Teachable Racial Moment ("Twerking" Late Edition): Forget Miley Cyrus. It’s ALL About Katherine Dunham.

For the last few days, I’ve been reading about Miley Cyrus’s VMA—ahem—performance,  which included her attempt at the African/American dance called “twerking,” and which apparently convinced a lot of people that it was okay for women (of any race) without rhythm to try anything that involved booty-shaking.

There were a lot of parents upset that their Disney-loving kids were exposed to Miley’s sexualized antics with a man dressed like Willy Wonka on Crack Having Misplaced His Bifocals, a Big Football Finger, and Several Giant Stuffed Animals, not necessarily in that order.

But my personal favorite discussion about “twerking” was an article giving a scientific explanation of how to “twerk,” by a physician who clearly didn’t know how to “twerk,” and who might be shepherding someone into a serious and permanent physical injury. I mean, dang.

However, what has been interesting is that, in the middle of all this ink (or whatever it is, now that we don’t use ink anymore) generated about Miley and the “phenomenon” of twerking nobody has gone on record saying what needs to be said: how come black folks think “twerking” is a dance that sisters made up in the strip clubs to earn money and don’t know that West African women have been dancing like this for hundreds, quite possibly thousands, of years, and not for “nasty” purposes, either?

So black folks, don’t blame Miley for getting it wrong, because you got it wrong first. Blame yourselves and your own lack of cultural and historical memory.

That’s right. We are responsible for that white girl getting up on TV disrespecting and bastardizing African American culture. This is one of those “yes, I said it” moments. And I’ll say it again until the wheels fall off.

Now, let’s continue to the educational breakdown.

Decades ago in the twentieth century, there was a genius black choreographer named Katherine Dunham. She has been called the “matriarch of black dance,” and she introduced West African dance to North America.  Honestly, she is as important to American dance history as Twyla Tharp.

Dunham influenced generations of black and white choreographers.  Most importantly, Dunham helped to create respect for the field of dance influenced by the African Diaspora and its spiritual and cultural practices. Dunham pioneered the Western dance concept of “isolation”—keeping one part of the body still while moving another—and incorporating fluid pelvic moves into mainstream dance.

Pelvic moves. Sound familiar?

But those moves were ancient and Dunham just made them modern. They were West African dance moves. Moves that had been expressed for hundreds of years. Moves that were brought over on the Middle Passage, the journey of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  For example, while in Senegal, I saw “twerking” at a wedding being set up outdoors. No one treated it as “naughty” at all, either—or “American.”

Many of us blacks who have seen Dunham’s version of West African dance here on the stages of college auditoriums, community centers, gymnasiums—or in a Hip Hop video—have no idea that what we are witnessing are Diasporic expressions that she worked for nearly seventy years to bring to us and thus, reconnect us with our culture from across the water.

You know what white people do with their profound, European cultural expressions from across the Atlantic?

Well, if it’s a dance performance, they have other white people who carefully guard the particulars of the choreography, write articles about the history of the choreographer, give money to organizations so the dance can be performed, and then, dress up in expensive outfits to go see that dance performed. Like, on the stage at Lincoln Center in New York City.  

Here’s a little list of those beloved European ballets: Giselle, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. We’ve all heard of those. But how many of us have heard of Dunham’s Treemonisha or Fantasie Négre?

And forget about Lincoln Center. You know what black folks do in gratitude for Dunham’s tireless work that eventually landed her in a wheelchair (because of dance-related injuries)? We take all that hard work and her African and Caribbean anthropological research, not to mention her deep spirituality—check out this little clip of her choreographed  dance “Shango,” based on a spiritual ritual for a West African Orisha—we put some twists into it, and we take it to the strip club.

The. Strip. Club. I’m just going to let that marinate with y’all for a few seconds.

And for those without a “Magic City” nearby so brothers can make it rain on women they have no kindness or respect for, there is Youtube, where collectives like The Twerk Team use variations of their ancestors’ movements to dance to a trashy Negro’s rapping, “[Insert expletive noun for female dog] sit on my [insert expletive noun for male genitalia.]”

And no, I’m not going to link to The Twerk Team. Don’t even ask me to. Don’t even.

Certainly, Miley Cyrus looked “besides like a fool” on the VMAs, to borrow one of my grandmother’s expressions. She needed to go put some clothes on and consult her therapist, her mama, or both the next time she decided to jump up on stage. And what she was doing was about as close to “twerking” as an elephant on stilts trying to execute a plie. (Actually, I’m surprised there wasn’t an elephant on stage, since she had everything and everybody else up there.)

But Miley Cyrus believed she had the right to steal our dance moves because African Americans have not documented, archived, funded—making it rain don’t count—respected or protected our centuries-old African dance expressions the same way Americans of European descent have done for their culture from “the old country.”

Even if you have no money, you can read.  And you can voice opposition to the constant sexualization and degradation of black cultural practices, which never ends well for us.

We black folks discard our cultural power, then get mad at white people for “cultural theft.” Certainly, in the past it may have been “theft.” But these days, it’s not.  These days, it’s laziness on our part, and it’s our allowing the worst, trashiest elements to take over our cultural expressions because we don’t want to be “classist.” But it does not take a so-called “high socio-economic status” person to cherish our culture. It simply takes black self-respect and self-preservation.

Miley Cyrus has no respect for the profundity of black cultural expression—but why should she? What investment does she have in our culture? And didn’t she used to be a country singer? How many times have you seen a white country musician lift up his banjo and say, “did y’all know this is an African instrument?” 

Miley recognizes power when she sees it, and she knows enough to exploit it.  We black folks cannot throw a five-dollar bill on the ground and then get mad because someone else picks it up and puts it in the bank.  And in this case, with “twerking”—or, more accurately, “traditional West African dance,”—it’s not a five-dollar bill we’ve discarded. It’s a piece of gold. And if Miley sells enough records, quite possibly, it could be a piece of platinum.

On Don Lemon’s List: Breaking Down His Tough Black Love

Uploaded from www.dallasvoice.com

First, this blog post is not to curry favor with conservative, extremely right-wing white folks who don’t like African Americans, but who suddenly are pretending to take interest in “black community issues” so they can practice their Strange White Supremacist Hoodoo Rituals in public, instead of the privacy of their own homes.

I’m talking to you, Bill O’ Reilly.

Go sit your annoying, obnoxious self down somewhere and stop pretending you really cared about the ills of the African American community when you recently went on a tirade saying that we had serious problems, including the “drug situation,” the disintegration of the black family,” and “gangsta culture.”

You’re using your fake concern about “black on black crime” to attack black people—as you’ve attacked us in the past—and with friends like you, what black person really needs the White Citizens Council of Jackson, Mississippi or the Ku Klux Klan?

Thank you, Mr. O’ Reilly, take care, and be blessed.

Now that I have established the ground rules, let me begin to explain the mysterious ways of Brother Don Lemon.

Lemon is black and Lemon is gay. That would seem to be a recipe for the most liberal black man. Instead, he was on the TV recently, going off on black folks all in public, in a seemingly willy-nilly fashion, and aligning himself with the aforementioned Social Plague That Is Bill O’ Reilly.

Then, Lemon listed his top five issues with black people. We’ll come back to those in a second.

And then, black folks started getting upset online, in the blogs, on the comment threads of blogs, on Twitter and on Facebook, wondering whether Don Lemon was an Uncle Tom Race Traitor, whether he was off medication for a psychiatric disorder (possibly connected with his being an Uncle Tom) or whether he needed to be on medication for an as yet diagnosed psychiatric disorder (that had Uncle Tom tendencies), and so on or so forth.

