Clothes Don’t Make the Man


I won’t recount the videos circulating on social media of DeVon Franklin defending his wife, actress Meagan Good, at a talk where an audience member told her to “cover up” in magazine photo shoots or Amber Rose arguing with hosts Tyrese and Rev Run on their TV show “It’s Not You, It’s Men” about how women should dress.

I, quite frankly, don’t want to get into a religious debate about the necessity for or virtue of so-called “modesty” in women’s attire.

I want to talk in secular–in political and sociological–scientific–terms about this whole issue of society policing what women wear.

This idea that women invite sexual harassment and assault by dressing “provocatively.”

I think it’s crucial that women in this culture induce a shift in the way men perceive our clothing almost exclusively as a form of sexual messaging.

I think we should keep telling them (men) until they finally understand and accept: interpreting the things that we (women) do with our bodies–including how we dress them–as sexual signifiers is unfair, shiftless, and irresponsible.

It forces women to act with a degree of mindfulness that is unrealistic and oppressive and places the responsibility for men’s depravity and criminality on our shoulders, where it does not belong.

It makes us culpable for crimes that are committed against us, and it reduces us to the lowest common denominator of our “fuckability,” which is repressive, dangerous, and sickening.

To a certain extent, American culture is rape culture. Rape is normalized or at the very least justified as everything from a male behavioral reflex to a necessary plot device in a TV show due to our attitudes about gender–our stupid obsession with hypermasculinity.

Time and again, we hear college administrators, religious leaders, law enforcers, pundits, and politicians–male and female–say that women need to do everything that they can to avoid being harassed, molested, or raped.

We need to cover our bodies (though Muslim women that wear traditional garb are denigrated for covering their bodies); we need to drink less alcohol; we need to use less recreational drugs; we need to avoid dating web sites and social media hook-ups.

We need to stay out of elevators with strange men; we need to stay out of parking garages with strange men; we need to run during daylight hours in well-lit, crowded areas; we need to go to gas stations and ATMs during daylight hours in well-lit, crowded areas.

We need to refrain from kissing, hugging, necking, petting, or doing anything remotely sexual with any man with whom we’re not prepared to have intercourse.

We need to carry guns or other weapons.

In other words, we should live on a tightrope–within a range of decisions and circumstances no wider than a wire.

All of this in the so-called Land of Free. The Land of Liberty.

We hardly ever hear these same authorities address men about rape prevention.

They never tell them to stop assuming that women are signaling their sexual availability, willingness, or predilections with their clothing.

They don’t tell them to stay sober so they can make better decisions about whether or not to have sex with someone or navigate the intricacies of sexual consent with a clear head.

Men are never told not to take a kiss, hug, or even a hand-job as a guarantee that full-blown intercourse with a woman is forthcoming.

They’re never even told the easiest, simplest message that you can give a person about handling his aggression, which is “keep your hands to yourself.”

No–they’re told it’s perfectly understandable that you would touch that absolute stranger’s body in an intimate way without being told that you can.

She was wearing a tank top/shorts/miniskirt/bikini after all. Exercising her right to wear whatever she wants. Or maybe just trying to stay cool on a hot summer day.

She must’ve wanted you to invade her space and privacy, violate her sense of safety and sanctity, and make her feel uncomfortable and powerless to protect herself from unwanted attention and/or contact.

That woman that agreed to go out with you? Or make out with you? She must’ve wanted you to penetrate her body and possibly infect or impregnate her against her will.

It sounds crazy, but it’s true. In so many words and ways, that’s exactly what certain sexist authorities do.

They assure men that their failure to regulate their urges or control their actions is natural and forgivable.

They make excuses about testosterone, and they blame women, either purposefully or inadvertently, for making it difficult for men to refrain from attacking them.

They ignore what anyone that has studied rape knows about its reality, and they act as if this very complicated problem has a very simple solution.

They say, “If women would just cover themselves, then men wouldn’t be tempted. Rape wouldn’t happen.”

I’m sorry. We say this. Americans in power and Americans outside of power. Men and women. Boys and girls.

But this is the most egregious and convenient inversion of patriarchy that exists in our culture. It’s wrong, and it needs to stop.

Because every female victim of rape is not a scantily clad party girl that’s had too much to drink and is flirting outrageously with her potential attacker.

Every women wearing a short skirt or bustier or tight jeans isn’t trying to seduce someone. Many are just trying to be rebellious in a culture that says “good girls”–yes–cover up.

Every rape that occurs isn’t the result of a woman being inappropriate or even imprudent.

Infants get raped. Elderly women get raped. Lesbians get raped.

Women in sweatpants get raped. Women in turtlenecks get raped. Women in nun habits get raped. Women in nurse’s uniforms get raped.

It’s not a woman’s appearance that makes a man rape her. Men rape because they want to rape. Many rape because they think they can get away with it. Many do.

Men rape on impulse.

