Sugar, Ice, and Tea: On “Lemonade”

beyonce-lemonade

We are so tough but so scared–we black folk.

It’s actually quite a feat.

We can manage to survive institutional racism–the trauma, the stress, the constant devaluation, the violence, the seeming endlessness of its pain and suffering.

But we can’t do a Goddamn thing with love.

We run and hide from it like children.

So Beyoncé makes “Lemonade.”

She puts it out after years of hinting at Jay-Z’s infidelities in songs. After years of widespread rumors about his cheating. After the elevator incident. Making it that much more compelling. Arresting.

She opens a window onto a black marriage–possibly hers–through song. She makes a video for this body of songs.

She expresses emotions–again, possibly hers–that are completely natural, understandable, and recognizable to adult people that know anything of romantic love–

And grown black men and women all over the world lose their fucking shit.

That is way more disillusioning than finding out that–hey!–the man that made “Big Pimpin'” has commitment issues and may even be a misogynist.

People have accused Beyoncé of everything from making the video as a publicity stunt to shaming the black female community with her vulnerability and honesty.

A lot of black men in social media have literally mocked her for expressing the pain that comes with being betrayed by your spouse and having to face the decision of whether or not to break up your family.

The real shame–though–is how all of these reactions are motivated by nothing but fear and insecurity.

Men ridicule Bey to scare other women into keeping silent about their pain.

They are afraid to look the effect of their disgusting, dishonest, and dishonorable actions in the face and see what monsters they can be.

Women admonish Bey because they are afraid to be as vulnerable as her and risk getting mocked by these same men.

They are afraid to admit that they’ve had emotional bombs dropped on them in their marriages and romantic relationships and been devastated by them for fear of seeming weak and eliciting the sadism of future lovers.

Black men and women are afraid of each other. We are afraid to trust each other. We are afraid to be ourselves with each other.

We are afraid to love each other because we know how ill-equipped this American experience has made us for such a delicate and complicated job, and we are fatalistically certain that we will fail each other in the enterprise of being each other’s partners and co-parents.

In the place of confessing our fear, and/or, in a lot of cases, just acknowledging it, we attack.

We are far more comfortable attacking each other than loving each other at this evolutionary stage of our culture.

And that goes for men attacking men–for being “soft” or anything else that hints of vulnerability, concern, investment, conciliation, or accommodation–and women attacking women–for being “weak” or anything else that hints of hopefulness or hurt.

Whether Bey really did make “Lemonade” as an elaborate love letter to Jay, or catharsis, or a cautionary tale, she has definitely brought some important issues to the surface related to black love and intimacy.

The reaction to the work has illustrated that there is a dire intimacy crisis amongst black cis-hetero women and men that stems, I’m afraid, from the disrupted familial and sexual dealings of slavery and has been perpetuated by the divide-and-conquer tactics of Jim Crow, postmodern and post-postmodern racism, and even the prison industrial complex.

The disparagement coming from both genders has shown us that misogynoir (shout out, Moya Bailey)–or black misogyny–and cattiness among black women are alive and fucking kicking.

There is a famous quote by one of the wisest black writers of all time, James Baldwin:

james baldwin

But in order for the battle to be won, we can’t fight each other.

We have to fight our fear.

I am in love right now. I have been in love for 15 years. With a beautiful black man I met when I was 25.

Last year, I wrote about our relationship for Brassybrown.com:

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.

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.

I didn’t catalog those mistakes in the older post, and I won’t catalog them here, but I will say that I started the relationship afraid that he would never appreciate the “real” me–opinionated, bookish, awkward, restless, moody, freaky, and given to bouts of inconvenient and sometimes unjustified crazy–but he does.

I had to be open with him. I had to tell him all my stories. I had to show him all my scars. I had to trust him.

He had to be gentle and understanding and trust me not to ridicule him for it or throw it back up in his face. Trust me not to take advantage of him.

And vice-versa. He had to be open with me. Tell me his stories. Show me his scars. Trust me.

I had to be gentle and understanding and trust he wouldn’t take advantage of me.

This has been a long and often painful process, full of pitfalls. We’ve had terrible fights. We’ve broken up and gotten back together a few times. We’ve cried over each other. We’ve driven each other to some pretty desperate points.

But we have also made a miraculous little girl, built a beautiful and real friendship, and become each other’s family.

The work we’ve done to break free of our fear has been worth it.

I don’t know whether “Lemonade” is factual or not. But it does tell the truth about the heartbreak many black women experience in love with black men.

It is a very important and meaningful exposure.

It shows that black women have hearts. We’re not made of tin.

It shows that black men have power.

It shows that black women have power.

It shows that black love is an extremely complex and deep thing.

It also shows that black women and men have to allow for more complexity–and depth–in our interactions with each other in order to achieve love and effect some sort of healing of our collective brokenness.

We have to be less afraid, more vulnerable, and forego all this posturing we do for each other.

If America is going to do nothing but give us the “lemons” of living black and un-free in this forsaken place, then let’s be each other’s sugar.

Let’s believe and believe in–let’s help and stop hurting each other.

james baldwin 2

 

 

Advertisements

In Defense (and Who Would’ve Thought That’d Be Necessary?) of Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill

 

I was going to start this post by saying, outright, “I can’t stand black people,” but then I realized–

I’d be falling prey to the same sort of self-abnegation that I’m about to call out in this post.