Like a lot of middle- and upper-middle class black folks Don Lemon is just fed up with what is happening in this community, and so, he had one too many cups of coffee (probably), and snapped on TV. And I must say, I agree with much of his frustration.  But how much on his list really contributes to crime in the black community? Let’s examine it.

1) Don Lemon thinks black men need to forgo sagging pants.

I agree.

Many black folks know where that “sagging pants” fashion comes from: prison culture. (Brothers inside aren’t allowed belts.) We are constantly having discussions about how to keep our young black boys out of the prison industrial complex, but then, we think it’s perfectly okay to let our young black boys walk around in a style made fashionable by the prison industrial complex?

I’m confused, mightily.

But what I will say is, there is no demonstrable link between a boy who walks around looking like he’s got on a man-sized, full, dirty diaper beneath his pants and criminal behavior.  The demonstrable link is between having a job and not having a job, when he shows up to the job interview looking “besides like a fool,” in the words of my Grandma Florence.

Surely, I know that we should look past the exterior to the inside. Surely, some black boys use their attire as a temporary disguise to express their personalities. Some of them have teachers in high school or professors in college who will look past their dress to the brilliant young men inside—but some of them won’t.

Many young black men don’t have role models to guide them and tell them how to dress for a job interview or a campus visit for college, because nowadays, a middle- or upper-middle class black elder is attacked for trying to teach a poor or working class black kid about the realities outside of his own mind.

Nowadays, we’re supposed to keep quiet, instead of training these kids for mainstream American society. So we do remain quiet, and we revert to an “I’ve got mine, you get yours mentality.” And then, we middle- and upper-middle class black folks get criticized for not reaching back. It’s a racial catch-22.

2) Don Lemon says black men need to finish school.

I agree.

People who graduate high school have more access to jobs and make more money than people who don’t. Everyone knows that—but what Don Lemon should have done was exhibit some sensitivity and discussed the erosion of the public school system in America, and how, if one is poor and black one is more likely to attend a substandard school that is not getting the funds that a school in a majority white neighborhood will.

And why? Well, there are a number of factors, but one that many of us never hear discussed is the issue of property taxes. Live in a more affluent neighborhood? Property taxes provide more money per child for education, which means lower student to teacher ratio, better trained teachers, better facilities, and more after school enrichment programs. Live in an urban poor—read black—neighborhood? Then there’s lots less money per child for education. Is that fair? No it’s not, and studies have shown that poorer schools have a lower retention rate for students.

In addition, there is a demonstrable link between lack of high school education and criminal activity; if you can’t get a job, you’re going to have to make money some kind of way and crime is usually it.

3) Don Lemon says black folks need to stop using the n-word.

I agree.

Let’s face it, black folks of all classes have and will continue to use the n-word in private. I use it in private, I admit it, and that’s that.

But for the life of me, I don’t understand why reasonably sane black folks of all educational levels are putting forth valuable energy which could be used to solve a host of other community ills just to defend the right of RayRay, Pookie and Them or Famous For A Day Fill-In-The-Blank Rappers to stand on a street corner or in a music video and publicly abuse each other with a term slaveholding white folks invented to debase us.

However, there is no demonstrable link between using the n-word and criminal activity.

4) Don Lemon says black folks need to respect where they live and don’t litter.

I agree.

Littering is bad. Black folks shouldn’t do it. Everyone should respect the neighborhood in which s/he resides–but have you been to a poor white neighborhood lately? I have. They litter, too. And I teach at a majority white university and every class period I have to remind the kids to pick up their trash before they leave because their mothers don’t work there.

And is Lemon saying that if you recycle your soda cans in your neighborhood, you won’t pick up a gun and kill somebody? Because there is no demonstrable link between littering and criminal activity, to my knowledge.

5) Don Lemon says black women need to stop having children out of wedlock and black people should marry before having children.

I’m not sure what I feel about this one.

Statistics show that unmarried mothers are more likely to be poor, which means that unmarried mothers must work more hours and they don’t have as much time to spend with their children. That would be an argument against out of wedlock parenthood and for married parenthood.  But Don Lemon didn’t mention poverty. He discussed marriage from a “values” point of view, as if there is something shameful about unmarried mothers. What are we, on the second verse of Diana Ross and The Supremes’ “Love Child?”

One can have a family without marriage, and one should not be ashamed if one’s parents never married. We’ve all seen many examples of happy, unwed families. (And this is coming from a happily married woman.)

I also think that the term “fatherless sons” is very insulting to apply to children born out of wedlock. Simply because a father and mother don’t marry doesn’t negate them as parents and doesn’t mean a child is “fatherless.” What I believe is more important than the legal bond of marriage is a strong bond between parent and child and that parents are committed to the work of child rearing and nurturing.  That should be the starting point, because while marriage should be a choice, abandoning your child and never looking back should not be.

And yes, there is a demonstrable link between broken families and criminal behavior, but it is dangerous to reduce that link to simply “no father in the home” without mentioning the issues of poverty, which we know is a contributing factor to crime. And what would have helped Lemon’s case is if he mentioned how there could be ways to help single mothers facing poverty, instead of shaming them by implying that every out-of-wedlock child was on a fast track to the penitentiary.

Lemon’s list constitutes individual problems in the black community—very real problems—but taken together, they don’t constitute any sort of unified solution to black-on-black crime.  And I must say that the biggest problems that I see are his issues of logic, timing, and class insensitivity.

Only a few days ago, George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder or manslaughter in the killing of Trayvon Martin.  It was insensitive and didn’t make much sense for Don Lemon to pretend that, coming so close after the verdict in the Zimmerman trial, his remarks would not have been taken in the context of the Trayvon Martin tragedy and as a characterization of this dead black teenage boy. And do I need to tell y’all that Lemon made himself look absolutely ridiculous by even mentioning the name of Bill O’Reilly?

In addition, Lemon clearly is of a higher socio-economic status, and if middle- and upper-middle class black folks want to be critical of pathological behavior in the black community—which is our right as African Americans—we need to be very clear on what behavior simply embarrasses us because of class sensitivity (and makes us want to invent a whole new racial category for Bourgie Negroes) and what behavior is actually criminal. In these times, it does not help to make silly, stupid, or even trashy behavior a crime when talking about the very real issue of, say, the black-on-black murder rate in Chicago.

I do believe that Lemon really does care about other black people and he really is concerned and thus, his diatribe. Many black people are concerned. Unfortunately, Lemon is a symptom of what has been happening for far too long: a failure to connect between poor black folks and middle- and upper-middle class African Americans, and an unwillingness to hear and tell the truth. And it is time for the truth—the entire truth. Lemon’s List wasn’t it, but perhaps now he has lead the charge for more black folks of his socio-economic class to be honest and say what they think that truth might be, without fear.

An Open Letter to Mr. Richard Cohen, Washington Post Columnist

Dear Mr. Cohen:

I’m writing you to discuss your latest column, “Racism vs. Reality” dated July 15, 2013 and to parse a point of logic with you—your considerably flawed logic concerning racial profiling. The gist of your column is that it’s unfair not to expect white people to be afraid of black men because they commit a lot of crime.

In your column, you wrote:

….There’s no doubt in my mind that [George] Zimmerman profiled [Trayvon] Martin and, braced by a gun, set off in quest of heroism. The result was a quintessentially American tragedy — the death of a young man understandably suspected because he was black and tragically dead for the same reason. [Emphasis mine.]