They rape because they’re drunk or high and rationalize their decision to push past a woman’s “no,” or her intoxicated state, with an impaired sense of judgment.

They rape for revenge.

They rape because they’re violent and do everything with an excessive degree of dominance and force.

They rape because they are impelled by psychiatric disorders like pedophilia or conditions like somnophilia (a paraphilia in which a person is sexually aroused by someone that is unconscious).

They rape because in the eyes of the law the sort of paraphilic sex they want is a crime, but they have it anyway. They force themselves on people that are not qualified to consent because of age, state of mind, level of cognition, or degree of lucidity.

Yes, some men rape because they’re sadists. Some rape because they’re misogynists.

Some rape because they’re insecure or “unattractive” or have a terrible track record when it comes to finding willing partners.

Some even rape because they believe in the myth of rape (that in order to rape a woman, she must be a stranger; you must jump out of the proverbial bushes; you must beat her up and then force her at gunpoint or knifepoint to have sex).

So when they force their date or girlfriend or even their wife to have sex when she’s saying “no” and doesn’t want to have it, they don’t think they’re raping her. They’re just doing what they’re entitled to do as a man that has spent money or time or both on her.

Men rape because they believe that they are more important than women, and they don’t have to respect women if they don’t want to. They rape because they think of women as sexual objects more so than people with the same sort of ideas and emotions that they have.

Even still, there is no prototypal rapist, and no prototypal rape scenario. So to generalize that “women tempt men” with their clothing is to ignore the sociology–the psychology–of rape.

It’s a much more complex phenomenon than we like to think, which makes it scarier–yes–but so it is.

You cannot prevent rape by forcing women to cover up. You cannot blame rape on women’s appearances.

Generalizations about women tempting men with their clothing ignore the biology of rape, too–the truth about testosterone.

Yes–men do produce 10-20 times more testosterone than women, and testosterone affects sex drive, competitiveness, aggression, and confidence, but men’s baseline levels vary.

So you can’t say that testosterone “makes” men rape when not all men have the same levels, and some men are capable of stopping themselves from assaulting women or have no desire at all to assault them.

Too, testosterone levels typically spike when risk or a threat is detected, not necessarily when men are sexually aroused.

If men’s testosterone levels are affected by sexual stimuli (and this is not all men or does not occur in response to all forms of stimulation), it usually takes 15-20 minutes for this to occur–more than enough time to remove themselves from whatever situation is getting them all worked up before they do something unwanted.

(For the record, this information is coming from the Archives of Sexual Behavior–the official publication of the International Academy of Sex Research.)

For whatever reason, America has a really hard time admitting the things that we do wrong. We like to lie about things to cover for our failures and shortcomings.

The truth is women don’t invite men to rape them, no matter what they’re doing, and they shouldn’t have to curtail anything they do in order to keep from getting raped.

Rape shouldn’t be so “normal” in America. It shouldn’t be something that one in every three females experiences. It shouldn’t be something handled so incorrectly and ignorantly that hundreds of thousands of women won’t even go to the police when it happens to them.

It shouldn’t be something that we blame on clothes or anything other than the cultural attitudes, conditioning, and practices that encourage and allow it to happen.

With that said, America on the whole needs to do a better job of teaching our boys to respect girls and women, view sex as an act of love and reproduction and not conquest and recreation, and channel their urges in harmless and unobtrusive ways.

We need to stop making excuses for boys’ and men’s sexual misbehavior and get help for our family members and friends that are struggling with disorders and conditions that make consensual, legal, and healthy sex difficult for them.

We need to stop indulging ourselves as parents by allowing our children to learn about sex from pornography and pop culture rather than from us through honest, informed discussion and exposure to academic sources.

We need to have explicit talks about consent and rape–what they are and what they are not–with our sons and our daughters–before they reach dating age and/or become sexually active.

We need to refrain from talking about sex in stereotypical ways–saying a girl “asked” to get raped because of a certain behavior or a boy “couldn’t help himself.”

We need to stop being lazy and relying on sexist myths and stereotypes to govern ourselves and our sex lives rather than dealing with each other as individuals–getting truly intimate with each other.

We need to destigmatize female nudity.

We need to put sex education back in school and teach curricula that cover sexual violence, legality, consent, and healthy ways to channel sexual energy and frustration.

We need to work to ensure that the full range of self-expression is available to American girls and women, and the full range of self-expression is available to American boys and men, but that does not include sexual harassment, molestation, or rape on either side.

We need to stop falling back on bullshit, sexist rhetoric like “cover up” when we have enough information and resources to actually address gender differential problems like rape in ways that are much more intelligent, realistic, and productive.
























Black Lives, Double Standards, and Why I Think Kanye Can Say Whatever He Wants

So I wrote about Beyoncé’s “Formation” video a couple of weeks ago and got an overwhelmingly positive response from a surprising number of readers.

