I Almost Got Kicked Out of Macedonia Cinemark Taking Notes on This Movie, so, However Many Weeks Later, This is What I Thought About While Watching ‘Hidden Figures’

I live in a house located at the intersection of American Citizenship Avenue right before it turns into Black Woman Boulevard, where it crosses Motherhood Mount, right before it turns into Writers Way. It’s an exhausting place to live sometimes.

American is a ridiculously busy street where the traffic moves at an excruciatingly slow pace, and the drivers hop out of their cars frequently to argue out of frustration. Black Woman is less busy, but the cars move at lightning speed, so when they cross Motherhood and Writers, back onto American, they nudge the standing traffic, and everybody in those cars get all discombobulated. They start gesturing in their mirrors and talking shit out of their windows, and the occasional psychotic fool has been known to get out of his car with a gun in murderous overreaction. Motherhood is not as busy as Black Woman, but the drivers tend to get distracted by all the bright billboards with their didactic messages about how the road ought to be navigated. They make it so hard for the drivers to just trust themselves and fucking drive. Then, there’s Writers, which is lined on both sides by these massive lots where people can park for as long as they want to park; it’s hard to navigate because people are constantly pulling in and out of the lots and off and onto the street.

In other words, intersectionality is a fucking ass-kicker, and this is especially true, for me at least, with Trump in office, worrying the fuck out of me on every vector of my identity.

I feel obligated to write about him on this blog because I am an American and a mother – because I am black and a writer – but I also want – badly – to have times when I’m not thinking about what he is doing to this country.

I’ve figured out over the last couple of days that I have to make those times if I want them, then, because Trump’s governance is nothing but an abuser’s assault on America’s consciousness.

It’s deliberately relentless – designed to make it impossible for us to keep track of everything he is doing but at the same time caught in a reactionary cycle that keeps us too busy to plan a viable way to wrest his power back from him.

A few weeks ago, I did that. I made some time to enjoy my black mother writer self. I went to see “Hidden Figures” with my father, mother, and younger sister. I was moved, of course, by the story and the acting – they were excellent – and I saw in the themes of the film some things I thought that I would much rather put into a post than the next crazy thing Trump is doing.

I wasn’t lying in the title of the post; I did get so carried away with taking notes on the movie that I forgot about the rule against using cell phones in the theatre, and an usher came to my seat and told me that I would have to leave if I didn’t put my phone away.

I didn’t put it away, though; I turned down the backlight on the screen and finished doing what I needed to do. So here they are – my ruminations on “Hidden Figures” – minus this one I’m going to put right here at the head of the list, which is –

If white people would be the benevolent leaders of all these institutions they fight so hard to dominate, rather than acting from fear of losing their often undeserved or unearned leadership roles – fear of having their mediocrity exposed and/or their positions ascribed by it and not their privilege – they wouldn’t have to create fictional characters like “Al Harrison” or fictionalize the parts white people played in iconic situations like the one depicted in the film.

Moving on . . .

The movie is about tolerance and progress – the not-so-inexorable march of history – its actual capriciousness – its dependency on us to make it happen – but mostly it’s about sisterhood, and that was my first observation. This reflection here –

The absolute vitality of sisterhood among women cannot be overstated or exaggerated, especially if we are serious about overcoming gender oppression, which we fucking should be. Women are the only ones that truly understand how hard women have it in our society, so they are the only ones that know what aid to give women that are trying to be and do their best despite the entrenched sexism and misogyny in our culture.

Women have to commit to being sisters to other women, between and across secondary demographic lines, and they have to open up to the love and support that other women are able to offer them. This is mandatory, especially with that fucking pussy-grabbing . . . no . . . no . . . I said I wouldn’t write about him anymore in this post. I meant that.

Women – we can’t mistake “compassion” for projection. Remember the scene in which Janelle Monae’s character, Mary, is talking about becoming an engineer, and her husband is telling her not to pursue that goal because it’s impossible? It may have sounded like he was concerned and trying to steer her away from being hurt, but he was projecting his own limitedness onto her. Sad to say.

Our loved ones do this sometimes. They give advice that is based on their fears and aversion to struggle or disappointment. Or they pretend to be afraid for us when they are really afraid of us and what will happen if we grow or change while they remain the same.

No is your choice, not theirs. When Taraji P. Henson’s character, Katherine, needs, in order to do her assigned calculations, to see the redacted information that her white colleague keeps officiously blacking out in order to assert his “superiority,” she lifts the blacked-out (with Sharpie) sheets of paper up to the lights in her office ceiling so she can see the information he is trying to hide from her. She refuses to be blocked.

She could’ve taken his refusal to share the information as final, but she didn’t. He said no, but she said yes, and she figured out a way to get done what she needed to get done. She chose yes. We all either choose yes, or we choose no, in so many changeable life situations.

Numbers don’t lie in real life, either. Katherine says this time and again when her white male colleagues question her theories and calculations, and I’m saying that black people need to talk in terms of numbers with white people that seek to oppress or discriminate against us in the real world as well.

Black people in America have $1.1 trillion in collective buying power. We are 13% of the registered voting pool. That means that Big Business needs us. Politicians in danger of losing certain elections by narrow margins need us. We only receive 26% of the food stamps doled out in the US (whites receive 40%), and 62% of Obamacare enrollees are white while just 17% are black. That means that altering or ending these programs will hurt them more than it will hurt us. We are a force – a vital, productive part of this country and not some horrible drain. 

Complaining ain’t fighting. There’s a scene in the movie during which the three main characters, played by Janelle, Taraji, and Octavia Spencer, are hanging out, playing cards, and Janelle – Mary – is complaining that she can’t attend the engineering courses she needs to move up at NASA because they’re offered at a segregated white school. After a few minutes, Octavia – Dorothy – tells her to do something about the situation – sue the state for the right to attend the classes – anything – just stop complaining because she wasn’t accomplishing anything by complaining.

Complaining can feel revolutionary to people that have been historically silenced, or have silenced themselves, and I believe it is the first important step in personal politicization. But it’s only the first step – articulating your grievances. If you want to fix or change anything, you have to brainstorm, plan, mobilize, and do some strategic thing to fight the fucking power.

