply using African American historical narratives and the devices of those narratives to draw obvious (to me) parallels.

If you look at commercial hip hop, it uses most of the same core literary devices as the slave narratives. For example, all of the authors of the narratives came from humble origins—you can’t get much more humble than slavery.  The descriptions of these humble backgrounds elicited sympathy from the White reader, as they were meant to, for once enough sympathy was roused the reader hopefully would lift his or her voice and cry out against the sin of slavery.  But the humble backgrounds were important, too, because the slave narratives are deeply concerned with issues of African American authenticity; thus, one who has suffered through slavery has earned the right to speak the loudest about the plight of other slaves.

The overriding message at the end of each narrative is about the responsibility of the former slave to the Black community. Freedom has been attained, yes, but this freedom is less freedom from and more freedom to. Freedom to marry legally. Freedom to have and love children without worrying about their being sold away. Freedom to worship God in the open. Freedom to belong to a Black community. Freedom to live as a fully ethical and moral human being.

Hip hop has many of these same requirements. For example, it is a requirement that a hip hop artist come from a poor background. Besides Kanye West, there has never been a hip hop artist who gained world-wide and sustained fame who came from a middle or upper-middle class Black household. But other hip hop artists such as Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, etc. all have working-class or poor backgrounds. When any of these artists rap about their poverty, there is anger in their words and in the tones of their voices, and we know that underneath that is pain, though the performance of “hard” Black masculinity keeps them from admitting it. And so we consumers first feel sorry for the hip hop artist and then, we admire his accomplishments.

Just as in the slave narrative, authenticity is a very real concern as well. Contemporary hip hop consumers hear the much-repeated phrase “keeping it real.” (Which, by the way. has been the bane of many a middle-class Black American’s existence.) Keeping it real means that though you might have worked hard and secured a good job and moved out of the ghetto, your values, your way of life, your set of friends, and the people you want/need to impress all still reside in the ghetto, which is (strangely) assumed to have only one set of folkways, mores and ethics. If any of the aforementioned adjust to your new set of circumstances, you are most definitely not keeping it real.

However, keeping it real also means that you might end up killing one of your friends if you deem it necessary—if, for example, your friend sleeps with your woman, disrespects you verbally in action or in word, or steals or gets in the way of your making money. According to commercial hip hop, the only ethical code of the streets is “keeping it real,” but that code can change depending upon the mood of the artist, because he only has to answer to himself. There is no sense of responsibility to the Black community that contains real people, only to the vague “streets” and to the performance of “realness,” which includes speech, dress, and body language. And one can never challenge the behavior in “the streets,” even when that behavior is criminal or unethical.  Challenging “the streets” is not keeping it real.

So let’s go back to that three-part structure of the traditional slave narrative. First, there is suffering in humble circumstances. Then, there is an awareness that those circumstances must change. Finally, there is freedom, both physical freedom and freedom to act in ethical and moral ways. Hip hop has no problem using the first two movements of this structure for its own purposes, but refuses to participate in the third, ethical, movement.

For some scholars or fans of hip hop, this refusal is perfectly okay. To paraphrase a friend of mine, times have changed and there is a generational divide between old school Black community expectations and new school behavior. And that is true. Things do change. There is no longer one Black community, but rather several under one umbrella. And there’s no longer one hip hop, either. I don’t believe in legislating what people make art about, and unlike W.E.B. Dubois, I don’t believe all Black art should be propaganda. But the very real problem today—and for a while—is that hip hop artists trade on old school African American traditions, but want to pick and choose what suits them ethically about those traditions.

For Black consumers, we feel a particular and tender community connection with Black male hip hop artists, for we can rely on a centuries-long body of ancestral knowledge about persecution of Black men when we listen to their narratives today–their music. Further,  we don’t assume that Black folks are poor because they don’t like to work or even, they just caught a bad break. We know the truth: patterns of African American poverty go back to slavery. (Patterns of White poverty are pretty ancient, too, for that matter.) Thus, there’s a special relationship between the Black hip hop artist and his Black listener, and both parties are fully aware of that special relationship.

There’s also an assumption that simply by living in Black skin, the hip hop artist is living a political existence. And again, that’s true to some extent, if one is still poor and not just dredging up memories of poverty. But for wealthy hip hop artists, there is insulation from the brutal, racial realities of “the streets.” Yet hip hop artists still access the anger of a racialized past but do not include a community in this anger. Rather, this anger is for themselves only, and maybe, extended to their immediate families.

There’s Black community loyalty at work here, but it’s one-sided loyalty. The Black male hip hop artist takes the Black consumer’s loyalty for granted, even while living in an individualist manner. Even when ignoring issues that affect the Black community in very real ways. This loyalty to Black men and the need to ease their historical suffering keeps hip hop scholars and fans alike from holding hip hop artists accountable for the apolitical nature of their music, but in exchange for our Black community loyalty to hip hop artists, we receive no love and no loyalty in return.

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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

———

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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