So I changed my mind.

But it took me a minute because I was angry. So incredibly angry.

At this latest social media scuttlebutt surrounding Harriet Tubman replacing Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill.

Because today should’ve been a good day for us.

It should’ve been a win.

HARRIET TUBMAN got tapped to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill–

Making her the first black person and woman to have her face featured on a piece of American currency.

And rather than rejoicing or making pithy jokes about how they won’t be able to get change for twenties from now on (“because black woman can’t be broken”) like the majority of Black Twitter–

An ignorant few have gone on rants about how–wait for it–UGLY Harriet Tubman is.

As if that’s a thought to have–and/or share–about someone as august as Harriet Tubman.

I’m outraged by this–needless to say–for a couple of reasons.

One–it’s completely disrespectful and disjunctive.

Harriet Tubman is an ancestor, and a hero, so she shouldn’t be judged by her looks.

She didn’t win the Miss America Pageant or swimsuit cover of Sports Illustrated. She was given a form of recognition in perfect keeping with her legacy.

But the fact that she is being judged for her looks points out just how superficially women are regarded in our society. Still.

The unfortunate, and egregiously unfair, truth is women have to be pretty, no matter what they accomplish, in order to be respected in our society.

Men can walk around with what looks like a squirrel’s carcass on their heads and be taken dead-ass seriously.

But unless women–black and white–are presenting with a face full of expertly-applied make-up while trailing a mile synthetic blond curls behind them, they’re nothing.

And that’s complete and utter bullshit.

It’s beyond disheartening, to me, that black people–who have their natural appearances routinely devalued in our society–can’t see that.

Harriet Tubman was born between 1820 and 1825 to parents that were slaves. She says that one day, as a child, she was lashed five times before breakfast.

During an incident at a store, when she was a teenager, when she refused to help restrain a runaway slave that had been caught, she was hit in the head with a two-pound weight. She suffered seizures, headaches, and narcoleptic episodes as a result of that injury for the rest of her life.

Still, she went on to escape slavery. The first time she fled, she went with her brothers, who actually got scared and decided to go back to the plantation. Harriet saw them safely home, then she escaped on her own in 1949. A young woman in her early twenties. She walked 90 miles from Maryland to Pennsylvania along the Underground Railroad, risking her body and life.

She went on to guide her parents, siblings, and 60 other slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad.

She helped John Brown enlist supporters for his attack on Harper’s Ferry (look it up if you don’t know about it).

She met Frederick Douglass–at his house–on one of her escape trips to Canada.

She led a military expedition during the Civil War–the Combahee River Raid–that liberated 700 slaves (social media maven Crissle tells the story hilariously on “Drunk History”–without disrespecting Harriet Tubman one time, mind you).

And she even underwent brain surgery before passing away among her friends and family in New York in 1913.

She lived to a ripe old age despite being born in one of the most dangerous times for black people in American history and putting herself in danger repeatedly to help her people.

She was called “Moses” for her vision, bravery, and fierce leadership.

We continue to hold her up today as a model of racial integrity, female strength, ultimate bravery, and compassionate humanity.

So I ask again–

WHO GIVES A FUCK WHAT SHE LOOKED LIKE?

Harriet Tubman is the embodiment of all our so-called American ideals–courage, sacrifice, righteousness, even patriotism (she was a Union nurse and spy).

She did all those glorious things our heroes do–fought for freedom, helped her people, made history, never let her impediments hold her back.

So she deserves to be on that $20 bill–or anywhere else anyone wants to put her as a recognition of her contributions to American culture.

Anyone focusing on her appearance, in the face of her biography, should be ashamed of themselves.

Or they should at least have the decency to be quiet about it.

Harriet Tubman once said, “I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”

I say–if you can’t get beyond judging women for their looks, or black people by European beauty standards, for that matter, then you need to liberate your mind.

Unless you’re three- or four-years-old, your range of descriptors for people–and criteria for categorizing them–should have stretched light years beyond “pretty” and “ugly” by now.

And, if it hasn’t, then you have some work to do on your personal and intellectual development.

Harriet Tubman was a beautiful woman. She sacrificed herself for her people. She didn’t have to, but she did. That’s beautiful.

Her actions were both “pleasing to the mind” and “of a very high standard,” which are two dictionary definitions of the word “beautiful,” if you want to get pedantic.

She should not be dragged down by shallow, cretinous criticism of the way she looks.

That’s ugly.

This woman lived through SLAVERY. And she defied it.

So it’s asinine to treat her like a contestant on “America’s Next Top Model.”

I think we can do–and be–better than that.

Don’t you?

 

 

 

 

 

Chewing (and Swallowing) the Fat

A few years back, I enrolled in this weight loss program with my sister.

The administrator was a very sharp, dynamic black woman that took pride in personalizing her approach to each of her clients.

She had developed a new program that she was trying out for the first time on my cohort of clients, and I remember at that first meeting of all of us, she went around in a circle, talking to each of us about what she perceived as our strengths and potential obstacles to weight loss success.

When she got to me, she said my biggest obstacle was that I could “be OK” either way. I could do the work and lose the weight, or I could not lose the weight and accept being fat. She wasn’t sure that I was motivated enough to push through the difficult parts of the journey.

At the time, I didn’t see in myself what she saw in me. I thought I wanted desperately to lose weight, and I would stop at nothing to lose it.