And it felt amazing because I’d never gotten so much attention for my writing or been told by so many people outside of my actual circle that they enjoy what I do.

Still, as my boyfriend says “haters gon’ hate,” and I got one commentator that had to make the point that a “white girl’s anthem” or “White Lives Matter” movement wouldn’t be tolerated in American society. That there is a double standard.

To which I responded–

1– The song is written from the first person POV–she uses “I”–so if “Formation” is a bigoted anthem then so is fucking “Roar” by Katy Perry or “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift;

2–Nowhere in the song does she degrade, deride, or even discuss white people, so even if it were an official anthem, so what? It’s not inciting black people to do anything but appreciate their hair, noses, Southern roots, and cultural customs a bit more and pursue material success as a means of social aspiration, i.e. the American Dream. There’s nothing morally wrong, criminal, or discriminatory about that; and

3–Since white people have hegemonic power over the US, and their legitimacy as citizens of this country has never been in question (as all the Constitutional framers were white men), then the banner “white lives matter” could only reasonably be perceived as saying “(only) white lives matter.” Its superfluity makes it a statement of exclusiveness.

(The only reason there is a #blacklivesmatter movement is because black people have been systematically devalued as human beings since being trafficked to America back in 1619. It comes out of the compulsion to “remind” people that we are in fact citizens of the United States, and entitled to the same rights as all other citizens that are not black, since we’re being shot in the streets for crimes like selling loose cigarettes and playing with toy guns of playgrounds (neither of which are punishable by death according to the law). Nobody needs to campaign about the importance of white lives because white people are the majority in America and hold the most political and economic power. They’re the only ones in the position to oppress others; no other race can oppress them. So they don’t need to protest to anyone about how they shouldn’t be unlawfully murdered or profiled by police or have their churches burned down in the night or be negatively sterotyped in the media or made the object of exclusionary housing laws, I could go on and on. White people don’t have to tell anyone that they matter because the powers that be are white and pretty consistently work to preserve their lives, protect their bodies, and ensure their rights. The question of whether or not they are worthy human beings is never begged on a large scale in our culture; no one ever questions whether they “deserve” to, say, be the President or whether they got into college on their own merit. Most white people assume that other white people are worthy people. And if the racially-based occurrences that we see in the news are any indication, then white people DON’T assume that black people are worthy people. So we say to you all: #blacklivesmatter. Whether you want them to or not. Whether you like it or not. Whether you like us or not. )

Then I rather confidently blew on my smoking index finger.

But the comment still got me thinking about Americans and all the false analogies we throw around about race.

It got me thinking about the actual double standards that govern our perceptions and help to perpetuate so much of the misunderstanding between the races.

It, weirdly, brought me around to Kanye and Donald Trump.

Not directly–but still–let me explain.

Donald Trump is white. Cis. Straight. Baby Boomer. New Yorker. Father was a real estate developer. Went to Fordham and Wharton. Graduated with a worth of $200,000 (*coughprivilege*). Joined his father’s firm Elizabeth Trump & Son right out of college (*coughnepotism*). Built himself over the next 40 years, through real estate investing and “entertainment,” into the institution we see now, running for President.

He has built his campaign and political persona on what he and his supporters label as “telling it like it is,” and even though a large segment of the American public appears to think he’s not qualified to be the next President, and may even be a bigot, he has enough legitimacy in our society to be the front-runner for the Republican presidential candidacy.

This–despite the fact that he has jumped back and forth between political parties since 1987 in a most opportunistic fashion (Democrat up until 1987; Republican 1987-1999; Reform Party 1999-2001; Democrat 2001-2009; Republican 2009-2011; Independent 2011-2012; Republican 2012-now).

Despite the fact that he was fired from the TV show he created (“The Apprentice”) in 2015 for his controversial remarks against Mexicans.

Despite the fact that he said Mexicans “[bring] drugs . . . crime [and] rap[e]” to America.

Despite the fact that he has called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

Despite the fact that he has called Arianna Huffington, the founder of the Huffington Press, a “dummy”; Megyn Kelly of Fox News a “bimbo”; Ana Navarro of CNN a “flunkie”; Clare O’Connor of Forbes Magazine a “dummy,” Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post “one of the dumber bloggers,” and global warming a “total hoax,” and he has claimed that the American people “know nothing.”

Despite the fact that he’s been married three times, and Wife Number Three once posed for British GQ on a fur rug in Trump’s private jet butt-naked in a diamond necklace.

He is still treated like a serious contender in the presidential race. He is still regarded as someone that could potentially run our country.

Kanye is black. Cis. Straight. Gen X. Migrant Chicagoan (via Atlanta, Georgia). Father was a photojournalist. Mother was a professor and department chair (English). Started writing poetry at 5. Started rapping and recording at 13. Started making beats at 15. Got his first musical production credit at 19. Won a scholarship (*coughmerit*) to the American Academy of Art in 1997. Studied English at Chicago State University (maybe a little nepotism here–Ms. Donda was the head of the English Department). Dropped out of Chicago State at age 20. Produced on The Blueprint (Jay-Z) in 2001. Broke through into mainstream culture. Survived a near-fatal car crash in 2003. Put out his debut album The College Dropout in 2004.