You have to either sacrifice or settle. Each of the secondary storylines illustrates this for us viewers. Katherine leaves the comfort of the segregated black female computer pool to work in a more highly powered, but hostile, white male pool so she is able to reach her full professional potential. Dorothy steals a book from the Whites Only section of the public library so she can teach herself computer programming and remain relevant after NASA transitions from using human computers to an IBM. Mary risks alienating her husband to take those engineering classes to which she finally gains entrance and become the first black woman engineer to work for NASA, and her decision connects directly with the next idea on this “list,” which is –

Take whatever chance you are able to get, especially if it will ultimately lead to the accomplishment of your goal. Don’t be so nitpicky that you select yourself out of an opportunity.

When Mary does go to court to gain entrance into those engineering classes, the judge only grants her entrance into the night classes, but Mary rejoices like she got full run of the entire school. She has fought as hard as she can and gotten her case the highest level of adjudication she can obtain, and she has been given a judgment that – while not earth-shattering – will allow her to become an engineer in the end. So she accepts the judgment. She doesn’t bitch or brood because it doesn’t provide the ideal circumstance.

At the start of the next scene, she’s right there, in the corridor of that segregated school, at the doorway to that unblocked classroom, ready to get it in.

Dorothy’s decision – to learn to program the IBM so she can stay on at NASA once human computers are phased out – teaches another cluster of lessons, too. Learn some shit if you want to come up on some shit. Know your shit if you want to be allowed to do some shit. And if you’re useful, you’re welcome.

Nothing beats being ambitious, knowledgeable, skillful, and effective when it comes to securing employment. Even the most discriminatory bastard – if he or she gives the slightest fuck about productivity or profit – will concede to someone that is black or a woman but excellent at getting shit done.

Because to hold someone back, you have to stay back with them. Next point. Really important one.

It sounds basic, but people forget this. They somehow think they can work full-time on sabotaging other people and still get their own shit done with adequate attention and effort.

But fear is a bitch and generally makes a bitch of those that practice it as an ethic. The movie illustrates this wonderfully, with the working relationships between the main characters and the white men with which they work.

The white man that supervises Mary encourages her to become an engineer so she can better help their team perfect the capsule in which John Glenn will eventually return to Earth after the first orbital launch, and that’s exactly what she does. The team figures out how to keep it bolted together despite the extreme temperatures to which it will be subjected upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere. Together.

In contrast, the white scientist that works with Katherine is so insulted that he is being forced to work with a black woman, and her job is to double-check his math, that he blacks out classified information on the printouts that he gives her. He argues with her every time she puts forth a suggestion about how they can successfully calculate the coordinates to launch and land the orbital ship, and he tries his hardest to bar her from informational briefings that would keep her equally as informed as the rest of the team working on the coordinates.

Now, never mind that Katherine knows analytic geometry – is the only person on the NASA complex that knows analytic geometry – and he doesn’t know analytic geometry, but the team desperately needs someone that knows analytic geometry. This fool, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), blocks Katherine at every available turn from being as efficient at her job as she could be if he would just leave her the-fuck alone. He is so afraid that she will formulate the coordinates before he can formulate them that he not only loses sight of the bigger picture, but he loses his own mathematical mojo. And the whole project takes longer than it needs to take, which undermines the credibility of the entire team in the eyes of the White House and military and puts the project in danger of being shut down.

Stafford plays so many stupid games that Kevin Costner – whose character Al Harrison is both their supervisor and the film’s requisite white savior – in order to save the project and get those coordinates – has to step in and singlehandedly desegregate the bathrooms, bump up Katherine’s security clearance, get her into the informational briefings with the military brass, and put Stafford in his place – behind the person with the chops to do the fucking math – and rightfully so.

Stafford’s behavior illustrates another truth, too. Greed very often trumps (Trumps) honor. Once Harrison stops Stafford from blacking out information on the calculation printouts, and Katherine is able to start checking the math and coming up with math of her own, she has to type up her math and put it into reports for Stafford to present in the informational briefings (this is before she can attend them). Each time she types up a report, she puts his name on and then hers since she is the one that has done the math. Each time he sees her name, Stafford insists that she take it off because “computers don’t write reports; engineers write reports.” This is a blatant theft of her knowledge. It’s an act of despicable fraud. But that doesn’t stop him. As I said – greed very often trumps honor.

Stafford wants the shine that he gets from entering into those briefings, seeming to have come up with “the answers.” He doesn’t care how debased the desire is or how indecent the method is by which he fulfills it. And, sadly, his character is not atypical.

And that brings me to my last little reflection. Dreamers need lovers. We need people that believe in and support us but also want us even after we have failed, which we will, over and over again.

Mary’s husband finally comes around after she gets into those night classes; he comes to her and tells her that he is proud and certain that she will make an amazing engineer. It is only then, in that moment, that we get to see how badly Mary wanted and perhaps even needed that sort of assurance from him. It is only then that she voices her own doubts about her ability, which is something that even the most ardent dreamer needs to be able to do sometimes, but in a safe space.

Dreamers need lovers, and I venture to say that lovers need dreamers, too. To inspire them to keep on opening and pouring out themselves, which is just as hard to do as building some imaginary thing out of thin air. Or harder.

I liked “Hidden Figures.” It was formulaic, sure, but it was well-done, wise, and wonderfully acted. I saw it twice, and I enjoyed it twice.

I took my Girlie, and she loved it. She left with stars in her eyes and hope for her future self beating in her chest. She told me that she really believes now that she can become a video game designer. So there you go.

Mission accomplished.

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Fathers, Fairy Tales, and Lies: Why We Can & Should Hold Black Male Celebrities Accountable for Their Crimes

I wrote this back in May of last year, but all the Bishop Eddie Long apologists I’m reading on Facebook brought it back to my mind and renewed its relevancy, at least to my thinking.

I will say the same thing here that I said on Facebook about some people’s refusal to be silent about the sexual abuse allegations against Bishop Long in the event of his death:

You recount the mistakes to distill the lesson.

The black community should’ve held Eddie Long accountable for the wrongs he committed while he was still alive if so many of its members find it distasteful to indict a dead man.