I was wrong.

I am 39-years-old, 5’4″, and 248 pounds. According to my BMI, I am morbidly obese. According to the mirror, I’m not horrible-looking, but my waistline is a definite thing of the past. According to my knees and lower back, my blood sugar and bladder, my energy level and level of body confidence, I’m too heavy. I am what one would definitively call “fat.”

The irony of this? I’ve been calling myself that since I first hit 155 pounds, some 26 years ago. It just dawned on me, literally yesterday, that the reason I’m fat now may be because I needed to validate my psyche, in order to feel sane.

See, I’ve come to realize: Human beings need to be right about things. It gives us a sense of control. We are so threatened by our actual lack of control over the universe and its workings–our lives and the actions of others–that many of us will seek to be right before we will seek to be happy.

When I entered fourth grade, I became a social outcast. I was bookish, daydream-y, awkward, eccentric, and new to my school. The kids there didn’t quite know how to take me, and I didn’t know how to like myself without the validation of my peers, so, when they began to tease and make fun of me, I began internalizing it.

Unfortunately, at this same time, I began putting on the weight that many girls put on right before they begin puberty.

I became “fat.”

I couldn’t tell it was happening at the time, but my mind seized upon that as the “reason” why the kids didn’t accept me. I think I needed to believe that the thing that set me apart from them was something I could change or control, and so I decided it was my weight because I subconsciously understood that if it was my personality, I might never be accepted.

Even at nine, I recognized that my gifts were my intelligence, my sensitivity, my compassion, my imagination, and my irreverence. I guess I also recognized that if these things intimidated or alienated people, then people would always have a difficult time dealing with me.

I didn’t want that. I wanted to be liked. I was boy crazy, too, so I wanted to be loved. I wanted to be adored, actually. So I put all of the rejection I was experiencing on my weight. I began to identify myself as “fat.”

I began to hate the way my body looked and to compensate for it by dressing in certain ways.

I became less active as I grew less comfortable in my body.

I began eating in a way that “matched” this concept of my being “fat.” Eating without being hungry. Eating to self-soothe.

I think the reason being “fat” at that age didn’t have a horrible effect on me was that I wasn’t fat. I had all of this drama going on in my head, but, in the world, I was a relatively normal-sized girl.

I wasn’t getting treated as badly as I felt–as badly as fat people really do get treated–so I didn’t feel that badly about myself. Yet.

Also, I was a high achiever. I had other things going on to balance out the whole “fat” thing. Good grades. Scholarships. Awards. These bolstered my self-image and self-esteem.

I was “OK,” like the weight loss coach said, until I turned 25, and I had a serious bout with Crohn’s disease.

I dropped 25 pounds in about eight weeks, and I was 135 pounds for the first time in my adult life (I hit 155 pounds at 13 and stayed there until 25). I was suddenly “skinny.” My entire world was turned upside-down.

Because people treated me differently. More girls sized me up and rolled their eyes at me in that sick, competitive way so many of us have, and more guys tried to talk to me. People gave me more compliments. Clerks were more helpful in stores.

Now, the only reason that I don’t think this was attached to a rise in my level of confidence is because getting “skinny” didn’t cause a rise in my confidence. It raised my level of bravado.

I wore skimpier clothes, I had public sex, I danced at clubs–I did a lot of things I wouldn’t do when I was heavier–but inside I felt the same.

I felt like a “fat” girl who’d been given an incredible break from her “fatness.” I felt like the whole thing was a fluke, and I treated it like a fluke.

I fully expected to get fat again, and I was afraid of getting fat again. So I began dieting for the first time in my life. I began obsessing over my weight, which I honestly didn’t do before that. Because I just accepted being “fat” before.

But I couldn’t accept it anymore after being “skinny.” Being “skinny” was like having surgery to restore my eyesight then losing it again.

I had never known what being “skinny” felt like, but a lot of it was just as wonderful as I had always imagined.

I could wear what I wanted. I could shop off the clearance rack. I could sit on my boyfriend’s lap without worrying that I was crushing him. I could walk around naked in front of him. I could have sex with the lights on.

I had so many “rules” for governing my “fat” body, and I wasn’t obligated by them anymore when I was “skinny.”

Moving around in my body didn’t embarrass me, so I would go to the gym. I would exercise. I would run and play around with my boyfriend.

“Fat” me wouldn’t draw that sort of attention to my body for anything in the world.

Still, with all the wonderful freedom that came with being “skinny,” what didn’t lose its hold was the isolated feeling of being “different” I had.

Because like I said, in my heart, in my head, I was still a “fat” girl.

And even though I was educated and a feminist, I equated being fat with being unattractive.

I believed I was fat because I lacked self-control and even strength, and that felt unacceptable to me.

I even wrote about all of this in the introduction to my book of poetry (Ariel in Black):

Blackness is a really complicated thing for a hetero woman in America.

It has enough rules to put the U.S. Code to shame.

You are not allowed to be sad because so many that came before you suffered so much more than you, and they were never sad; they were strong.

You are not allowed to be crazy because so many that came before you suffered so much more than you, and they never escaped into madness; they were strong.

You are not allowed to be ambivalent because there are only two acceptable things to do as a black woman—you can stand or you can fight.

You are not allowed to have any problems that weren’t doled out by your history or anatomy.

You cannot cry except at death, and it is the only sort of loss that you can linger on.