Mr. Cohen, I don’t even know you, and I’m sure you mean well, but I’d like to address the issue that you raise of “understandably suspected” black men. And I’d like use your own logic to explore what might be the aftermath of racial profiling of white people by black people.  Let’s call it the “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” logic of racial profiling.

As someone who is the survivor of violence, I understand post-traumatic stress. It’s a horrible thing to look at someone who resembles the person who committed violence against you or someone you love; you tremble, overcome with fear. 

My mother, an African American woman, was born in the segregated South—in Georgia—in the 1930s and remembers when a group of white men lynched four black people in a town not far away from her. There is a book written about this lynching called Fire in the Canebrake: the Last Mass Lynching in America.  Those white men never went to jail for their crime.

My mother’s great-grandmother Mandy was an enslaved woman whose first memory is of her father’s being sold down south. She never saw him again. It was a source of great pain for her. Later, however, she entered into a relationship with a white man and had a child by him; the man financially supported her biracial child and gave the child his last name, an unusual occurrence in the last 1800s.

My mother grew up in a racially terrorized South—and yet, she belongs to a predominantly white church and has several good, white friends, but according to your logic, because of Mama’s background, she is supposed to be terrified of every white person she sees, to seethe with anger or fear or some sort of traumatic emotion, remembering these painful moments from her childhood, to cook up some sort of retaliation in her Big, Black, Racial Trauma Pot. Certainly, my great-great-grandmother never would have made the romantic choice that she did.

Let’s explore the other side of my heritage: not only am I black, I’m of Native American heritage; my direct ancestors weren’t removed on the Trail of Tears, but surely relatives of mine were.  In case you aren’t familiar with the Trail of Tears, it’s the journey where thousands of Native Americans were forced to relocate in the nineteenth century, after their land was stolen by the United States government.

Much of the Southeastern land that belonged to Natives was used for the cultivation of short-staple cotton; Eli Whitney made possible the separation of the seed from the boll with the invention of the cotton gin in 1794, and thus, Native folks were pushed off their own property, and more black folks were enslaved to pick that cotton.

As a person of Native descent, should I suspect that every white man appearing on my porch—say, to check my gas meter, spray my house for ants, or even just inform me about the teachings of Jesus Christ (even if it is too early in the morning for me to be awake and ready to receive piety)—is there to yank me through my front door, take me clear across the country to land that’s even flatter and more unattractive than where I live now and make me stay there, and on the journey, knowingly hand me a smallpox infested blanket to wrap myself in?

According to your logic, I should.

There are all kinds of ways I could isolate myself even further:  I’m a woman who is a rape survivor and men commit over 90% of the rapes in this country.  What if every woman who was raped decided she never wanted to be touched or approached by a man again, let alone, want him for her lover or husband or the father of her children?

When I met the man with whom I fell in love and married, should I have screamed at him in his face that he was a potential rapist, or pulled out a dull nail file and tried to stab him—just in case he might have been a rapist?

According to your logic, I should.

Mr. Cohen, if someone like me—the descendant of and relative to people who were lynched, raped, sold, branded, spat on, physically displaced, called names, terrified again and again for over three hundred years—can learn to take every white person (or every man of any race) I meet on a case-by-case basis, to think the best of someone until he or she shows me differently then Mr. Cohen, how dare you—a person who looks a lot like the people who lynched, raped, sold, branded, spat on, physically displaced, verbally abused, and terrified my people for over three hundred years—tell me that it’s common sense to feel that a black man is “understandably” a criminal because of crime statistics that don’t even reach back forty years?

In the words of my mother, what kind of sense did you make in your column? Nonsense, that’s what kind. 

According to your flawed sense of logic, what would your whiteness mean to me– if I couldn’t believe in a better time, if I didn’t have faith in humanity’s ability to positively grow, if I didn’t possess a need to love my fellow man and woman, regardless of what he or she looks like, in the brightest day or the darkest of night?

At some point, you, I, and all the people who make up a “we” must take the risk of not blaming people because of past unpleasant, traumatic, or even violent experiences suffered at the hands of someone else.   It may sound naïve, but if we Americans don’t decide to accumulate courage to say “enough” we will continue to live in disharmony, distrust, and yes, hatred surrounding race in this country.

Is that how you want to live the rest of your life? I know I don’t.

We all have a bone to pick, in the ancient or recent past.  Every single one of us, regardless of race or gender, can locate a grievance of some kind against someone else. My pain is no greater than anyone else’s, and yours is no greater than mine.

We can honor the past transgressions against us personally or against our blood ancestors, but it is not fair to blame or hurt a person who has done us no immediate wrong in the here and now, just for inhabiting the skin color or gender or religion (or so on) of person who did the original crime.  

Mr. Cohen, I’m not here to argue the Zimmerman trial verdict; that trial is over, and however I may feel, I have to continue to live by my principles. What I am here to do is to remind you of what it means to be a more loving and hopeful human being, in the long run. I hope this letter has helped you on that journey.

Sincerely,

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

 

 

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.

The Trials of a Formerly Single, Pathetic Woman (It’s Not What You Think)

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Once, I was really pathetic. And I was single. And I thought the two were connected. I admit it.

I focused a lot on my pain back in the day, and I attracted not-very-nice men who were looking for a pathetic woman, because a pathetic woman is a weak woman who will put up with anything.  These men weren’t very good-looking guys—except for a couple of fine exceptions—and somehow, they simultaneously lifted me up during my whiny “poor me” episodes, and then, just when I was starting to get out of that low space, they would push me back down, either literally—aka with their fists—or with words.

But there were some good, platonic friends that I made. All of them were aware of how pathetic I thought I was, but they told me all the time that I was great and I could do better, in life and in romance. I was smart, beautiful, talented, and better than I thought I was. I could do more than survive. I could thrive.

Things went along that way, through my adolescence, into my twenties, and then, I hit my thirties and something strange happened: I started praying and I started writing, simultaneously. And I started making it out of Pathetic Land. I was still single, but I didn’t care that much anymore. 

Okay, let me keep it real. I didn’t care about not being in a relationship, but I did care that I was celibate ninety percent of the time. I ain’t gone lie to you. I was about to pop for a lot of years. Trust.

But my spiritual life deepened and that fed my writing life. I started gaining self-confidence. It didn’t matter to me how pretty I was (or wasn’t), that I was overweight, that I had fibroids the size of Mount Everest, that I was a social hermit—I was smart and I was talented and I didn’t need anyone to tell me that. I could see it for myself. No, I wasn’t the healthiest in body, but in spirit, I started healing.

And then, I traveled to Africa to do research on the current book of poetry I’m writing. While there, I met a really cute, sweet guy who spoke three languages—including French!—we fell deeply in love and six months later we got married. And I finally wasn’t celibate anymore.

Sidebar:  Right after New Year’s, did y’all hear something that sounded like Loud Sanctified Holy Ghost Shouting all the way up to the Heavens? That was me, when I finally got me some. I ain’t shame to admit it, though that is the last time I will talk in specific terms about my marital business on this blog. Just so you know.

Anyway, about eighteen months ago, before I even met my guy, I had started working on my health, and I continued through our courtship and our first few weeks of marriage. (We haven’t been married long). As of this writing, I’ve been a vegan for forty-six days and I’ve lost fifteen pounds. I do miss cheese, but I just sort of white-knuckle through that.