But what the black community shouldn’t do–through its parochial responses to Long’s accusers–is continue to make the black community unlivable for sexual abuse victims or make it a safe space for sexual predators.

That–if you ask me–is a sin.

MRS

Even though I grew up in a household that was an approximation of the black middle class ideal, I still wanted to be a Huxtable.

I wanted more siblings than my one baby sister, who, at eight years younger, could do nothing but annoy the hell out of me; I wanted to live in a brownstone in the biggest and busiest city in the world; I wanted to have all four of my grandparents within walking distance and visit with them regularly; I wanted a mother who allowed my friends to come and visit our home every day after school; and I wanted a father just like Heathcliff.

When I was young, my father was a workaholic with ambitions of becoming the next Johnny Cochrane; he was gone most of the time, and, when he was home, he was still busy with work. He had his own father’s heirloom sarcasm. He wanted his daughters to be ladies even though our mother was raising us to be women. His expectations could loom higher than a Detroit skyscraper at times, but his temper could be as ugly as the Detroit River. He never spanked me once in my life, but he did smack me up a time or two with doctrine—the proxy hand of God—when he thought I was getting too out-of-control with my damned independent thinking and insistence on eking out my own identity.

He was a lot more complicated than Heathcliff Huxtable–less fun and way more demanding–and, since I had that TV image with which to compare him, I often found myself wishing my dad was less himself and more like a sitcom character.

I would fantasize about him reacting to me in the warm, goofy way that Heathcliff reacted to his kids, and I would feel a bit cheated because it was work being his daughter, and no one applauded for me as I did it.

Now, at 39, I realize that work was some of the most valuable that I’ve ever don–that he–my father–and I were building me into a decent, hard-working, and responsible person (with a wicked sense of humor, enviable taste in music, an elegant sense of style, and a deeply-rooted notion of fairness).

I understand now that navigating one’s relationship with one’s parent(s) is one of the most influential parts of growing up, and I wouldn’t be anyone close to the thinker, writer, teacher, mother, sister, or friend I am if I hadn’t been my father’s daughter–and mother’s daughter–first.

I also see–in thinking through why Heathcliff Huxtable was such an appealing character to me–what a juvenile concept of the “father” most of black people retain throughout our lives.

This is important to point out because I think it has a lot to do with why so many us, who love(d) Heathcliff Huxtable, are having such a difficult time accepting that Bill Cosby is a rapist that deserves to be punished for his crimes.

Rather than an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, whispering to black people about what fathers are and are not, we have a fairy tale weighing on one shoulder and a pack of racist lies weighing on the other.

These two false images make it difficult for us to be realistic or real about our fathers and father figures.

The fairy tale is of the white father–a romanticized figure that is an amalgam of the Judeo-Christian God and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. This man–because of his social privilege and inherent moral superiority and intelligence–conferred by his whiteness–is the perfect father. He is always there for his kids; he always has to proper solution for their problems; he can provide for his children’s every need; and he never fails them. He is the polar opposite, conceptually, of the paradigmatic black father.

The lies on the other end of the binary are that black men are inherently bad fathers. That slavery stole the ability to parent permanently from them. That institutional racism bars them–across the board–financially, emotionally, and spiritually–from adequately supporting their children. That being the victims of oppression, suppression, deprivation, and violence makes them ineffective and even damaging.

Charles Blow of The New York Times does an excellent job of describing this manifold misconception: “[We believe],” he writes, ” . . . there is something fundamental, and intrinsic about black men that is flawed, that black fathers are pathologically prone to desertion of their offspring and therefore largely responsible for black community ‘dysfunction.’”

Both of these mythoi–of the good white father and bad black father–conveniently–or inconveniently for black men–ignore the facts–which must be considered in order for black people to gain a more realistic–and serviceable–concept of the “father.”

The first is that, historically, many white men have failed spectacularly at parenting. See Joseph Kennedy, who had his daughter Rosemary lobotomized at age 23 without his wife’s knowledge or agreement, or Woody Allen, who had an affair with the adopted daughter—Soon-Yi Previn—of his long-time girlfriend Mia Farrow. They have proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that white men in general are not automatically “better equipped” for parenting.

On the other hand, black men are more than just the “serial impregnators” portrayed in the racist mainstream media.

Though 72% of black women having babies are single mothers, this doesn’t mean that they don’t live with the fathers of their children. It actually means they aren’t married to them. Many still live with the fathers of their children. Only 55% of black children live in single mother households.

And even though a lot of black fathers don’t live with their children, about 2.5 million black fathers do live with at least one of their children.

Too, according to the CDC, black fathers–in and out of the home–provide more actual child care than white or Hispanic fathers. Yes–black men regularly feed their children their meals (78.2% black>73.9% white>63.9% Hispanic), dress their children (70.4% black>60% white>45% Hispanic), and read to their children every day (34.9% black>30.2% white>21.9% Hispanic). They are not all flailing or failing to fulfill their parental duties, despite what even a large segment of the black community maintains.

It is fair to acknowledge, too, that many of the black fathers that are missing from their children’s lives are missing because of factors related to institutionalization.

As reported in The Washington Post, “Incarceration [is an]  overwhelming [driver] of the gap [in the number of black women and men in the free population].

“Of the 1.5 million missing black men [out of 8 million] from 25 to 54 [the prime age span for fatherhood]–higher imprisonment rates account for almost 600,000. Almost one in 12 black men . . . is behind bars, compared with one in 60 nonblack men . . .”

These numbers prove that black men are not pathologically neglectful of their children.

Black fathers are still more absent from black homes than white fathers, but their patterns of abandonment can be linked to the historical legacy of slavery–how it has shaped today’s law enforcement and justice system, created genetic pitfalls for black people in terms of their health (which result in earlier deaths), and facilitated the demonization of black men in order to justify its reprehensibility.

Often, it is their internalized self-hatred–their own belief in their badness–that impels black men to leave their children alone–in the wrongheaded attempt to protect them.

Because black men struggle on a lot of levels to be present for their children at the same rates as nonblack men, and black people as a whole have a lot of misconceptions about how structural racism impedes parenting, the absences of black fathers lead many black people to cling to idealized father figures like Heathcliff Huxtable.