You cannot despair, no matter how desperate you are.

You cannot lament your blackness, no matter how it blinds you to your beauty or blocks the sun from you.

You have to love men when they spurn you.

You have to love women when they spurn you.

You have to love every black person you meet, whether their greeting is happy or hateful. Whether they want to join your parade or piss on it.

You have to keep secrets that claw at the insides of your guts and throat to be told.

You have to swallow complaints that going down can rip your insides like a rusty nail or screw.

You are not allowed to be honest at the cost of being dignified.

You can only tell your story as a myth or legend, fable or fairy tale.

These are not rules, for the record. They are The Rules. Spelled out for me by my respectable mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother that came before me.

I grew up with the demands for strength, goodness, decency, and solidity hanging over my crib like a mobile. I understood by six that I had very few acceptable choices for my future beyond getting an education and forging a successful career. I could marry if I wanted to, and have children if I wanted to, but being a certain type of woman wasn’t an option.

I was a talky, antsy, moody, sassy, nasty girl that was expected to grow into a stoic, stable, suitable woman.

I was supposed to be able to control my weight. I was supposed to be able to juggle all aspects of my existence with so-called dignity and grace. But I couldn’t, so I began to feel like a failure.

It didn’t help that at the same time I quit school–the vehicle for all of my so-called achievements, the thing that I was “good” at, the thing that structured my life so effectively–gave me such a sense of purpose and direction–that it hid the fact that I have ADHD for a full 30 years.

When my Crohn’s went into remission at 27, I began putting on weight. Like I said, I began dieting and obsessing, but it didn’t help because, you know, thermogenesis and shit.

My body fought its way back up to 170 from 135 because I wasn’t consistent with my efforts, and I wasn’t consistent with my efforts because I resented the fuck out of them.

Eating had become my main coping mechanism by that time–just blotting out any undesirable feeling with the uncomplicated pleasure of taste. Dieting meant controlling my eating. Not eating meant feeling my feelings.

I didn’t want to do that, so I began the push-pull of dieting and hating it. This has lasted pretty much since then. So that’s 12 years. A long time.

Now, add life to that. The death of my grandmother that I loved dearly–my biggest cheerleader. The cluelessness I felt about building an adult life. The twists and turns of a long-term romantic relationship with someone five years younger than me. An unplanned pregnancy. Job insecurity. A 22-month clinical postpartum depression. Undiagnosed anxiety. Undiagnosed ADHD.

Add to that the unrealistic yet full-on expectation that I should be–oh, I don’t know–fucking Toni Morrison since I’ve been writing and claiming that I want to be a writer all my life.

(I’m a bit of a perfectionist and drama queen–I will admit.)

By the time I arrived at the weight loss program from my first paragraph, I was well over 200 pounds. I had developed full-blown binge eating disorder without even knowing it. And I had made a certain peace with, now, actually being fat (no more quotation marks).

There was a part of me that still wanted “skinny,” but there was a part of me, too, that was so exhausted of disliking my body and myself because of what I had allowed my body to become, that I didn’t want to lose the weight.

I wanted to learn how to live with it.

And so I lived with it. I left the program. I regained the lost pounds. I gained more pounds.

I got all the way up to my current weight. I developed pre-diabetes. Stress incontinence. Arthritis in my knees. Lower back pain that might be degenerative disc disorder or spinal stenosis at this point (I’m afraid to go and see.) Frequent shortness of breath.

And you know what else?

I stopped taking pictures from the neck-down. I stopped wearing jeans, then heels, then skirts, now dresses. I started eating in my car and bedroom, away from people, so as not to feel judged.

I started shrinking, ironically, inside my fat body.

Because regardless of the whole “body positive” movement, my own intellectual understanding that fat doesn’t equal ugly, and my admiration for so many of the big, beautiful black women out in the world who embrace their size, I don’t want to be fat.

Because for me it’s emblematic of how unhealthy I am emotionally.

And it has begun to make me physically unhealthy.

I was walking around the mall yesterday, on my lunch, looking in stores, admiring all the clothes I can’t fit and the accessories I can’t even buy because I’m only an adjunct right now, and I’m broke as fuck.

My back started hurting. Then, my feet. So much so that I had to sit down at several intervals on those benches arranged around the kiosks out in the main corridors.

That got me to thinking about my weight, of course. And that got me to thinking about why it’s so hard for me to focus on recovery from my BED.

And I realized that on a subliminal level, I either want or think I deserve to be fat.

I thought: You have made yourself into that outsider. You have literally “embodied” that concept of yourself. You have made yourself right about all these misguided thoughts you’ve had since you were young.

You punish yourself by ruining your health with your bad habits. You’ve even stopped wearing jewelry and making yourself up every day because you feel “ugly.” You make yourself “ugly.”

You walk around in the world feeling too big for it–feeling undeserving of it–but that’s all right on a certain level because that’s what you already thought.

I saw–and it stunned me–that I have finally made myself into the “fat” person that I only felt I was in fourth grade.

And I was incredibly sad.

Because that made-up “fat” person wasn’t a fat person.

She was a dejected little girl trying to have some hope that things would get better for her.

So if I am an older version of her, it means I am still sad. I am still dejected.

Which makes sense. The world is a hard place. For black people. For women. For poor people. For fat people.

For people with the uncontrollable, unsolicited combination of genetics and biology that makes them susceptible to things like mood and brain disorders.