I can hear y’all thinking right now, “Ok, Honorée, that’s a pretty fabulous ‘I been changed for the better’ story, but in the words of Ike Turner, what the problem is?”

I’ll tell you what the problem is. It has started settling down on me, bit by bit, that people have looked at my marriage as the culmination of all my hard work on myself. That’s right. I did all this, I made it out of Pathetic Land, just so I could get me a man.

Um, not.

Some folks have expressed that view by telling me that my engagement and then my marriage were “a healing.” As if I wasn’t healing all by myself with the help of a good and mighty God. 

Other folks have thrown shade on my choice of a mate. There were nasty, hurtful comments about his dark skin color; “ugly” Africans; whether he wore deodorant; the fact that he was a Muslim and not a Christian; and whether he had sought me out to “get a green card.” There were admonitions about how “pushy” African men were, and how they didn’t “play that.”

Sidebar: What is exactly is the “that” that African men don’t “play”? Would it be the same “that” that regular Black, White, and Other American men on this side of the Atlantic don’t play? Because y’all do know that you ain’t got to travel overseas to meet a crazy, sexist man, or to get made a fool out of by one, right? You can walk right outside your house, around the corner to the 7-11, and meet one of them crazy men in, like, nine and three-quarters minutes. You don’t need no passport.

Oddly, I felt way more loved and nurtured by some folks when I was a hot buttered mess, when I wasn’t getting any sex or love (or both), when my uterus was sticking out to Idaho from that nineteen pound fibroid I had—yes, it really was that large; that is no exaggeration—and when I was a leather-wearing, red meat-eater who was making twice-weekly, binging drive-bys at the Sonics, much to the chagrin of my doctor, who had been trying to get my cholesterol down for a year.

Then, there are my personal favorites: the folks who are expecting me to morph into the commonly held view of a wife, now that I am married. The Woman Who Has Finally Gotten In Patriarchal Line Now That She Has Jumped The Broom And Gotten Some Good D-Word.

Sidebar: I’ve even had some folks say to me–days after my marriage– “Are you and your husband planning to adopt?” And when I say, “No, we aren’t,” they have responded, “But doesn’t he want children?” The implication is that I am selfish and that I should change my mind about wanting children and that would make me a real woman. That I should consider what my husband wants. That I should make that sacrifice for him.

But it is a reasonable expectation for me to think that my husband would take me exactly where I am physically and emotionally, since I took him exactly where he was. And I made a sacrifice for love when I married: I entered into what I always have considered a woman-hostile, patriarchal institution because of my husband’s religious convictions. It was never an option that we live together instead of marrying. That would have been a sin to my husband, and so, I compromised and got married because I knew that I wanted to be with this man for the rest of my life. And maybe—just maybe—he thought the same thing about the woman he fell in love with, whether or not she wanted to raise children? 

I know. Crazy, right?

Back when I was pathetic, I used to encounter women in real life or online who expressed to me how hard it is to take time for themselves, to exercise, to eat right, to work on their artistic projects. I would hear phrases like, “Oh, if you were married, if you had kids, you would know how hard it is.”

I assumed they were right. That because these women had children and husbands (or partners), they had it harder than I did. I dismissed my own issues of taking my own time for my health and for my emotional well-being and I didn’t celebrate the hard work that I did for my own life, because as a single woman, I saw myself as a woman with no importance in her life. Or hardship in her life.

Certainly, I know that any time another person is added to a dynamic, the dynamic is changed. I am not arrogant enough to think that, a woman with children has just as much time as I do. But, neither am I lazing around my house, picking my toenails, either. I write a new book every two years. (Now whether that book is published is another story.) It is ironic that only now, when I am married,  can I see how I privately dismissed the profundity of my own experience, and that privately, I dismissed my work as a writer as “easy”, a
s loudly as I proclaimed otherwise in public.

I still have some very good friends. Let me make that clear. But sadly, I have had to let some folks go, “sympathetic” folks from the time before who had an explanation of why I was pathetic, and much of it boiled down to my being single. 

Indeed, before I met the man who would be my husband, I was lonely, a lot. I had whittled my life down to the bone socially. But what a lot of people didn’t understand, and what I didn’t understand myself, was that what I took away from my life socially, I put into my writing career, my spirituality, and myself.  I needed that time. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a life. It was that I had a different life. I still have that different life. My husband likes to watch soccer; I like to write in a room with the door closed. And he’s good with that. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t have married him. I just wasn’t that desperate, believe it or not.

Right now, I’m in a place of change and struggle. I’m not going to say that marriage is not a challenge. It is. But I am going to say that part of the struggle and challenge is to learn how to include someone else in my life full-time, without giving up my principles. I didn’t have these principles because I couldn’t get a man. I had them–and still have them–because they are right and they make me happy.

I look back and see that many of my problems stemmed from my being a mess. But many stemmed from my own inability to embrace my difference from other people. I was getting in my own way. Maybe I was so pathetic because I thought I was pathetic? Could it really have been that easy—change my thinking and thus, change my life?

I try not to get upset over those lost years, though, because the journey made me the woman I am today. And I like that woman very much. In fact, I love her, and whatever my marriage status, I’m always in a lifelong committed relationship with Honorée Jeffers. Till death do us part.

And no, I didn’t change my name, in case you were wondering.

 

 

I Hate Hoodies. And No, My Name Ain’t Geraldo Rivera.

A few weeks ago, I posted about the killing of Trayvon Martin, the case with which most of us in America are familiar by now. This killing was and continues to be a terrible scenario, and I spoke about my pain over this situation, and the need for Black people to know our history in this country.

But if you go back and read my post, I didn’t say anything substantial about the hoodie that Trayvon was wearing that night. I didn’t defend that item of clothing. And you know why? Because I think the championing of the hoodie as a symbol of racial profiling is misguided.

For the past few weeks, I’ve  looked a pictures of folks in their hoodies, which is how they shared their solidarity with Trayvon Martin. And I’ve felt as if folks have looked askance at me, because not only haven’t I shared a picture of me in a hoodie, I’ve openly talked about the fact that I won’t be wearing a hoodie in the first place.

Just last night, I had a young girl—no older than twenty-five—call me out in the most disrespectful, harsh ways–ways that one should never talk to an elder– for my supposed “pettiness” and my being “bourgeois” when I posted on Facebook and argued that we needed to be honest with young Black men about the fact that the hoodie was not a great item of clothing for professional advancement. That young Black men wearing this clothing weren’t going to walk into a job interview and come away with employment and as a result, economic power.

Over the past few weeks, people on Twitter also have implied that I just don’t care about Trayvon Martin’s death, or implied that I have accused Black people of being stupid simply because I’ve told them that, instead of being caught up in the moment of the hoodie, they need to read and educate themselves (by going to the library) on the long history of racially profiling African American men in this country.

Can I ask you something? When did it become a crime for a Black English teacher to, like, tell somebody else Black that they needed to read a book? Because that’s what I am. I teach in the English department of a university, okay? I read, write, and teach books for a living, y’all. My twitter handle is “@blklibrarygirl”. Get it?

And then, of course, in the middle of all that, there has been the hullabaloo over the comments of Gerald Rivera, who argued that the wearing of hoodies of Black and Latino youngsters—males—is a justification for racial profiling. If this were eighteenth-century Boston, Massachusetts someone would have tarred and feathered that man and paraded Rivera in the streets. People have been so nasty and frankly, frightening, that Rivera retracted his statements.