They set these father figures, usually found in entertainment, on pedestals because these men seem to have overcome whatever obstacles they needed to overcome in order to “get it right” for their children and co-parents (which are more often than not their wives).

Those that actually are or that just feel fatherless worship these figures in a sense, and this may be because one of the predominant figures in this improvised pantheon of imaginary surrogates is, in fact, the Judeo-Christian God.

Just listen to the way that many black religious leaders speak about God. They very liberally and munificently humanize Him. They do this because they know that so many black people suffer from an acute psychological sense of fatherlessness. They want to fix it, so they offer their congregants a God that is an eternal, omnipotent father.

They take that Biblical address, that ancient, enduring metaphor—“Our Father”—and literalize it–to effect some sort of spiritual healing from parental abandonment. They create a model of fatherhood that–while it may not shape the way that real black fathers do their jobs–shapes the way that the fatherless envision the role of the father. Then, celebrities, cultural icons, and imaginary characters like Heathcliff Huxtable do the same thing, but on a lesser level.

These famous “fathers” provide the fatherless with an unrealistic ideal that they attach to as “theirs” to fill the absence of an actual father. These “fathers” give the fatherless ridiculously high standards for what a father is, but, since they appear to meet these standards, they also inspire immense amounts of love and loyalty. It is this love and loyalty–and the painful prospect of losing yet another “parent”–that make it so difficult for people to accept it when father (or maybe it’s more apt to say “fatherly”) figures like Bill Cosby commit terrible acts.

Since so many black people do suffer from fatherlessness–or even from the idea that their “regular” black fathers are inferior–they do not want to give up their adoptive fatherly figures.

They do not want to face the fact that a character like Heathcliff Huxtable is a personage and not a person.

They want their fatherly figure to be innocent, or, if he cannot be innocent, they want him to be exempt.

So when their fatherly figure is put on public trial, these “children” argue that his positive contributions to society or culture or the black community must outweigh his crimes. They vilify his victims in order to lessen his culpability and depravity. They deny that his behavior is actually harmful, or, worse, they say that his victims are the ones doing the harm, by ruining the fatherly figure’s so-called legacy.

They make that same tired argument every time–that if Guilty Black Fatherly Figure were white, he wouldn’t be held nearly as accountable for his transgressions, as if that somehow justifies his transgressions. But the truth remains.

Despite how prevalent fatherlessness is in the black community, or how painful it is, we—the collective—cannot use it as an excuse to dismiss the crimes of our famous black men. Our imaginary “fathers” are no less responsible for their actions than our actual fathers. Fame, wealth, and talent–while they are rare–impressive–enchanting–still do not cancel out brutality, cruelty, perversity, or decidedly unchecked psychopathy.

The ugly truth is, then, that Bill Cosby is somnophiliac that–because he prefers to secretly drug women rather than gain their consent to have unconscious sex–has allowed the pursuit of his paraphilia to make him a rapist.

He has admitted on the record to drugging women and raping them. He has paid these women–by order of the court and on his own—as his atonement for raping them.

He has exploited his image as a fatherly figure, his power, and sexist stereotypes like that of the female groupie or gold digger to ruthlessly cover for his crimes.

He has been allowed and–yes–encouraged–by his wife, entourage, the Hollywood establishment, the legal system, the patriarchy, and, yes, the black community–that deifies him–to violate a group of 50 women–that we know of–between 1965 and 2008–without suffering any losses to his fame, wealth, reputation, or freedom.

And before any of you reading can make the reflexive argument that erroneously links the veracity of their accusations to how long it took certain of his victims to come forward on the record, let me let you know–

American culture and the nation’s justice system are criminally inhospitable to female rape victims, and this has a profound effect on their willingness to report their attacks.

In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that only 15.8 to 35 percent of all sexual assaults are reported to police.

This is because when women are assaulted by a friend or acquaintance (neighbor, classmate, coworker, boss), they fear they will not be believed.

They fear retaliation from the accused, other people finding out they’ve been assaulted, being branded as a rape victim, and/or being disrespected and/or mistreated during the trial process.

They believe that the police will not do anything to help them.

They believe that they have a lack of adequate proof or evidence.

They have their own misconceptions about what actually constitutes rape and do not actually know or believe that they have been raped.

Men may not be able to relate to these reasons–or they might refute them in order to abstain from inverting and being implicated by them–but women–if we’re being honest–know that they are very real.

Too many of us have either been raped or molested and experienced these paralyzing fears or doubts firsthand, or we have imagined being raped or molested and projected these fears and doubts onto our imaginary selves and into our possible futures.

Another reason not listed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that women don’t report sexual assaults is the terrible lack of credibility attributed to them by certain principles of rape culture.

Patriarchal notions that men hold–about how desperately women want to please them, how deserving “promiscuous” women are of punishment, and how important maintaining a “good girl” image is to women–make it easy for men to believe that women are lying when women say they’ve been raped.

Men like this think women are so universally “afraid” of being typed as sluts that any and all of them would lie about having consensual sex–call it rape–to avoid retribution or requital for exercising their sexual freedom.

And these men hold to the unfortunate truth that some women have lied about being assaulted—they have falsely accused men to avoid shame, exact revenge, or hide infidelity.

In the case of Cosby’s accusers, we must also concede they were up against the unlikelihood that a woman that is a “nobody” would be believed over a cultural icon.

Look baldly at how his accusers have been treated, and it’s easy to see why so many of Cosby’s victims felt for so long that reporting him to the authorities would be pointless.

People conflate Cosby with Heathcliff Huxtable. They think Bill Cosby is Heathcliff Huxtable. And, as devotees of the character, it is impossible for them to imagine Heathcliff raping a woman. So they struggle with believing that Cosby is a rapist. Still, the numbers of victims—as well as Cosby’s own accounts of his encounters with them and court settlements to which he has agreed—make it impossible to ignore that Cosby is guilty of a pattern of illegal behavior for which he deserves to be punished.

It looks as if the same thing, unfortunately, can be said about legendary hip hop culturalist Afrika Bambaataa, who has been accused in the last couple of months by four men of sexually abusing them during the 1980s.