And I am black. I am a woman. I am poor. I am fat. I am a depressive. I do have an eating disorder. I have adult ADHD. I have anxiety. I have low self-esteem.

I am also incredibly hard on myself and pretty unforgiving of my struggles. I have high expectations of myself and a strong desire to make the people that love me proud.

So there’s a feedback loop controlling my life now.

Get disappointed in myself, eat, get disappointed in myself, eat.

I gain weight and feel even more unworthy of happiness.

It fucking sucks.

And the crazy thing is–I can articulate it here. As I sit, writing about it. But in those moments when I’m sitting on my bed with the chip bag, all I know is that I should be better, I should be more, and that feeling is so unbearable, I want it to go away.

I am literally wearing the weight of my issues, which is why I can’t get comfortable with being big.

I want to be better.

It doesn’t help, either, that people very casually treat you like shit, the bigger you get. Particularly when you’re black and female.

But I don’t blame them. Because I buy into the bullshit too. I wear my weight like a badge of shame. I punish my self for it.

I fight to stop it from becoming so big a problem (I threw the pun in to lighten the mood–typical me) that it swallows me up.

I sift through all of this “stuff” not to give myself an excuse, but a level of understanding that can lead to a breakthrough–a better way.

Blogging has definitely become one of my outlets. One of my ways to be unencumbered. To feel like me. Pure and simple.

I say it in my book, in the intro:

I write to free myself . . .

 I am too much of a black woman to surrender such a hard-fought thing as my life to something as common as sadness.

But then I am too much of a thin-skinned girl to pretend that sadness doesn’t act like a slow poison on my heart and mind.

 Poetry is my antidote.

And sharing things like this blog post.

I feel better when I’m working through the truth of what I think or feel rather than sitting and brooding on it.

So, the truth about my weight, for me, now, is this:

I am fat, but I don’t want to be.

I am fat, but I don’t deserve to be.

I am fat, but I don’t need to be.

I can be whatever I want, and I deserve to be, because, if I’ve ever hurt anyone terribly enough to deserve punishment, it’s myself.

But I don’t deserve punishment.

I deserve love.

Pure and simple.

I deserve life.

I deserve to breathe easy. To be easy in my body and my mind.

To exist as something more than my own biggest problem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bullshit of Being the “Good” Black Woman

So Ayesha Curry may get her own cooking show.

This doesn’t surprise me at all.

She’s such an idealized image of black womanhood.

She’s married, a mother. She’s educated and affluent. She’s a former model and actress, light-skinned with straight hair.

And she espouses the sort of puritanical “modesty” that men love to hear from beautiful women whose desirability might intimidate them if it weren’t hidden beneath high necklines, long sleeves, and midi hemlines.

In other words, Ayesha Curry is a “good” woman. She’s what most black men would deem a wifey.

She stays at home with her kids; she cooks and very probably cleans; she speaks about herself almost exclusively in terms of her roles as wife and mother; she only emphasizes those roles whenever she’s in the spotlight; and she seemingly loves everything about the life that Stephen has given her, so much so that she regularly takes to social media to talk about how she relishes acting in a certain, circumscribed way just for him.

Big-time advertisers and TV programmers–mostly male, mostly white–love her for obvious reasons. She allows them to reach a black audience without associating themselves with someone with a “ratchet” image.

Black men love her, too. She epitomizes what so many of them claim to want. She is pretty, smart, maternal, domestic, devoted, and “modest.”

Yup. That word again.

Fuck that word.

So many black men claim to want a woman that’s “refined.” But there are two definitions of that word that we need to examine–women–before we strive to be refined for these men.

Yes–“refined” means “elegant and cultured in appearance, manner, or taste.”

But it also means “with impurities and unwanted elements having been removed by processing.”

I really do think that most men–when they say they want a “refined” woman–are saying they want a woman that has stripped herself of certain qualities that they–these men–find intimidating.

The main one of these qualities, if the popularity of Ayesha Curry’s statement about covering up in her clothes is any indication, is open and autonomous sexuality.

But that’s the bullshit of being a “good” black woman, if you ask me.

Who are men to think they can dictate women’s behavior like they’re ordering from a menu?

Why should we hide or kill off vital aspects of ourselves to placate them when they’re being disingenuous, to a certain extent, about what they want?

Men say they want a “good” girl–someone modest. Someone “moral.”

But if you balk at having premarital sex, if you balk at having kinky sex, if you balk at satisfying any sexual desire or fetish they can cook up, a lot of men will stop dealing with you.

Or they’ll start cheating on you in order to get their appetite met.

They’ll shame you for being what they call “prudish” or even “childish.”

They play the same game with money, too: They shame “independent” women, but they shame so-called “gold-diggers,” too.

The truth seems to be that men want women to be circus performers–tightrope walkers–when it comes to our personae.

They want women to have a healthy sense of themselves as sexual beings, but they also want control over a woman’s sexuality, so they don’t have to be afraid of it.

Because a woman that knows what she wants sexually, and is willing to pursue it, if she isn’t satisfied with you, and she isn’t scared to go after sex, might leave you. She might pass you up for someone that satisfies her more.