But let me say what I have been wanting to say for the past couple of weeks, but have been too afraid to do so, lest my (admittedly much, much smaller) group of followers online do the same thing to me as Rivera had to withstand. He might have had wrong motivations for saying what he said about the hoodie and how he said it, too, but at the end of the day, the hoodie does a mixed message, sometimes a wrong message. And that’s why we need to be careful about conflating that particular item of clothing with racial profiling of young, Black men.

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

Let me be very clear. Trayvon Martin did not have any responsibility to rethink his clothing that fateful night that he walked to the store to buy his candy and his iced tea.  Trayvon was an American citizen and he was child of American citizens and they are the children of American citizens and so on and so forth. American citizens do not have the responsibility to show their identification papers to someone who is not a police officer while walking in their own neighborhoods.  This is not 1850 and we are not living under the Fugitive Slave Act, okay?

Trayvon had every right in this world and the next one, too, to wear his hoodie. He was doing nothing wrong in the least. But  it’s not that hoodie that caused Trayvon to be stalked and killed by George Zimmerman.

Trayvon was stalked and killed because of racial profiling. That’s it, plain and simple. And, quite possibly, he might have been stalked and killed because George Zimmerman might not be all there mentally, though that remains to be seen. The hoodie had nothing to do with it.

And further, the hoodie is not always a great item of clothing.  You can call me names for saying that, you can leave mean comments below, you can say whatever you need to say to me. But you know what you can’t do?

You can’t show up to the bank and get money from a teller wearing a hoodie over your head. Why? Because your face is obscured.

You can’t go through airport security wearing a hoodie over your hear. Why? Again, because they don’t know who you are. Sometimes, I’ve even been asked to take off my glasses at the airport because I wanted to be cute in my driver’s license photo and I didn’t put them on for my picture. And in that case, you know I can’t be wearing a hoodie.

And further, you can’t take your driver’s license picture wearing a hoodie over your head in the first place.  And you know why? Because sometimes, criminals of every race, creed, religion, gender, and color actually do wear hoodies to commit crimes.

They wear hoodies to rob people. They wear hoodies to come up behind folks and shoot them dead without being recognized.

As someone pointed out to me last night online, the mock-up picture of the Unibomber pictures him wearing a hoodie. The Unibomber, y’all? The Unibomber? Do we really want to connect that handsome, sweet, beloved boy Trayvon Martin with the same item of clothing worn by the Unibomber? Think about that for a second.

Did Trayvon Martin commit any crime? Of course not.

Did Trayvon Martin have a right to wear anything he wanted to that was in his closet? Of course he did.

Trayvon Martin didn’t do anything but walk in the rain with his candy and iced tea cloaked in his Black skin, skin that is not offensive to anyone except someone filled with racial hatred or mental illness. So why on earth are we trying to champion a piece of clothing as the reason behind his getting killed? And explain to me, please, how we are any different from White supremacists when we talk about how a piece of clothing identifies a young Black man?

Take your time. I got a few hours for you to figure out the logistics of that one.

I’ve actually read Facebook status posts where people compare the hoodie to the hijab. Are you kidding me? Since when is the hoodie a religious statement going back thousands of years?

I’ve had people debate me online that the hoodie is the same as someone Black wearing his or her hair in dreadlocks or natural.  Really now? The sacred way that God made you, how S/He decided that a part of your actual body springs out of your head is equal to an item of clothing you can buy down to the Abercrombie and Fitch alongside White kids who have trust funds? Alrighty then.

I understand the long history of racial profiling of Black men in this country. Believe me, I’m aware. My mother told me that, before I was born, my father punched a man in Mississippi years ago for calling him the n-word and to this day, I wonder why he didn’t swing at the end of a rope.

I have two nephews and I worry about them, a lot. I may not ever have been stopped by the police and harassed because I was living and breathing in a Black male body, but as Tayari Jones talked about so movingly and eloquently on NPR a few days ago, I’ve spent my whole life worrying about the safety of young Black men I have loved in different ways.

And it’s because of that love and because of that worry that I’m concerned now that African American communities are championing—and encourage White people to champion—a symbol that just can’t hold the weight of three hundred and ninety three years of ancestral and cultural trauma, ever since the first kidnapped African disembarked in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia and was renamed “slave.”

Those kidnapped Africans weren’t wearing hoodies. Quite possibly, those Africans were naked, and their only crime was being in the wrong village on the wrong day, and they ended up following the tragic, mythic red path onto a slave ship.

We need to focus on the real issue of racial profiling of young Black men and understand that, though someone who was loved by his parents and was doing absolutely no wrong was killed while wearing a hoodie, he wasn’t killed for wearing a hoodie.

Trayvon could have been wearing biker shorts. In fact, he could have been wearing a corporate suit and tie. And you know what? George Zimmerman would have stalked him and killed him anyway. And that’s on him. And that’s on the tragic and brutal history of “race” this country. That’s not on a hoodie.

We need to find a more lasting –and appropriate–symbol to memorialize Trayvon, one that is not associated with actual wrongdoing, because he didn’t do anything wrong. We need to find a better way to honor other blameless young, Black men who were killed as a result of racism, who never did a thing to deserve their sad fate.

The hoodie is not that symbol. But I remain hopeful that we’ll find something else, something better, in the days to come.

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Teachable Racial Moment: Why Do Black Folks Stick Together?

Years ago, in graduate school, I was one of only three African Americans in my Master of Fine Arts creative writing program. That was in the fall; in the spring, one of us dropped out. And then there were two.

I remember sitting in my graduate poetry workshops surrounded by folks who didn’t look like me.  Whenever the issue of “race”—meaning Black people—came up, my White peers would turn to me and ask my opinion. Sometimes, I knew. Sometimes, I didn’t know. But what always sort of blew my mind is that my peers assumed that I could speak for all Black folks. When I, like, couldn’t.  But I would try anyway because I felt it was my responsibility to do so.

This is a common story among most Black folks who have integrated–let’s face it– mostly White spaces in educational, professional, and now with legalized interracial marriage, familial institutions.  But honestly, it doesn’t get any easier for any of us  to speak for the African American “race.”

Most folks in America who are of African descent came to this country as a result of the Middle Passage, the horrific, transatlantic journey withstood by Africans who were kidnapped into slavery. There are, of course, some Black folks on this country who are not descended from slaves, what might be called African-African Americans, folks who emigrated from the continent of Africa after slavery was outlawed in the USA, but those folks are in a very small minority in Black America.

And so, the common heritage that most Black folks in this country share leads to what is called “linked fate” among African Americans, a term explored in Michael C. Dawson’s book, Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African American Politics. Linked fate means that, for many African Americans, what happens to a Black individual is felt by many in the “racial” group, whether that event is joyous or tragic.

This does not mean that others individuals who aren’t Black can’t feel joy or sorrow at these events, but it does mean that Black folks feel particular emotions, as if the event impacted our own families. Linked fate means that I consider forty million people to be literal brothers and sisters.

Gwendolyn Brooks becoming the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize was joyous. Thurgood Marshall’s appointment as the first Black Supreme Court Justice was joyous Barack Obama’s winning the Presidency (and hopefully you don’t need a link for that)? The heavens opened up and angels sang an aria, it was just that wonderful, okay?

And by the same token, the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi was especially horrible for Black people, as was Martin Luther King, Junior’s assassination. And most recently, last month’s killing of Trayvon Martin, a young Black boy in Florida, has rubbed against Black linked fate, and reopened many traumatic wounds that really never healed.