Allegedly, he showed them—as boys—pornographic materials then performed oral sex on them.

Along with assaulting them, he gave them shelter, food, and money when they needed it, and he maintained a “father-son” relationship with at least one of them into adulthood. That is—in fact—what the boys called him: “Poppy.”

It’s reasonable to assume that fatherlessness, shame, machismo, and a distorted sense of loyalty are what kept them from reporting their abuse until now.

Again, before those of you that are inclined start doing that victim-blaming “thing” we so often do when we hear that victims of sexual assault have waited to name their accusers, I want to go back to one really significant concept I brought up previously, and that’s loyalty.

I honestly believe that malformed and misdirected loyalty are what keep a lot of black people silent about the terrible things that other black people do to them or in their presence.

We have such a profound mistrust of law enforcement and the courts that we do not want to turn a supposed “brother” or “sister” over to them if we can help it.

So many of we black people refuse to report crimes committed against us by other black people—and we uphold our own abusers in a lot of instances—in order to show our racial awareness and solidarity.

We romanticize our victimization as a sacrifice of sorts, and we shame those that don’t adhere to this dysfunctional “code” of honor and silence. But this behavior is a throwback to the plantation and the inhumane treatment our ancestors often suffered when they didn’t cover and/or lie for each other.

As a people, we have to start moving past our past, in this sense. We either have to abandon this anti-“snitching” ethic and turn the offenders in our community over to the law, or we have to figure out our own ways to hold them accountable for their choices to damage others and refuse to seek help for their sicknesses.

I said it before—navigating one’s relationship with one’s parent(s) is one of the most influential parts of growing up. James Baldwin even said that loving someone—that act in itself—is a growing up.

It’s a process of shedding the pretty, pretend ideas we get from fairy tales, and the hyperbolic or fantastical ideas we get from lies, and embracing new ideas about ourselves—bolder concepts of ourselves—that protect and empower us, female and male.

And here are a few—

We can love Heathcliff Huxtable—what he represents—the will to father black children lovingly and joyfully—without reifying him.

We can admire Bill Cosby as an entertainer, philanthropist, actor, and producer without deifying him.

We can condemn Bill Cosby for raping those women without killing the image of Healthcliff Huxtable.

We can support a conviction of Bill Cosby’s guilt and maintain a sense of our highest and not our basest form of integrity.

We can condemn Afrika Bambaataa without indicting hip hop culture or erasing his contributions to the culture from its history.

We can support a conviction of his guilt.

We must.

Nothing can justifiably counterbalance wrongs like the ones Cosby or Eddie Long committed except confession, contrition, reparation, and rehabilitation.

So we cannot keep perpetuating this cult of fragile black manhood—this concept that black men cannot answer for their actions—if we want black men that ultimately inspire more than pity, mistrust, resentment, or fear in us. Or that can only truly be great when they are standing framed in our blind spots.

We cannot keep perpetuating this cult of fragile black manhood if we want to evolve into a culture that is characterized by more than its pathologies.

In order to grow out of the desperation of fatherlessness and demand what is actually attainable from our famous men–decency–we have to leave the childish notion that fathers are faultless behind us, once and for all.

We have to process the ugly truths about our fatherly figures. Topple them from their pedestals. Let them shatter and clean up the messes they’ve made.

This will help us to not only heal from their abuses, but it will help us to better appreciate our real fathers.

It will open us up to accepting that many of them are bending over backward, being their best for us.

 

Daily Prompt: Treasure

via Daily Prompt: Treasure

I like words like “treasure.” Words that are nouns and verbs. That allow me to talk about what I have and what I do.

I am getting married in 21 days. I never thought I’d ever get married. I was raised by married parents, at whose wedding I was the flower girl, so I always wanted marriage, but I never thought I’d get married.

There are a lot of reasons I thought I’d never get married. They arise from my conditioning, of course. I’m brown-skinned. I’m fat. I’m opinionated. I’m brainy. I’m loud. I’m awkward. I’m a little macho. I’m hyper-sensitive. I have a vindictive temper. I can be nitpicky as hell. I’m a little too fond of being right. I want a lot of attention from whoever I am dating.

I only do monogamous relationships. I talk a lot. I talk a lot of shit. I talk a lot of slick shit.

I’m self-conscious of my body. I’m stubborn. I will write about your ass and then go to a venue and read that shit out loud to other people. I can shut down when I feel neglected or as if I am being condescended to. I can be cripplingly insecure at times. I make up stories in my head about how unreal people’s feelings are toward me.

I am a mess.

I never thought a man I would want for a husband would want me for a wife.

Yes, I bought into the stereotype of what “wife material” is. Very early on. I vacillated between trying to embody those characteristics I saw in so many real and fictional wives around me–self-abasing adoration, stupid loyalty,  prescribed sexuality, suicidal generosity–and trying to refute them.

I made up my mind at nine that I wanted to be a writer and at thirteen that I was a feminist, and I honestly didn’t think I’d find a man that would truly respect and help me with either of those ambitions.

I could only imagine a man regarding my personality, politics, and avocation as terrible inconveniences.

I had been teased enough for my dark gums, big thighs, protruding stomach, wrinkly hands, hairy arms–I can go on and on–to think your typical hetero black man would pass on me and pick a more conventionally attractive woman to be his wife if and when he made that choice to partner up romantically.

I had had enough boyfriends lie to me, cheat on me, manipulate me,  criticize me, misuse me, and gaslight me to think that there was something about me that would never really allow a man to treat me right.

That didn’t stop me from trying to become a powerful woman. It didn’t stop me from trying to become as wise as I could. It didn’t stop me from talking shit or doing most of the things that I wanted to do. It didn’t stop me from seeking love and relationships, either, though it did tinge all of my efforts with a bit of hopelessness–I won’t lie.

When I met my fiance, I was only a few months out of a broken engagement. I had just completed a stretch of intensive therapy. I wasn’t sure who I was or if I had any business getting into another relationship. I thought I might be rebounding or setting myself up for another romantic failure. I was terrified of getting hurt again and sure that he was too pretty, too cool, too whole, and too young for me.