But a woman that has attached her sense of moral decency to her sense of sexuality is a lot easier to manipulate. You can make her so afraid to be perceived as a slut that she doesn’t pursue sexual satisfaction through the normal means, which is–whether men want to hear it or not–sleeping with multiple (I said “multiple” not a “multitude” because, you know, diseases and dissociation) partners until you find someone that “does it” for you–pun intended.

You can make her so afraid of behavior that will bar her from finding a “good” man that she dresses like a church mother when she actually feels like a hot mama.

And any “good” black woman will tell you (my hand is up right now because I am a serial monogamist in a 15-year relationship with the father of my daughter) that we often get treated just as badly as the so-called sluts when we’re dealing with men.

I did a lot of trying on sexual attitudes in my teens and twenties, and I got cheated on and left when I was a “good” girl, and I got cheated on and left when I was a “bad” girl.

When I broke “The Rules” and slept with guys early in the relationship, or when they weren’t my “man,” I got shitted on, and I got shitted on by guys that I slept with exclusively for years and loved with as much of my heart as they would take.

I have never been the “sex bomb,” showing skin or whatever, but I can talk shit with the best of them. I have talked my shit, and I have bitten my tongue. I have tried to be everything I thought a man wanted, and, with my boyfriend now, I actually tried to act as wild as I could in the beginning to “test” him–to see if he would run away from a rawer, realer version of me than I usually presented to men that I wanted to date.

The irony is that after all of that he has proven to be my most genuine, committed, and appreciative partner. I thought I would chase him away by being forward, but I actually drew him to me.

I asked him once, after we’d gotten together, why he didn’t think I was “wild,” and he told me: He did think I was wild, but I wasn’t just wild. I was smart. I was sweet. I was funny. I was talented. I was devoted to my family and friends. I might’ve had a dirty mind and mouth, but I also had a good heart and open mind.

The bullshit of being a “good” black woman–then–is that it allows men to be more comfortable with you, but it can rob you of the ability to be comfortable.

It allows men to be lazy–governing themselves from an insecure or unevolved place rather than having to deal with a lot of the complications of love and attachment that we women have to deal with–trying to partner with people that have an immense amount of sexual freedom to move around in.

A lot of you “good” girls are playing a role that isn’t a true reflection of how you feel about sex or your sexual self in order to make a man feel “safe” with you.

You’re dimming your confidence and/or desirability because he can’t handle it, as if that’s your problem and not his.

You must know, though, that you’re not necessarily decreasing the chances of having your heart broken or being abandoned by doing that–or increasing your chances of getting or keeping a man.

You’re not guaranteeing that a man will choose you over the rest of the “hoes.” That he will “wife” you like Stephen did Ayesha.

Because a man that needs a woman with her sexuality on a leash is scared, and scared people often do heedless things in the pursuit of protecting themselves.

Like running from intimacy.

Like fronting on love.

Like mistaking a “bad” girl for a bad person.

I have all sorts of muses–women whose femininity and/or womanhood I admire.

Yes–Michelle Obama is one of them, but so is Amber Rose.

And I say fuck so-called respectability politics.

I think women should decide for themselves what “sexy” means, and they should be mindful that their definition comes from their own preferences and propensities.

You can be a “good” black woman if you want. But remember–it’s not an insurance policy. It’s a scratch-off lottery ticket, just like any other romantic ploy.

Statistically, black men marry later and at a lesser rate than any other group of (cis hetero) men in America.

They are more likely to marry outside of the race than black women.

And black divorce rates are unfortunately through the roof.

So be “good” by your own definition and for your own reasons.

Or be “bad.”

Be true to yourself.

Because any love worth having will be an embrace of who you really are.

And the other type of love isn’t worth the effort–the inconvenience–the deprivation or disenchantment–of pretending.

 

Why Are We So Worried About What the Next Woman Is Doing?

Like Britney, I did another “oops.”

I watched Parts I and II of the “Love & Hip Hop” Reunion Show for this past season.

So I was right there–chin on the floor–with hundreds of thousands of other viewers–wondering what the hell Amina Buddafly was doing, showing off a baby bump with Peter Gunz’s other baby-mama, Tara, sitting on an adjacent couch, nine months pregnant her damn self.

And I had so much to say, too–about how disturbing it was that these two women, who are clearly of age, and ostensibly intelligent, would continue to not only have sex but have children with this man that clearly has issues with fidelity, honesty, and sensibility (but certainly not fertility).

But I thought about it.

I stopped judging and making mental comparisons between their decisions and my decisions (“I mean–I would never . . .), and I really thought about why I was so invested in these women’s lives. These women that I have never met. These women that are not kin to me. These women that are grown and entitled to make their own decisions.

These women that have never asked me–not one time–to help them pay a bill or care for any of their children or give them any sort of help living their lives.

I realized then that this is what we do, some of us. We use social comparison to enhance our self esteem. We make decisions that we think are sound–that we think are “good”–and expect to be rewarded for these decisions in some way.

We build our confidence and concepts of ourselves on our ability to make these “good” decisions–on the foundation of all the “good” decisions we’ve made.

We get into this mental feedback loop of thinking “I make good decisions, so that makes me a good person.”

Then, when we see someone make a different choice–or an opposite choice–from one of ours–we secretly start to question the content of that “good” decision. Especially if that person seems to be enjoying a life that is as “good” as ours.

We may even get shaken by that–the fact that their “bad” decision hasn’t resulted in totally negative consequences. We may think “I did all of that [whatever ‘that’ is], and for what?”