Again, that does not mean that other people cannot be upset about tragedies that just happen—or don’t just happen—to involve Black people.  There were many  White Americans who wore hoodies this past week to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin, but just as many who admitted that pictures of their wearing hoodies does not rub against the same unfortunate racial stereotypes as pictures of Black males in similar garb.

Many White readers of my blog notice I use the terms “we” and “us” and “my community” when referring to African Americans. Those terms are also used by White supremacists, too, and I think that, frankly, it confuses White folks that I’m supposed to be about love and humanity and White supremacists are, like, not. Well, strangely enough, some of the same American history that was caused by White supremacy—a hate-filled, racist impulse–led to Black linked fate—a survival instinct. When you oppress people together, they try to withstand that oppression together.

But a funny thing happened on the (metaphysical) road to the City of Linked Fate. Some Black folks actually don’t feel linked up with other Black people. They are completely unconnected or at least partially. I am one of those partially unlinked folks who still loves the Black community. For example, while I voted for President Obama—and will do so again in November, believe that—I don’t always agree with him. And I don’t feel as if I must surrender my Black Passport just because Obama gets on my nerves sometimes and I decide to say so publicly.

Also, unlike many Black folks, I do not like commercial Hip Hop and I don’t think it’s a profound African American cultural production. (Independent Hip Hop is different, in my opinion.) I think it’s crappy, repetitive, and uninspired, I’m extremely bored by it, and I don’t like the messages of woman-hatred and LBGTQ-hatred that it propagates. And frankly, I think it attempts to take the healthiness out of Black sexual expression (of whatever kind) as well.

Those are just a couple of the ways I’m not linked to a supposedly monolithic Black community, and if you go back and read some of my other posts from the last two and a half years, you’ll find other breaks in the chain, too. I’m a complicated Sister, liberal sometimes and conservative other times.

Sidebar: And there are many Black folks who are complicated in their own ways, too. But despite that, we are Stone-Cold American Citizens and we have shown our loyalty to this country repeatedly, beginning with Crispus Attucks’ documented sacrifice. He was the first person to die in the Boston Massacre in 1770, which just had its two hundred and thirty-ninth anniversary this March.

But what I am not is “a good Black friend,” one of those anonymous, unnamed  sources that some politically conservative White folks are fond of trotting out these days when they want to say something mean or heartless or rude about Black folks and they want to get some back-up for it. Any time that I read or hear a comment that starts with “my Black friend says” or “I have a Black friend who disagrees with you,” I know my feelings are about to be hurt or that I am about to be angered.

Whether or not I’m partially unlinked, I’ve got my own back-up, because I know there are going to be at least ten folks who agree with me in someone’s Black community. But I’m guessing that there are at least ten conservative White folks agreeing with another conservative White commenter, too, whatever side he or she takes.  So why the need for the anonymous “Black friend”?

Why not simply say, “This is how I feel, and plenty White people feel the same way”? It can’t be any worse than claiming the same one Black “friend” all the time. Seriously, Sugar, please bribe some more colored people to talk to you so you can actually fill a room once in a while, okay? I know it gets lonely sometimes.

And while you’re at it, why not go back and read some American history  going all the way back to 1619? (And that’s just on my African side; you really don’t want me to go all the way back with my Cherokee folk.) Why not understand that there’s a reason I have back-up in the first place?

When someone pushes other somebodies around—steals their bodies, rapes them, dumps them in the bottom of the ocean, sells them, sells their children, and oh, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera—that’s a series of traumatic events that creates back-up. These kinds of events connected Black people. They joined them together and their descendants together.

That’s why my family reunion is so big. We call it Juneteenth, don’t you know.

But now, if I ever get my forty acres that General Sherman promised, I might actually give up my very last remnants of linked fate and become somebody’s named “good Black friend” instead of just an anonymous one. But give me my land first. Then we’ll work the rest on out.

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Little Black Boys, Candy and History (for Trayvon Martin)

Seventeen, not even marked by a real mustache. If you look at the picture, he’s still slight. Maybe he was destined to grow tall with big bones, a man’s hearty flesh clinging to his frame, but in this picture he hasn’t gotten that far.

I remember a boy I once loved at that age. His kneecaps still knocked when he stood with his feet together.

He left his house in the middle of watching TV, walked around the corner to go buy himself some Skittles, and in between his leaving and returning, he was stopped by a grown man, someone who was bigger and older in years.  Something happened and the man shot him dead.

The police came. The man was questioned. He wasn’t arrested and there seem no plans for him to be.

This sounds like a scene from a Science Fiction novel, doesn’t it? Maybe one written by Octavia Butler. But no, it’s non-fiction, a story repeated with a few alterations, going back in different ways to James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. Or Richard Wright’s Black Boy.

That’s right: Black boy. And: White man. Then:  dead child in a riddled place.

*

Just a few hours ago, I was talking to a woman on the phone about the murder of this teenaged boy, Trayvon Martin, and she said someone told her that it’s a shame that we Black folks don’t teach our children about the brutal history of this country, how Black folks were treated in the past, and how that history keeps extending its reach into the present.  It’s in a hundred history books, but how many of us will read that history?

I’m not a mother, but I know about a mother’s love. I have Trellie, a woman who tried to teach me about the world and how it would look at me as Black woman, despite her pride in me.

“You’re just as good as they are, baby. Always remember that. But still, be careful. Don’t curse anyone out because you need that job.  Don’t shout, don’t whisper, but don’t you be scared, either.”

It’s strange and counterintuitive, isn’t it? The survival lessons a Black mother must teach her child.

These days, at my age, I realize it’s only her brilliant love that kept me from dying, either by my own hands, or at the hands of a society that just doesn’t want to see a Black woman without a mop and a bucket in her hand.  Or, just thought that I was nothing better than that position one can find in the 1972 original version of The Joy of Sex.

“A la négresse [sexual position]—from behind. She kneels, hands clasped behind her neck, breasts and face on the bed.”

I don’t distinguish much between Black boys and Black girls. Little Black boys have their grave dangers they must face out in the streets and little Black girls have others that they must face in the rooms of buildings, like their own homes. But they are all someone’s children.

My mother knows this.  She had three daughters and no sons, but now as a grandmother, she has tried to teach the same lessons to keep her grandson, my nephew, from getting caught up in the American penal system, for the supposed crimes of “loitering” and “violation of town curfew.”  The lessons she must teach that young man about how American views him.

“Criminal. Blood spiller. Wasted bag of bones. Future deadbeat father of scattered seed.”

She knows that as soon as a young Black boy is snared by that penal system, that’s usually the end of freedom as he will know it, unless he is an extraordinarily unique man, like my friend and fellow poet and writer, Reginald Dwayne Betts, who was arrested at age sixteen and spend nine years in prison—in adult population.

And she knows the system is only the least of it. What if the White cop who stops her Black grandson in their small town doesn’t know he is the descendant of Dr. Trellie James Jeffers, or doesn’t know who that is,  and decides to shoot my nephew dead?

She tells her grandson, “When they stop you, darling, stay still, be respectful, and don’t you talk back. “

She doesn’t tell him, “And you need to pray, too, because sometimes, all that doesn’t work.”

*

Two weeks ago, I sat on a panel with a group of writers. It was at the Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference and the panel was called, “Writing Race in the Age of Obama.” But my take on the panel subject was different, that it was time that White writers start writing about race, too, and not just when Black people (or other People of Color) entered their poems or stories. After all, colored folks had been doing the heavy lifting of “race writing” for at least two hundred years.