But I got close to him anyway. We became friends, and then we became a couple, and here we are–fifteen years later–living and raising our daughter together, embarking on a partnership that I truly hope will last the rest of our lives.

And in this moment I treasure that hope. I am so happy that I still have the ability to hope after everything I’ve gone through in my romantic life. I am so happy that I still have my belief in love and my respect for marriage.

I treasure my belief in love because it is what has allowed me to remain open and continue seeking new connections and experiences throughout my life despite all of the hurt, disappointment, and frustration I have endured.

I started dating at 13. Throughout my adolescence and twenties, I had a series of ill-advised, overly serious, largely codependent (at least on my end) monogamous relationships that really could’ve fucked me up for the duration if I had let them.

But I treasure all of the experiences I had in all of those relationships right now–because they have helped make me the exceptionally strong and wise woman and constructive partner that I am.

I really do appreciate all of my “big” exes. I think of the things that happened between us during our relationships–the things they did to me that were hurtful or made me angry–as mistakes. I acknowledge my role in every dynamic–what I allowed, what I did, and what I didn’t do.

I thank B for teaching me that men can respect your wishes to pace yourself and swim in your proper depth if they want to.

I thank S for teaching me the need to and importance of setting boundaries and saying no.

I thank C for teaching me that when you keep allowing someone to hurt you, you are cuing them to hurt you. That the only effective way to make a person see that they are hurting you is to stop them from hurting you. To leave them and leave them alone. That you make it impossible for a person to see the harm that he’s doing when you treat his bad behavior like it’s decent or his unhealthy love like it’s lifeblood.

I thank G for teaching me to follow my gut. From our first meeting, I sensed that what he wanted from me was more than I had to give to him. But I ignored that instinct because I was curious and flattered; I wanted to be liked as much as he liked me. I learned, though, that you have to process everything that is happening in your relationship; you have to walk away from some stuff that you like or you want sometimes because you can’t handle or don’t want some other stuff.

I thank R–who I did not date, but who I do love–who is my dearest male friend and one of my most treasured friends–for telling me not to shrink myself anymore for any more men and calling me on my bullshit (that is: my distrust, pessimism, pretentiousness, cowardice, and self-absorption) without belittling or stigmatizing me.

I treasure these lessons that I’ve learned, even if I had to learn them in some really hard ways. I treasure every ugly realization I’ve had to make about my faults in order to own my mistakes and learn how not to repeat them.

I treasure my relationship with J, in which I am the truest, fullest, most complicated Michelle I have ever been with any man.

I treasure J for being such an amazing man that he can love me.

I treasure our history, which is long and twisty and hard for some people to understand and of which some parts are hard to own, but has been so necessary and constructive for us–as individuals and as a couple–that I wouldn’t change one thing about it.

I treasure the opportunity I am getting on the 29th–our 15th anniversary–to marry J. I am so thankful to be alive and functioning and willing to enter a new stage of my life and have a new adventure. Do a new, scary thing.

I even treasure my fear because it means that getting married is important to me. I am not just doing it for the sake of tradition or convention. I have a sincere wish to be in a marriage and experience all that means for me.

Treasure is a noun and a verb, as I said, and, as I write, I realize that I have all these wonderful treasures that I never thought I would have in my life. I realize that I am one of those treasures.

I am a mess, yes, but I am a beautiful mess, and I–with my dark gums, my fat stomach, my opinions, my feminism, my neurotic love life, all my shit–am my own best thing.

Love is my treasure.

More time here–on this Earth, in this body, as this self–to love and learn is my treasure.

Being Insecure: The Complication of Wanting Romantic Love as a Cis Hetero Black Femme Feminist

So I watched the final three episodes of “Insecure”–

If you don’t know “Insecure,” then you should get to know it. It’s entertaining as hell.

Even though it trades on some of the most tired paradigms of black entertainment–my least personal favorite being the funny fat friend (since she is who I battle with myself on a daily basis not to be–another blog post for another time), it also delves into some new and poignant territory with its portrayal of the darker-skinned protagonist, her even darker-skinned best friend, and their shared plethora of confidence issues.

It gets a lot of things right about twenty-something, thirty-something educated black women trying to navigate adulthood with the kind of exquisite baggage that only America can gift.

SPOILER ALERT: The protagonist is Issa. She is characterized by her deep ambivalence. She hates her job at a non-profit that runs after-school programming for inner city kids, but she doesn’t have the balls to pursue music, which is her love (she raps). She loves her boyfriend, Lawrence, but she resents him for having sat, unemployed, idle, on their sofa for the past two years. She admires her best friend, Molly, for having achieved a high level of career success and financial stability, but she questions whether her approach to dating is strategic or self-destructive.

Lawrence lost his job and invented a computer app at some point previous to where the timeline for the season starts, but, unfortunately, the app failed to take off, and he was left with dashed hopes and minimal income. His own confidence took an understandable nosedive, and, correlatively, Issa’s did, too.

At the post at which the season starts, she is the breadwinner in the relationship, and she is resentful and I think embarrassed because she has opted to stay with a man that can’t seem to get it together and doesn’t fit the textbook definition of “successful.”

Rather than break up with him, she starts texting her ex to boost her confidence, though she doesn’t see that. She doesn’t recognize that classic pattern of romanticizing an old relationship when the one you’re in isn’t satisfying you. Daniel is someone with which she’s always had chemistry, but never a healthy dynamic, yet she pushes that aside when they begin communicating again.

She remains with Lawrence in the meantime. They go back-and-forth for a few episodes, but then he realizes how unattractive his situation has become to her, and he goes out and gets a retail job to tide him over until he can get more gainful employment. He and Issa pledge to work at their relationship; he starts interviewing for better jobs; and things get better.

That is until a video of Issa at an open mic, rapping, goes viral. She is afraid it will affect her job, and she goes to the ex–Daniel–for help to track down the person that posted it (he had been at the club the night of the open mic) and get it removed.

Daniel agrees to help her, but, when they have no luck finding the person that posted the video, he proposes a detour, and she goes to the studio with him to sit in on a recording session (he’s a producer) and clear her mind.