Still, even though he willed himself into existence as a celebrity and icon through creativity, work, and sheer confidence–he is a high achiever, artist, businessman, husband, and father–Kanye is regarded as “crazy.” He has been literally called a “fool” in news headlines, and even the President called him a “jackass” in an interview.

People regularly speculate in the media that he has a mental illness and depict him as everything from a traitor to the US (for saying that George W. Bush didn’t care about black people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina) to a sexual assailant for disrupting Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech in 2009 and calling her a “bitch” on his new album “The Life of Pablo.”

With six Grammy awards and five Billboard awards, he is perceived as a joke. A punchline. A one-man minstrel show.

Now–I don’t condone a lot of what Kanye does. I think it’s in extremely poor taste and insensitive to both his wife and ex-girlfriend Amber Rose when he makes disparaging comments about Amber Rose in the press. I don’t think he should be making profane and/or sexual lyrics about Taylor Swift. I don’t necessarily think it was appropriate for him to disrupt Taylor’s speech, although I think his claim that Beyoncé’s video was much more deserving of that award at that time was correct. I don’t think it was necessary or kind for him to say that Beck didn’t deserve his Grammy win last year.

I’m not saying Kanye is a “normal” guy or the grandiose claims he makes about his level of talent or the range of his abilities aren’t off-putting and/or narcissistic.

What I am saying is–or rather what I am asking is–how is Kanye so different from Trump? Why is Trump taken more seriously than Kanye?

Trump has had multiple business failures. He’s made multi-million dollar mistakes in what is supposed to be his area of expertise. He’s had bankruptcies and foreclosures.

He’s so painfully out-of-touch that he actually said that starting out in life with “small loans” of $1 million from his father and $1 million from his grandfather was tantamount to starting from the “bottom.”

He has that ridiculous hairstyle. He insults people like a five-year-old. He obviously has problems with maintaining intimate relationships. He even once claimed he’d date his own daughter if she weren’t his daughter because she’s so good-looking.

He has also said things that made him sound, alternately, like a xenophobe, homophobe, and flat-out asshole on the journalistic record and repeated many of them multiple times when pressed about them. He’s verbally gone after every one from Rosie O’Donnell to Whoopi Goldberg to President Obama.

Yet he’s respected enough in our culture to be a presidential hopeful. Let that sink in. A viable candidate for the fucking presidency.

And all Kanye wants to do is make sweatshirts and records, and people skewer him in the press like his antics are single-handedly responsible for sending this country to hell in the hand-basket. He’s “psycho.” He needs “help.”

That is a double standard. Right there. Where the white man’s “individuality” is the black man’s “illness.” Where the white man’s “honesty” or “opinion” is the black man’s “insanity” or “blasphemy.”

Where the white man’s “confidence” is the black man’s “delusion” about who or what he is and he can do.

When Dave Chapelle went on “Inside the Actors Studio,” he talked about all of the people calling him “crazy” in the media after he left his show on Comedy Central. He said calling someone “crazy” is the worst thing you can do because it’s dismissive. It ignores what might actually be motivating the person’s behavior, and it measures his or her behavior by your lack of understanding, not necessarily its lack of logic or causality.

None of us knows what goes on behind closed doors–behind the curtains–in show business. We don’t know what people have said and/or done to Kanye. We don’t know what might have happened to him physiologically and psychically after that car accident or the loss of his mother or anything that’s ever happened to him.

He might very well be mentally ill. But he’s also incredibly talented. And he makes no less sense than Donald Trump and a score of other white male celebrities that are given a ton more respect than he gets.

And this is not an encomium to Kanye because he’s not a personal favorite of mine. I like some of his songs, but I don’t like the things that I’ve read about the way he treats women or the things I’ve heard him say in interviews about Amber Rose, who is a personal favorite of mine (sue me).

But I write all of this to say that there is a huge double standard in America when it comes to race. That black people regularly get vilified for things for which white people do not get vilified.

That black people are almost always laboring against a pervasive perception that they are in the wrong.

And that is why we have and need a Black Lives Matters movement.

Because when people assume that you are in the wrong, they never pause to think about whether or not they are right to punish you, castigate you, block you, ban you, dismiss you.

They shoot first and ask questions later.

You die for being in the wrong skin, at the wrong time.






Be Your Own Bae

This post originally appeared on Brassy Brown last year:

But it’s still one of my favorite things I’ve ever written, and it’s still quite valid, I think, and so–

Happy Valentine’s Day!!!!!

I hope you enjoy!!!!!