In the audience of the panel there was a Black-appearing woman, and like me, she publicly identified as having multi-racial heritage. She began criticizing me about my discussion of history, saying, “It’s a new day now. We need to be writing new stories. Why don’t you write new stories?”

When I told her that as a Afro-Indigenous woman, I write about that history, first about African Americans, and now, with a clear Indigenous presence in my work, I wasn’t someone trying to write a brand new story, but one that was uniquely my own and my people’s, she began talking about the fact that “there were multi-racial people” now, including her little boy, who she said had a Jewish father.

I began talking about the importance of listening to the ancestors and the woman smirked, as did several other people of color in the room. And then, that panel was over and it was time for me to the go to another one.  But since that panel, I’ve been thinking about what was said, and why it keeps tapping me on my conscience.  What else should I have said? What might have made the difference?

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When I was a little girl, my mother told me stories about her past, and going back even further, stories that she had been told by her mother and father, her grandparents, and her great-grandmother, Mandy, her father’s grandmother. (Strangely enough, her mother’s great-grandmother was called Mandy or Amanda, too. This was the Cherokee woman.)

Mandy remembered slavery. She’d been a very small child when Freedom came, but she remembered even more: the day her father was sold down south to Mississippi.  She never saw him again. Perhaps it’s something my mother said to me that has imprinted upon me the important of history.

“I was just a little girl when Ma Mandy told me those stories. If I had only sat still like she told me to. If I’d only listened, I would have so much to remember.”

I am a woman who has sat still, all these years. And with my own students of whatever their cultures and colors, I tell them to listen and to remember.  To have intellectual curiosity.  But most of my students are White. I don’t have many Black kids who will take my class and through my years of teaching, I’ve figured out why.

I’m hard on them. I make them write their stories and poems and papers over and over, to make them perfect. And they don’t want to think about the past. They want to focus on the “now.”  They don’t want to know about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and what Richard Wright wrote about in Black Boy.

They want to talk about Kanye and Nikki Minag and Real Housewives of Atlanta. And they roll their eyes when I say, “Let’s talk about history first and connect the dots, because sooner or later, the ‘now’ will beat you up in a racial way and you need to understand why that is. You need to remember how to survive.”

I know it’s painful to listen to those stories of a traumatic Black past. I don’t know why I was that strange child who would listen to stories of lynchings and rapes and countless—countless—racial humiliations of Black men and women.

Maybe I listened so that I could tell somebody’s children one day, even those who are not my own. Maybe because I know that I have to tend the ancestral altar, no matter how many people laugh at me, even folks who look like me.

I saw that Sister in that audience. I believe that she chided me not because she wanted to shame me or make me feel belittled, but because I was scaring her. For if the world hasn’t changed for People of Color in certain ways, if it hasn’t become “post-racial”, then what might become of her brown son?

I said, “I wish things had changed. I thought they would have, twenty years ago when I was in graduate school. But they haven’t. And we need to be prepared as a people.”

I didn’t say, “I’m not a mother and these days, I know why I made the choice not to be.”

What an act of courage to carry a baby inside your body, share your bloodstream with him, and yes, your Spirit, to push him outside the narrow door of your body, to tend to him, to put your hopes for the future on his shoulders and then have someone shoot him dead.

How hard can a mother’s grief be? I confess that today, I really don’t want to know. As many tears as I have cried for this little boy named Trayvon, I can only imagine his mother’s screams.

But I did agree to something. To bear witness. To listen to the stories and to pass them down. To tend the altar so that the needed stories are remembered and brought forth, in a time such as this.

I’m not saying the “now” isn’t important in one way, but there is a need for Sankofa.

To move forward while looking to the past. Because if we keep ignoring the lessons of African American history and its implications for our Black sons and daughters, if we keep forgetting that history entirely, who’s going to teach a little Black boy the necessary things when he just wants to go around the corner for some candy?

Like, “Baby, come back, it’s dangerous out there”? Like, “Don’t you leave my sight”?

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On The Help, Viola Davis, And "Black Art" Vs. "Negro Respectability"

Tomorrow night, the Oscars take place, and film adaptation of The Help is expected to sweep the Oscars. I’ve already written about what I think about The Help, a movie I had hoped would go quietly into that good night. Instead, it’s ignited many debates about the lack of roles for Black actresses, Black art, and once again, class in the Black community, even if no one wants to call it “class.”

I don’t dispute that, if things are tough for light- and medium-brown-skinned African American actresses in Hollywood, they are terrible for darker-skinned sisters, for colorism is still alive and dropping its stinking poop all through American society.

I know that things are tough for Viola Davis to get a role. You’re not going to hear me disagree with that. But I am going to say that, “I can’t get a role” really translates into “I’m having a hard time paying my bills.” And so, those of us Black folks who have loudly criticized The Help have been cast as Bourgie Villains who stand between a Sister and her money.

And that’s not all. Not only do we Bourgie Villains want to keep a Sister from paying bills, we’re also embarrassed by her playing a maid on screen.

And that’s where I get mad.

See, my mama worked as a nanny back in college during the summers. And further, my granny–her mother–worked as a maid. And I took a job as a nanny once in college as well, but after I discovered that the White lady who hired me not only wanted me to see about her child but also, clean her 4000 square foot home (which was under construction and producing sawdust every ten minutes) while the little girl was sleeping, and I refused to do all that for five dollars an hour, I got fired. This is a true story.

We’re coming to the close of Black History Month, so let me say that this sort of Black class debate has taken place in many realms of Black American life for over one hundred years. For example, W.E.B. DuBois was about what I will call Negro Respectability, an African American remix of the European concept of “The Politics of Respectability.” Essentially, the “The Talented Tenth” theory set forth by DuBois was just an extension of his championing Negro Respectability.

And of course, inherent in those remixed “Politics of Respectability” notions were the following:  marriage is good; homosexuality is bad (if even acknowledged); patriarchy—the man as head of the family, etc.— is good; higher education is required; and above all, Negroes must exhibit gentile behavior that does not “transgress” the social norms at that time for upwardly mobile behavior. And they had to do all that while wearing tailored, tweed suits.

Booker T. Washington, on the other hand, was the Black Working Class champion. In my opinion, his views evidenced a different, “red dirt” form of Negro Respectability, one that was about the survival of Black folks who didn’t have access to higher education and so, they couldn’t dress up in tweed suits and teach at Historically Black Colleges.

Publicly, Washington was an apologist for segregation and cautioned Black political patience and Black hard work; he did not believe in pushing for racial equality. His famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech set off the first Official Black Beef in the history of America—between W.E.B. DuBois and Washington—and from that point, it was on between the Black Working Class and the Black Middle Class/Black Bourgeoisie.

Depending upon whom you ask, one of these Brothers emerged victorious.  Of course, DuBois won the intellectual battle. There is still plenty of shade thrown Washington’s way by African American scholars and academics, but Down South when I grew up, plenty working class Black mothers were still giving their male children “Booker T” for their two first names, too. That ought to tell you something right there, so really, it’s a tie.

There were contradictions in both men. W.E.B. DuBois was all for Negro Respectability to the point where he “fudged” parts of his early life when writing about them. Now, it’s clear that he was not heir to a great family legacy, but rather born in very humble circumstances, essentially fatherless and raised in a 19th century version of the “hood.”