There, Daniel gasses Issa’s ego; he tells her she is an amazing writer and emcee, and they make a track that is passably decent. She lets the excitement of the experience–exercising her creative muscles and having her art be accepted and appreciated–totally overtake her.

Issa has sex with Daniel, but then realizes it was a mistake and sneaks out of the studio. She spends the next few weeks scrupulously avoiding him and focusing on Lawrence and the planning of a work fundraiser instead.

The fundraiser is, of course, the place where the shit hits the fan. Daniel comes to confront her about cutting him off, and Lawrence sees them arguing through a window. He waits for Issa to get back to their apartment after the event, and he confronts her as well. She confesses, and he stalks out on her.

Fast-forward: Lawrence has a really grim moment in the champagne room at the strip club and thinks maybe he better take Issa back. He calls her, on vacation with her girls, and says he is going back to their apartment, and he is willing to talk to her when she returns. She jumps the gun and leaves her vacation right away to meet him there.

Apparently, though, returning to the apartment triggers him because when Issa arrives, he is gone with all of his things, and the only thing she finds is Lawrence’s Best Buy polo, hanging in the closet.

The epilogue is the dramatic portrayal of the cliché that men do not know how to process romantic pain except with sex. Lawrence is going harder than he ever did with Issa onscreen with the flirtatious bank teller that used to cash his unemployment checks and give him cute little pep talks in-between reckless eyeballs. Cut to Issa, and she is curled up in Molly’s lap, sobbing.

The whole time I was watching Issa go back-and-forth with the ex, previous to the sex, I kept warning her aloud to be smart, be strong, stop playing, and stay away from him. It was only partially because he had told her in the first episode he wasn’t looking for a relationship, though. The other reason was I thought she would ruin a solid relationship–with Lawrence–if she messed around and fucked Daniel.

Now, I didn’t think Lawrence was this amazing catch because I am at least feminist enough not to think of men as catches–because I am adverse to the idea that women should chase men for love, sex, or validation.

However, I did find myself thinking Lawrence was a “nice” guy, and Issa should be careful with his emotions not just because he was her man, but because it might not be easy to find an equally “nice” man if she and Lawrence broke up.

I’ve read quite a few other responses to Issa fucking Daniel–from black women–some of them feminists–and many of them cheered her on for scratching her sexual “itch” and leaving Lawrence stuck in his career rut with his failed app and pretentious refusal to take an entry level IT job.

They thought Lawrence was a masquerading “nice” or “good” guy, and the fact that he’d fallen into that rut disqualified him from deserving a certain level of respect and affection.

They made sure to say that Issa was messy for ending their relationship by fucking Daniel, but they also insisted she was right to end their relationship and should’ve ended it months earlier, before Daniel re-entered the picture.

I’m not going to lie. Reading these responses led me to question my own: I wondered whether it was heteropatriarchy that had me thinking about the situation the way that I did.

First, I thought it was compassionate of Issa to stay with Lawrence while he struggled, not weak, and that was a healthy reaction in the context of a long-term relationship.

I have this concept that people have their own developmental paths, and one of the mistakes we make in relationships is trying to pull people off of these paths or insisting they take shortcuts so the relationship can follow some fairy tale or rom-com narrative.

In order to insist, as a cis hetero black femme woman, that my man allow me to make decisions about my life that further my growth even if they stretch the relationship out of conventional shape, I feel like I have to extend him that same space to explore his individuality.

And, when those decisions lead me to fail, in order to request or expect compassion and comfort from him, I have to be willing to give it. That’s equality.

In that same vein, I thought it was unevolved of Issa to consider breaking up with Lawrence over money and not an issue in their dynamic.

Again, as a feminist, I don’t expect a man to support me financially; I expect us to sit down and map out a sensible and fair plan for how we will navigate money matters as a team.

The only thing I need a man to do, if we are paying bills together, is to cover what he says he will cover and take care of his own needs with his own money.

If he isn’t able to do that, I am willing to stay with him, but I will move out or make other living arrangements so that I am not supporting him financially because I am not his parent or caretaker. That, to me, is making sure the relationship is reciprocal and as balanced as it can be.

Too, I thought it was unfair for Issa to expect Lawrence to take a job he didn’t want just because she had a job that she didn’t want.

That was her decision to make, as was her decision to continue living and paying bills with Lawrence after he lost his job.

Like I said before, I want the space, in a relationship, to make choices for myself that are empowering and affirming, and I don’t want my partner putting pressure on me to subvert my dreams or desires and “take one” for the proverbial the team. That shit can be soul-crushing.

So I have to be willing to give my partner that same space and not invoke the whole “breadwinner male” ethic, which is just as much a product of heteropatriarchy as the ethic of the “dutiful wife.”

Finally, I thought it was codependent and unrealistic for Issa to think Lawrence “should have” gotten off the couch and out of his funk to save her from her own decisions to stay with him and take on paying the lion’s share of the bills.

Issa is a grown woman, and it is her job to be honest with herself and the people around her about what she wants and needs.

If she told Lawrence that she had his back, but, then, she changed her mind, it was her job to say that. It was her job to extricate herself from their situation; it wasn’t his job to solve himself for her; he is his own problem.

In playing the “dutiful wife”–when she wasn’t even his wife and her heart wasn’t in it anymore–Issa played herself and put Lawrence in the position to play her–the exact reason you never play the “dutiful wife” or any role that subverts your real identity or desires(.

Yes, Lawrence was wallowing in his disappointment, but people wallow–depression is real and alienating–and we all have to be our own protectors and advocates against unhealthy influences, even in romantic relationships.

If we are going to insist on being treated as strong, intelligent, evolved women, then we can’t play the damsel and wait for men to save us, on any level, and especially not from themselves. That is when we become the unrealistic ones.

(To me, a feminism that expects men to voluntarily come out of their conditioning to care about our struggles is like a black consciousness that expects white people to voluntarily give up their white privilege.)

When I originally thought about writing this post, I played with the title “‘Insecure’ & Conundrums of Cis Hetero Black Femme Feminism.”

Because I think that we feminists that are cis, hetero, black, and femme have to navigate very carefully in order to ensure that we are not operating out of our heteropatriarchal conditioning when we deal with men.