Love stories are irresistible. Especially around this time of year. Even for seasoned writers like me.

So I’m going to tell you a love story. My favorite love story. In celebration of Valentine’s Day.

It is my love story. And it begins, ironically, with a heartbreak.

When I was 25, I broke off a year-long engagement with a man named G. I had been too young and unformed to say yes to his proposal but too flattered and frightened to say no. After a while, though, it became clear that I wasn’t ready for the level of commitment he wanted from me.

I wasn’t ready, and he wasn’t patient, and so we fell apart. I was hurt by how aggressively he’d tried to change me, but I still left the engagement convinced that I was wrong and needed to change.

And that’s how I reemerged into the world after the relationship ended. Convinced that I was a problem needing solving. Certain that even if I found someone new to love, I would eventually chase him away like all the others before him.

Because I was a serial monogamist at 25. I’d had four very serious relationships, and they’d all ended badly.

My first boyfriend S and I had fallen apart when I went to college. Neither one of us could seem to handle my transition to Adult Michelle.

C was never official, never committed, and never consistent, and, yet, he dumped me.

N was actually a romantic, but, sadly, he romanticized conflict as much as he romanticized connection. I broke up with him after I got sick of the drama that enveloped him. He confessed afterward that he’d cheated throughout the relationship for revenge.

G had been my fourth boyfriend—a seeming knight in shining armor. He wrote poems and drew portraits; he did all the right things. Except accept me as I was and treasure me as that woman.

So after him, I was thoroughly convinced that I was the reason these relationships hadn’t worked. He had spent copious time explaining it to me, after all. The reasons “we” couldn’t get along with “each other.”

I was too independent. I was too opinionated. Too distrustful. Too angry. Too easily hurt. I held grudges. I talked too much. I said all the wrong things. I didn’t appreciate having a man in my life. I didn’t know how to treat one.

I didn’t like men. I didn’t like myself. I didn’t know how to open up. I didn’t know how to show love. I wasn’t healthy. I wasn’t normal. I was too involved with my family and friends and not involved enough with my romantic life. I wasn’t sexy or sexual enough.

At one time or another, I was criticized for all these things, in all these ways, by all the men I loved. The fiancé was just the most vocal of the four. And I thought that surely after him I would be alone. I thought perhaps I should be.

But then I met J. My current boyfriend. The father of my daughter.

J was 20 when we met. A rebel. He’d just been kicked out of his first of two colleges and sent back to Cleveland to get himself together. He was living with his mother, riding the bus, and barely scraping together money for cigarettes and $2 beers at the bar around the corner. He was scribbling poetry on any scrap of paper he could find, devouring political tracts and science fiction novels, and watching the news like most men watch football and basketball.

J didn’t have all the “resume” qualifications that most women look for, and it caused me quite a bit of consternation when we first met. He was kind, though. He was deeply intelligent, surprisingly funny, and beautifully soulful. He was handsome and a talented poet and emcee. He loved his mother and younger brother devotedly, and he fell decidedly in love with me.

I couldn’t resist doing the same to him.

This is probably where you—reader—expect the story to end. You expect me to conclude with some aphorism about silver linings on clouds or pots of gold at the end of rainbows.

If only our relationship unfolded that way.

J was wonderful, but J was five years younger than me. He was unsettled, unsure, and unprepared for a relationship as serious as ours. And we went through more ups and downs than I care to enumerate or narrate in this essay.

In other words, we were real people in real love. We had real problems. We made real mistakes.

Thirteen years later, we are still in love. We have a daughter and a history that makes us cringe at certain events and beam at certain others.

Thirteen years later, after countless fights, break-ups, make-ups, two years of long distance, a pregnancy, a clinical post-partum depression, underemployment, unemployment, two miscarried engagements (yes, to each other), family quarrels, and an array of good, bad, and ugly dealings, this is what truly matters—the point I’m going to make right now. As my conclusion.

G loved me but wouldn’t validate me. He was too busy sorting through his own issues.

J loved me but couldn’t validate me. He was too busy sorting through his own issues.

So in the thirteen years that we’ve been together, going through everything that couples go through, I have learned that romantic love is not the place where you should seek validation.

You have to seek it in yourself.

I saw that if I was going to depend upon the smooth operation of my relationship with J to feel like a good or desirable person, I was going to experience constant, bipolar mood swings in how I felt about myself.

Instead, I came to depend on myself and my own opinions in order to feel good.

I cut myself some slack, gave myself some compassion, and slowly fell for myself as this dear, dear friend.

Now, the kindness, patience, generosity, devotion, and care that I give to J and our daughter are not breathless bids for their returned love and attention. They are deliberate, proud demonstrations of what a strong, open, and, yes, healthy person I am.

I am able to participate in our family life in ways that bring abundant light to it because I am finally and fully aware of the light within me.