We may even resent the person whose life we’re watching from a distance because he or she seems to be getting away with “murder” in a sense. Because even having made a “bad” decision, he or she seems to be doing all right.

And to process these emotions, we get self-righteous. We draw bold circles around them and slashes over them–make them into the “bad” group–so we can feel good again.

All of this to gratify ourselves. To cultivate some level of acceptance or appreciation of the amount of self-control, self-denial, work, and, yes, pain it took for us to carry through on our own decisions. To make these things feel like they were “worth it.” Particularly if we feel unsure that they were, in fact.

Let me give you a more specific example. I hate when people talk in generalizations, but I’m talking in generalizations right now.

So let’s take, say, women that shame other women for having abortions–something that happens all the time–especially on social media–in America.

Now, I understand men trying to force women to have children. And that’s not an overstatement. Approximately 282 new legal restrictions have been placed on abortion in the US since 2010, and the majority were proposed and passed by male political leaders and legislators. The rationale for this is arithmetic, not calculus: White men don’t want minorities to outnumber white people, minority men want their manhood reified in a society that perennially emasculates them, and powerful men want women in the traditional roles of mother and/or caretaker because it justifies the glass ceiling (mothers miss more work so they deserve lower pay and less power).

What I couldn’t understand–for the longest time–was women–people that understood how hard motherhood can be–begrudging other women when they exercise their legal right to opt out.

Notice, though, I used the past tense in that last sentence; I said “couldn’t understand. But I get it now.

Mothers are supposed to be paragons of love. They are not only supposed to love their children more than anything else, but they are also supposed to love motherhood more than anything else. That’s the ideal.

Our culture judges women that do not claim to adore motherhood, or do not seem or seek to excel at motherhood, as the absolute worst kind of women. They are even worse than whores.

Because we stupidly believe that having the anatomical capacity to mother means you should automatically have the emotional or psychological equipment, too.

We also pretend that a lack of money or support shouldn’t make a difference in how difficult motherhood is.

We know better–many of us from firsthand experience–but we still judge ourselves and other mothers by impossible standards because of what we’ve been taught (by religion, tradition, media, and other women).

All women are supposed to want to be mothers. So if a woman gets pregnant accidentally, she is supposed to see this as fate and go through with having the baby, willingly, happily.

Fuck what stage of life she’s in. Fuck how much money she has. Fuck the nature or quality of her relationship to the father. Fuck her mental or emotional readiness. Fuck her true desire to be with child or remain childless. Fuck her essentially. She is not important in this so-called “equation.”

It becomes about the baby as soon as the baby comes into existence. Never mind that the baby can’t even exist outside of the mother’s body before five or six months of pregnancy. Never mind that the baby can’t survive outside of the mother’s body for another two or three years without total dependence on the mother or different adult caretaker.

All women are supposed to want to be mothers. This is what a lot of women tell themselves.

And so, if they get pregnant accidentally, and in unfavorable or unfortunate circumstances, they go through with the pregnancy.

They fight through the myriad struggles of unplanned pregnancy or single pregnancy or high-risk pregnancy or teenage pregnancy or drug-addicted pregnancy or pregnancy in poverty or pregnancy by rape or reproductive abuse. And then they fight through the myriad struggles of unplanned, unprepared, or perhaps even unwanted motherhood. And then, either subconsciously or in absolute earnest, they want that effort to be rewarded. Perhaps they even need to feel rewarded.

I’m not judging here, either. I think all mothers want their parenting effort to be rewarded. And understandably so.

If you’re doing the job even halfway decently, it has to rank in the Top Five of the hardest shit you’ve ever done. It’s beautiful, but it’s brutal.

Women that are trying their hardest to be healthy mothers want that effort to count for something; they want to be recognized for doing what so many other women won’t do. They want some sort of light shone on them for embracing such a dire, endless, and so often thankless task.

Again, I get it. I’m a mother. And I’m one of those mothers. That wants to feel like I did a very important thing by having my baby. That I am doing something important and maybe even divine by raising her.

But I’m also a mother that pledged not to be disingenuous about motherhood–how hard it is and how encompassing it is and how–I’m taking a deep breath of apprehension as I admit this–troublesome it can sometimes be.

I used to have a blog on which I wrote strictly about motherhood, and, in a post from 2010, I said this:

Even though I am completely gratified that M is already showing signs of that she will be as bookish, inquisitive, and assertive as Mama Bear, the fact that she isn’t your typical two-year-old in terms of intelligence or force of personality is presenting challenges on two fronts.

One-discipline. Even though I can “talk” to her about what I’d like her to do (get into the tub, pick up her room, eat her veggies), and she nods and even repeats my ideas back to me, doesn’t always mean she does what I’ve asked. Because she is so keyed into her wants, so accustomed to having them met, and so fearless when it comes to pushing back against anything that makes her angry or uncomfortable, M is just as likely to not do what I’ve said as to do it. And sometimes her refusal just isn’t an option. And I have to act.

I am really ambivalent about it, but I do have to admit that I have begun spanking her when she flatly refuses to do what she needs to do. When there is room for choices or alternatives, I allow them, but when her safety (“Hold mama’s hand while we walk through this parking lot”) or well-being (“It’s almost 10pm. Time for bed”) are at issue, I make the call and require her to fall in with it. If she can’t be convinced, then I give her some good ol’ fashioned coercion. But I’m conflicted. I am.