Though publicly, Booker T. Washington was about digging in field dirt and skinning and grinning to white racists, the man built an institution of higher learning for the descendants of slaves—Tuskegee Institute which still stands today, now Tuskegee University—in the middle of racially terrorist Alabama, and unknown to his White benefactors, he was testing segregation laws in the court through his lawyers.

And so, things have never been clear about class in Black America and where  Black folks stand. For example, I’m conservative when it comes to certain things—like public language, public dress, belief in God, and manners—and very radical when it comes to others—like feminism, sex, anti-homophobia, kindness, and art.

Sidebar: Yes, I said, “Sex.”  But what I mean by “sex” is none of your business. That’s my conservative side coming back out.

As an artist—a writer—who has violated the “politics of respectability” in the service of my own art, I’m all for transgressing acceptable notions of behavior. I’ve talked about being a domestic violence survivor. I’ve talked about being a rape survivor. Heck, I even named my own father as my molester in print, much to my mother’s and family’s chagrin.

If anyone knows what it feels like to transgress acceptable behavior, I do.

Yet, my transgressions have occurred for a reason, and not to dissolve or exhibit my own pain.  I had counseling for the pain.  I write about my pain in my art not to examine the different kinds of lint in my own belly button, but to hopefully connect and heal a new generation of women, like Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez and Lucille Clifton did for me.

But transgression in art should be in service of something important and higher. Not in service of your financial hustle. Or in service of your ego. Or even, in service of the problems you had with your daddy who you still love like nobody knows and understands (even you).  If not, all you are accomplishing with your transgression is enacting a public tantrum and running with scissors.

So what does this all have to do with Viola Davis and The Help?

As a middle class/Black bourgeoisie African American woman, I would love to see more depictions of Black people like me on the silver screen, depictions that don’t make fun of or demonize Black middle class people, as we are wont to witness these days a la Tyler Perry.

That said, I’m a mixed class Black kid (and I’ve written about this before, too). Yes, my daddy was Black Bourgeoisie, but my mama was from the red dirt cotton fields of Georgia, and I’d also like to see more complex depictions of poor and working class Black folks, too.

For example, it would have been nice to have seen one Black man in The Help who stood up for a Black woman instead only a Brother like Minny’s abusive husband, or another who left Abilene to fend for herself in the middle of the street during a burgeoning race riot.

I grew up with working class Black men who would die for the dignity and honor of a Black woman, like my uncles. I believe my mother’s story of the time that a White man came to the house one day and cursed in front of my grandmother. When he wouldn’t apologize, my papa Charlie told his son to get his gun.  This was in the late 1940s when such an act in central Georgia could get him and possibly his entire family killed. And by the way, that White man got in his car and drove on home.

And I saw working class Black women, like my granny, who would cuss somebody like a sailor if they pissed her off, but only Monday through Saturday.  (She was the cusser in the family, not Grandpa Charlie.) On Sunday, she was a dressed up, do-right acting, child of God.

But yes, I saw some in the outside community—who shall remain nameless—who would beat a woman in the middle of the street and mothers who abandoned their children to go Up North.  I’ve seen much. I’d like to see that same “much” in films about working class Black people. I’d like to see some complexity.

I’m not upset with a “Black maid movie.” I’ve seen a few I’ve loved, including A Long Walk Home starring Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg. But that movie featured a Black woman who had a rich life outside of her White folk’s kitchens. The Help does not. And I do not believe that Viola Davis, a Black woman born in the early 1960s who is classically trained at Julliard, can believe what she said at the NAACP Image Awards, that Kathryn Stockett (the author of the book the movie is based on) told “the truth.” Or that she wrote “art.”

Child, please.

What bothers me most, is that Viola Davis is singing that well-worn spiritual of “I’m A Black Artist And I Have A Right To Work” in order to shut down criticism of her acting in The Help, like with Tavis Smiley  on his show. And now, her “artistic choices” are being defended as transgressing Black Middle-Class values by others, instead of keeping on the real question.

And I’ll ask it: Why is it that we Black folks must keep seeing these flat, one-dimensional depictions of Black people–supposedly ourselves– in the movies? Is this really the best Hollywood can do?

Sure, I enjoy having a reasonably good FICO score as much as the next Sister. But it’s not that I need to see heroes or doctors or lawyers or Tuskegee Airmen as opposed to drug dealers or absent fathers or crack addicted sex-workers–or maids.

No, what I need is to see some real Black folks and real stories–whomever is on the screen.

Sidebar: And while we’re at talking about what I need, I could do without that sweeping, emotionally manipulative soundtrack that reminds me of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in concert whenever I see Black folks on screen, too. Geez Louise in Heaven.

I’m not trying to knock Viola Davis’s hustle, but in the final analysis, it is a hustle. Or maybe, in the final analysis, it’s not a hustle, depending on which Black person in whichever socio-economic class that you ask.

But you cannot tell me in the ultimate final analysis that The Help is complex, good Black art simply because a complex Black artist acted in it.  Sometimes, complex artists of whatever complexion make bad art. (I know I have.) And you cannot tell me that The Help is the best movie that any filmmaker, Black or White, could have made on working class Black life.

I think that both W.E.B. and Booker T. would agree with me on that.

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Happy Birthday, W.E.B. DuBois!

W.E.B. DuBois

Thank you to fabulous historian, Dr. Blair Kelley for reminding me that today is the birthday of W.E.B. DuBois! He was born on February 23 in 1868.

Sidebar: Please forgive me for posting so late in the day. In my defense, y’all, last night, I came down with Some Kind of The Yucky Ick. I’m aching from my fingertips to the soles of my feet.  But I still have five deadlines between now and next Tuesday, so send a Sister some good, energetic, healing mojo, please.

Anyway, I just LOVE me some William Edward Burghardt DuBois, y’all! I own both volumes of his biography, written by David Levering Lewis. He was a genius, an activist, and the Ultimate Race Man Extraordinaire. DuBois was the founder and secretary of the Niagara Movement and one of the founders of the NAACP. Not only that, most scholars agree that he is the father of modern African American studies, even though they didn’t call it that back then.

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W.E.B. DuBois in top hat. (I love this picture!)

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Click here to read a condensed biography of DuBois on Wikipedia.

His Harvard University dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 , which was later published as a book, still stands as a major, germinal text on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Click here to read the entire book for free online or download to Kindle.

Further, wherever you turn in African American Studies, you must encounter W.E.B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk. Studying Social Work as it relates to Black folk? Have to read that book. Black politics? Gotta read it. And Black literature, Black psychology, Black history–even Black music. Here’s a link to read the entire text for free online:

But there are two texts by DuBois that I hold especially beloved. The first is his theory of Double Consciousness (contained in The Souls of Black Folk), which explains why Black folks have to remain both constantly aware of the dominant, European American culture and their own African American culture as well:

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It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

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And then, there is “Criteria of Negro Art.” Like The Souls of Black Folk, I come back to it time and again to discover how I really feel about Black cultural and artistic production. DuBois states:

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Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.

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Sometimes, I agree with him. And sometimes, I really, really don’t. I go back and forth, arguing with Dr. DuBois in my mind–as if I could tangle with him intellectually, when no one can! But I do read this essay at least once a year. (Click here to read it for free online, and be changed forever, okay?)

Like I said, W.E.B. DuBois was and is The Man. That’s why there’s even a DuBois Institute at Harvard University named after him. You can click here to read more about it.

So, Happy Birthday, Dr. DuBois! And thank you so much. You remain fabulous–and relevant– throughout these one hundred and forty-four years.

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