I am able to lead, help, share, nurture, and bond with my babies, and, at the same time, I am able to write, teach, hone my sense of spirituality, maintain my sense of style, and pursue one of my greatest passions, which is empowering black girls and women, because finally I appreciate all the things that I am and I have to offer.

I have trained myself to pause and look periodically inward to examine what’s there and assess it for myself.

I’ve stopped searching outside of myself for myself.

Loving the men that I’ve loved, and failing to do it as perfectly as I wanted, has taught me the most important lesson I think a woman can learn about love.

You must love yourself. Foremost if not first.

So here I am, at the end of this chapter of my story. I am still too independent. I am still too opinionated. I still talk too much. I’m probably no more “normal” than I ever was.

But I am happier than I’ve ever been. Not because my romance with J is going well. But because my romance with me is going wonderfully.

A couple of months ago, to be clever, I posted this quip to my Facebook: BYOB—Be Your Own Bae.

That’s what I want all women to do this Valentine’s Day. To shift their attention and focus on and appreciate themselves.

I want all of you to be your own valentine, not just on the 14th, but every day and in all ways. Because you deserve it. You’re infinitely worthy.

Don’t save all that amazing, exquisite black woman love to lavish on some imaginary future mate.

Be Your Own Bae.

Even if you have a man or woman.

Be Your Own Bae.

Treasure yourself.

Enjoy yourself.

And make every day you get to live as you a heart-filled holiday.
















Truth in Parenting

My aunt just called a few minutes ago to check in on my daughter and me. I told her I was getting M ready for her weekly soccer game and shared an anecdote about how a few seasons ago, when her team was experiencing a pretty disappointing losing streak, M copped the biggest attitude and told me she was sick of losing and didn’t want to play with “those girls” anymore.

“She said that in front of her team?!” my aunt wanted to know.

“No, of course not,” I said.

“You should’ve let her,” she said. “That would’ve woken them up.”

“Maybe,” I said, “but more than likely it would’ve brought the wrath of their parents down on us. Those white dads especially. They get intense about their kids and sports.”

My aunt then backed down. She said she didn’t realize that M had white kids on her team. She asked if M was the only black kid, and I told her, yes, a lot of the time.

Soccer isn’t the “blackest” sport. But M’s father played when he was younger, and coaches now, so it’s our sport. They bond over it–she and Daddy–and she loves it. She has an aptitude for it.

“You should get her in some activities where she can be around more black people,” my aunt concluded. “She needs that.”

“No,” I said. “She has enough of every kind of person around her. She’s fine. Her school is pretty integrated.”

My aunt disagreed.

“No, she needs exposure to her people,” she said.

And I–reflecting on my childhood in an all-black neighborhood, going to all-black schools, said, “A lot of the time, the more black people there are, the more messiness there is. She’s good.”

I have some baggage. I won’t lie. It was hard as hell being a poetry-writing, grunge-loving nerd in a black high school in 1991. Forgive me.

“Don’t say that,” my aunt chastised me. “Don’t talk negatively about black people in front of her.”

Well, M wasn’t downstairs with me. But that didn’t stop me from telling my aunt that I won’t be disparaging, but I will talk truthfully in front of M.

“If black people are fucking up, I’ll say that. If they’re doing good, I’ll say that. I’m not going to lie.”

My aunt didn’t like that, but I didn’t care. I told her we weren’t going to argue about it; I’m the mother; it’s my decision what to say or not to my daughter; then I told her I’d talk to her later.

The conversation reminded me again of how controversial the concept of telling your child the truth really is in our culture.

My daughter and I have had some conversations over our eight years that I’m sure would make some people’s ears ring if they’d overheard them. We’ve talked about global warming, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, genetically modified food, vaginas, Donald Trump, Caitlin Jenner, my past, her father’s past–we’ve even talked about the plurality of religions in the world, AIDS, heroin, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

My policy is to answer her questions as truthfully as I can in terms that fit her age and level of comprehension.

I tell the truth about everything, even my own past.

My goal is to make her intelligent, incisive, and wise since I can’t always make her–nor will the world always conspire to make her–happy.

Once, when we were at Target, looking at the Disney princess collection, she wanted to know why there was only one black princess–Tiana.

I told her that’s what often happens in movies or TV shows: Black people get a token character–one black face to pacify their desire to see themselves represented on the screen.

She nodded and took it in. And I thought that was that. Until a couple of weeks later, at her dance recital, when she looked at the group of four girls dancing with her in her vignette, all white, and said, “Mama–I’m the token.”

I cracked up. Her father didn’t think it was funny, but I thought, hey, it’s life. She wasn’t devastated by it; she was just showing off her new knowledge and stating a fact.

She went on from there to dance her little heart out without a seeming thought of who on stage was black or white.

I’m an adjunct professor, 39-years-old, teaching in a fairly large city in Ohio, in 2016, and I’m still a token–the only black part-time instructor in my department, office, and building. So, for me, tokenism is a reality of black life.