One of the things I said to myself when I found out I was having a daughter was I would help her to discover, appreciate, and use her power at as early an age as possible. My early childhood was idyllic, but my preteen years and adolescence were marked by bullying and boy craziness. I was run by everyone and everything except my own wishes for myself and my life. I don’t want that for her.

I don’t spank often or for every offense, but each time that I do, I wonder whether I am inadvertently teaching her that her wishes will not or need not be respected. I worry that I am actually showing her how easily her power can be taken, and making it seem pointless for her to assert it. This fear, of course, is counterbalanced by the knowledge that she is a toddler and completely incapable of knowing all that she needs to do to remain healthy and even happy at this point in her development.

So even as the pendulum swings left then right, I can’t seem to move forward with any sort of certainty about how I should discipline my strong-willed girl. I continue trying to reason with her as much as possible, persuade her in the instances when I can, and nudge her in the right direction when she refuses to go on her own. But the fact that I am not convinced that spanking is the best way–her sweet little face crumpling in the aftermath–does make it difficult.

The second issue is linked to this one: toilet training. Even though I have been asking and urging and even sitting her down on her beloved Elmo potty off and on for the last six months, she has absolutely no interest. Even though she finds the mess and awkwardness of diapering “too yucky,” she still says “no, thank you” every time I invite her to skip it for a nice, sanitary sit-down on the throne. And I don’t know what I’m supposed to do when she so adamantly and politely refuses. Although, I must say, giggling is probably not the best response. I know.

All of the literature that I have read on the topic say don’t force it. Her doctor says don’t force it. But this voices of being drowned out by all of the old school black mamas in our lives that say a baby should be toilet trained by two at the latest. M will be three in August. We’re already getting eyes rolled and tongues clucked at us. She is oblivious, but I am feeling the pressure. And the expense of diapers, the inconvenience of changing someone as active and assertive as she has become, doesn’t make it easy to ignore the admonitions.

Also, I would like to put her in day care within the next few months. She needs the socialization. But I am afraid to make a stranger responsible for her toilet. I worry about everything from the person’s slovenliness to his or her pedophilia. Still, I think that going to school in diapers and seeing kids her age go potty might be just the encouragement she needs. Again, I’m stuck as to what’s the right move to make.

This last year has been the most challenging of our time together. My little baby has become a little person, and she is a strong one. I have had to learn to step back, shut up, and let her be who she is. Yes, this early. And I have also had to learn that even though she is bigger and more capable, she probably needs my guidance more now than before. These are the years in which the foundation for who she will be for the rest of her life will be lain. I want it to be sturdy and able to serve her well. I don’t want to smother her spirit with rules and rigid expectations, but I don’t want to give her the freedom to grow into a person that cannot function effectively in the various systems that make up our society. I want her to enter into these systems and change them, improve them, not become grist for the mill.

So I weigh these heavy decisions. I try to be wise and think forward. I try to prioritize her health and happiness rather than my own ease. I pray that I am doing the right things and that they are having the desired effect on her mind, heart, and spirit.

I know I’m blessed that these were the only problems I was dealing with at the time, but I think the sentiment is consistent and similar for all mothers.

We mothers–most of us–are breathing, sleeping, and eating worry about our children and striving to do the best for them.

The work we do as parents varies in its degree of difficulty depending on the unique challenges that our children face, but what doesn’t vary is the fact that it is difficult. It is work. And some of us really do struggle to do it.

And since that’s true, how can we begrudge those women that say “Not me” or “Now now”?

How can we say–in truth–that they are wrong to want to choose this work–or do it on their own terms–when it’s such crucial work?

I don’t think that there’s anything that women need more than the support of other women in this man’s world. This world that perpetually misunderstands and misconstrues what it is to be a woman.

I don’t think that there’s anything that women need more than the space to be themselves in this world that wants to dictate their bodies from hairstyle to toe nail color.

I don’t know why we need our decisions to be validated by other women’s decisions so desperately, but since we do, I suggest that we get what we need this way.

Trust the women in your life to know what’s right for them, and let them pursue that without censuring them.

Your religious salvation or whatever it is you hope to secure by making “good” decisions cannot be jeopardized by the actions that another woman takes for or against herself.

Feel, think, or believe what you want about abortion or polyamory or same sex marriage or interracial marriage or breastfeeding or birth control or spanking or cohabitating or whatever and live that truth out in your life.

Don’t inflict your emotions, thoughts, or beliefs on other women in such a way that it makes them feel bad about their choices.

You know how that feels–how hateful it is–how it sucks the joy out of you.

Don’t be that woman to another woman.

Be better than that.

And if you can’t feel good about your choices without belittling or deriding another woman’s choices, then re-examine your choices, because most likely they came from outside of you.

Maybe you did what you did because it was expected or you were pressured or scared to do what you really wanted or needed to do.

If that turns out to be true, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t get down on yourself. It won’t help.

Understand that some choices can be altered. Those that can’t be altered can be endured, especially with help. Help can be found if you’re honest about needing it and open up to accept it.

You know what I’m saying?

Be yourself, but let the next woman be herself, too. For the sake of sisterhood.

It cannot take anything away from you except needless anxiety over something that you cannot–and shouldn’t even want to–control.

It cannot stop you from doing anything except maybe staying stuck in circumstances that you can–and probably should–change.