It sucks, but I’m sure there will be future situations when M will be the “only” again. She’ll have to deal with the inconveniences of being the “only” with grace and confidence.

Knowing that the “only” is often in a spotlight where she must confront people’s expectations and preconceptions will be helpful for her, I think.

Knowing that black people are often excluded–and included–for political reasons–but understanding that you don’t have to be delimited by those politics–will be reassuring and help her to stay sane.

Bridging off of that first conversation, whenever M makes the observation that she’s the only black girl or person in a situation, I can tell her not to worry about it.

“If you’re being included, it’s because you’re good enough to be there,” I tell her.

“Just be you. The people that like you will like you, and the people that won’t are not your concern.”

When Tamir Rice was shot, and M’s father and I were lamenting his murder, M was there. We had another one of our conversations.

She heard us talking and asked to know the particulars. So we told her: He was a 12-year-old boy playing with a BB gun on the playground. Someone called the police and told them. The police came and, without questioning him or attempting to take the gun from him, shot him on sight. He died. It was wrong.

M’s response to all of this reaffirmed for me the importance of being truthful with her.

“Maybe he shouldn’t have been playing with a toy gun,” she said. “That made it easy for the police to make a mistake.”

“Why couldn’t the police tell he was a little boy?” she asked. “Little boys don’t look like grown men. They’re smaller. They’re faces are different. They should’ve seen.”

She was able to engage critically with what we told her–at seven-years-old. 

I honestly think that if I hid every difficult or important conversation I have with other adults from her (I don’t), sugar-coated my explanations of the ugly things that happen in life (I don’t), or gave her fairy tales as answers to questions that are scientific (I don’t), she wouldn’t be able to interrogate situations like this. I don’t think she’d be able to assimilate to changes and certain inconvenient or unfortunate circumstances as well as she does.

I also don’t think she’d trust me as ardently as she does or be as truthful as she is. I like to think I’ve led her by example to speak her mind and to dig through rhetoric and propaganda rather than passively accepting and doing what she’s told.

And since I don’t want her to be dumb or a doormat, it’s gratifying to me when I tell her the truth, and she pushes back against it. Or when I see her acting out, in a positive way, of something I may have told her when I had misgivings about it on the front end.

One of the hardest conversations we ever had was when my aunt–her great-aunt–passed away in October of 2013.They were extremely close, as were my aunt and I, and her death was sudden, and so it came as the nastiest shock.

After sitting with her and the rest of the family at the hospital, going over to her house and helping to gather her paperwork, with the reality of what was happening still sinking in, I had to go home and tell M that her beloved TiTi was gone. I was terrified of how she would take it.

But I still told her the truth. TiTi had a heart attack. The doctors couldn’t get her heart to start beating properly again. They tried for the better part of an hour. She died. I’m so sorry. She still loves you. She’s still proud of you. You can still talk to her. You can talk about her all you want to. I’ll always talk with you about her. We can look at pictures. But we won’t be able to see her anymore. She’s not at her house anymore. She’s not “here” anymore. She’s gone.

M cried more bitterly than she ever had in her life behind this news. I held her and let her cry. I let her body and spirit absorb the truth in their own way and time.

I told her I was so sorry to be the bearer of such hard news. I told her I loved her, and I was still here. That even though it felt terrible now, to grieve her TiTi, eventually it would hurt less. Eventually, the pain would become livable.

I told her that death is a part of life, and nothing to fear. That nothing in this world disappears; it just changes form.

“Like liquid to gas to plasma?” she wanted to know.

“Just like that,” I told her.

My little metaphysicist.

She moved through the stages of her grief in a very healthy manner, and I can’t help thinking the fact that I told her the truth rather than a more comforting but ultimately false version of events helped her to do so.

I have definitely had some moments when I’ve wondered, Is this too much? Can she handle this? Should she? But I’ve also had some vivid memories of running into hard truths about life that I simply wasn’t prepared for because the adults around me–in an effort to shield me–never told me just how hard certain aspects of life can be.

I honestly think that being black, a woman, and poor (because if you’re not making a million dollars a year in this country, that’s what you are) in this craziness that we call a country is hard enough; I don’t want to give M the extra work of having to pick apart my lies to get to the truths she needs to survive.

That’s not my job. My job is to help her. To equip her. And I think the truth is one of the most crucial tools we use to get ahead.

So I tell M all the time, “Life is hard–so hard–but it’s definitely worth the struggle.”

I tell her that other people may not love her, but I love her, and she should love herself.

I tell her she’s amazing. Miraculous. Beautiful and capable of anything.

And since I don’t lie to her, and she knows that, I really do think she believes me.


Beyonce and Forms of Blackness


Personally, I can go either way on Beyoncé.

I can critique the commodification of blackness by a middle class, privileged, light-skinned woman that wears fake blonde hair, shakes her ass professionally, calls herself a feminist whilst continually defining herself in relationship to her husband (“Let me hear you say ‘Hey, Mrs. Carter!'”), and is unwilling to make explicit statements about her political beliefs.

Or I can appreciate a pop singer with a record-breaking level of fame laying claim to her blackness and making references to the crises in her community and its history when she’s not obligated and stands to lose at least a modicum of the cross-over appeal that made her so ridiculously famous by doing so.

I see her both ways, and I get when people see her either way.

But here’s the thing:

When Beyoncé does something like turning out the Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show, and black people start arguing about whether that was a “good” thing or a “bad” thing, we’re not really arguing about Beyoncé’s performance.

I mean, yes, some people love her singing and dancing, and others don’t, but that’s not really the root of the conversation, I don’t think.

I think what we’re really arguing about is how we want to see blackness represented in the media. And underneath that I think we’re arguing about what we really think black people need to be doing with themselves and doing about our collective “situation.”

And of course I have thoughts about both.

Wanna hear ’em? Here they go.

When it comes to representations of blackness in the media, you have black occurrences and black performances.

Black occurrences are things like the tape of the murder of Eric Garner. A record of an organic incident that presents some devastating truth about what it means to be black in America and contains some serendipitous aspect that can be commodified (Mr. Garner’s last words “I can’t breathe.”)

Black performances are things like Beyoncé’s “Formation” video. A piece of art that presents aspects of black life aesthetically, either to make a point about the truth of what it means to be black in America; to make a point about the artist’s individual experience of being black in America; to entertain an audience using points of reference that come from the black American experience; to sell a product using points of reference that come from the black American experience; or all four.

When it comes to consumers of representations of blackness in the media, you have purists and enthusiasts.

Purists want to see black occurrences; they prefer them. Because they are usually political (polemical) in nature. Because they can mobilize activism. Because they are serious and real. Because they signify struggle and necessitate fighting. And that’s what they think black people in America should be doing. Fighting. Period. Point-blank.

Enthusiasts like black performances, too. Because they’re black. And that’s a big part of what they think black people in America should be doing. Just being black. Just asserting their plain old blackness in a world of #OSCARSSOWHITE and so many other forms of racial exclusion. They don’t need the blackness to be political, respectable, appropriate, feminist, or “authentic.” They just need it to be black and not bleeding to death in the street.

Again, I see both sides of it, and I get when people occupy either side.

I do think it’s important that black occurrences be broadcast all over the fucking world so people can see and understand what America is doing, but I also can’t help but snicker at a troupe of black dancers in afro wigs, berets, and black turtleneck leotards storming the fucking Super Bowl.

I’m a black feminist, but I’m also a black girl and black artist. I see the worth in fucking with the aesthetic. I also get a kick out of seeing black people in places where they “don’t belong,” doing things that they “shouldn’t” do.

And so–I’m here for Beyoncé and “Formation.”

Not because I think it’s the perfect black feminist statement. Not because I think her video is a paragon of black representation. Not because I think she’s a revolutionary or “Formation” will change the country or black community. But because I think that there are different forms of blackness, and there should be different forms of blackness.

Black activism is one thing. Black entertainment is another. Beyoncé is an entertainer, and she does her job amazingly well. I like that she’s injecting a little Black Panther, a little Nola, a little history in her imagery. But it’s not her job to save us. It’s her job to make us dance and sing along. I don’t think she’d say anything other than that. And I don’t think we should expect anything other than that from her.

We have black feminist activists. Scholars. Educators. Leaders. If we don’t know their names, then we can’t be lazy and look to a pop star to act as our stand-in. We need to learn their names. We need to read and follow their work. We need to give them the same amount of exposure and respect that we give the pop star. We need to put them on an adjacent pedestal, so kids recognize and follow them like they follow Mrs. Carter.

Too, I don’t think we should police people’s performances of blackness. Love it or hate it, but don’t dissect it for “rightness,” because what’s the “right way” to be black?

There are as many ways to be black–or do black–as there are black people in this country or on this Earth.

No one’s utterly or perfectly authentic in their blackness because blackness isn’t one measurable thing.

When we as black people deride each other for the way that we enact identity, we’re not getting any closer to solving our collective problems. We’re certainly not strengthening our collectivity. We’re being divisive, and hypocritical, because isn’t that what we’re always accusing white people of doing? Policing us?

Beyoncé is not my favorite singer, but she’s a hell-of-a performer, and I’d rather see her on the Super Bowl than fucking Taylor Swift or Katy Perry–the poster girls for pop feminist whiteness.

I’d rather see her nouveau aesthetic blackness on a music video than another clip of a male rapper posing in a sea of undulating multiracial breasts and hips.

But that’s me.

If Beyoncé’s “formation” of blackness doesn’t suit you, that’s cool. Stick to your own.

She’s not taking anything away from anybody, I don’t think.

And whether you like her or not, she gives some people absolute life.