It is easy when you love men romantically and sexually, and they are black men, to prioritize their needs and wants over yours because that is how most of us are taught: We are taught that we need a man, should want a man, are lucky to get a man, and should do what is necessary to keep a man because of the supposed scarcity of livable hetero black men.

Many of us are taught that a man that doesn’t beat you or cheat on you–or a man that discreetly cheats on you–is a “good” man. A man that makes more money than you and/or has more education than you is a “catch.” The endgame for romantic relationships is “catching” a man–getting him to marry us.

We are taught to pursue “successful” men; to put price tags on our time and attention and sex; and to dismiss men that cannot afford to pay these price tags. We are taught to objectify ourselves in anticipation of being objectified by men and break our necks to look a certain way and fit into whatever mold of respectability or sexuality in order to please men and “keep” men.

One of the first things you do–or at least that I did–when I became a feminist was to dissect all of these teachings in order to identify which of my ingrained behaviors were oppressing me. Then, I brainstormed ways to change them.

However, I’m not going to lie and say that I am a feminist warrior in my romantic relationship every single hour or every single day. There are those conundrums of feminism that come up when you want to be true to yourself, but you’re dealing with a black man and all his patriarchal baggage, and you want things to go smoothly.

One of the most frequent ones, for me, is wanting very badly for your relationship to work. That in itself can feel anti-feminist because it can very easily slip into codependency and unhealthy attachment.

You are always walking a fine line between being invested and committed and allowing yourself to be misused and possibly even abused in the name of “love.”

When I was watching “Insecure,” I was compelled to ask myself over and over whether Issa was settling for staying with Lawrence, which, to me, is a benign (when the man is not violent or abusive) form of self-abnegation or self-denial.

I thought she was being a committed partner, but, then, after I read what some other smart women had to say, I wondered whether I was wrong. Then, I wondered whether attempting to partner with a male period is a form of self-abnegation that cis hetero feminists just have to accept and navigate as carefully as they can.

Any cis hetero black woman or femme black woman knows how delicate black men’s egos can be. You know how lightly you can feel impelled to tread in their emotional landscape, which can feel like it is nothing but a maze of booby traps.

When being strong, independent, and self-determined is a mandate, dealing romantically with men can very easily lead to endless power struggles and really ugly splits because they can’t handle you. Mind you, they can have a hard time handling you because they refuse to do more, or you are doing too much, but I digress.

Being a feminist and hetero is complicated, yet, as a human being, you crave companionship, sex, love, and maybe even commitment. Take me. I’m big on monogamy. I want marriage. Yet, I feel guilty for wanting these things, and afraid of them, because they seem almost intrinsically not just anti-feminist, but anti-female, with all the double standards, antiquated thinking, and stringent politics that govern both.

It occurs to me that I am insecure at times. Not about my cis hetero black femme femininity or womanhood, but about my feminism. I can be really shaky sometimes when it comes to enacting all these concepts I have about how to conduct myself in my romantic relationships.

Because on one end, I am afraid of playing into patriarchy, and, on the other, I am afraid of enacting a feminism that doesn’t allow me to be who I am.

I am a romantic. I am a monogamist. I have a fiancé. I think women are sexy as hell, but I only want to sleep with men.

I want to wear make-up and earrings and still be taken seriously. I want to be fat and still be considered sexy. I want to be loud and opinionated and still be romantically and sexually attractive (though I do not just want to be attractive).

I want to be educated and make money and not be subject to male hostility or inconsideration. I want to be sexually open and expressive and not be subject to attack or disrespect. I want to be vulnerable, compassionate, and affectionate and not be mistaken for weak or treated like shit or an idiot by inadequate, insecure, or manipulative men.

But I also do not want to be mistaken for weak or treated like shit or an idiot by women when I am vulnerable, compassionate, or affectionate toward men. I don’t want other feminists dog-walking me because I refuse to vilify men or refute tenderness.

I want to be free (imagine that) to exist along the full spectrum of emotions and behaviors. That, to me, is the aim of feminism.

Yes–all of this from a sitcom. I thank Issa Rae and her writers for coming up with a plotline that was so provocative. I love when black entertainment isn’t the typical slick, manicured minstrel show.

And I guess what I am saying is–the way we view “Insecure” or the lives of the real women we know can provide some really interesting and useful clues about what we feel about our relationships and ourselves.

With “Insecure” and my own engagement weighing on my mind, I forced myself to spell out–for myself–what I think about issues surrounding support and money in relationships–very important ideas to parse when embarking on a lifetime partnership.

And I don’t fault Issa for staying with Lawrence or wanting him back in the end. I don’t think he’s a “good” guy or a “bad” guy. I reject that binary. I don’t think it helps to think of people in types because it impels us to act off of scripts and not our true feelings, desires, and needs.

I also don’t think that cis hetero black femme feminists like me are betraying ourselves when we try to work it out with men that don’t fit neatly into boxes–that aren’t knights or panty-droppers or alphas, but just regular, decent men interested in healthy, constructive love with a woman that is in control of herself.

I think we need to embrace this ethic expressed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and my femininity. And I want to be respected in all of my femaleness because I deserve to be.”

Because if we are letting any rule tell us who to love or how or what to do in general, we are not free or independent.

If we are not living out our own individual ideas of what it means to be female, or we are suppressing our femininity, whatever that is for us, we are not feminists.

Full Code

My great-grandmother is 100-years-old or thereabouts. We aren’t sure because she was born in Alabama, in her parents’ home, with the help of a midwife. Her birth certificate says she came to this world on September 8, 1915, but she was told she was born on September 3, 1916. She was well into her 90s before my mother–her eldest granddaughter–ordered a copy of her birth certificate for her, in order to help her get her Medicare in order. That’s when the family learned we had been celebrating her birthday on the wrong day. That’s when we were made to appreciate just what a miracle she is. She was even older than we thought. But still living. Still lucid. Still healthy.

Today, she isn’t healthy anymore. Rheumatoid arthritis and a stroke two years back have taken her ability to walk.

She can’t sew or cook anymore. She can’t read with the glaucoma and cataracts.

A staph infection and poor circulation have threatened the survival of her right leg. They’ve also somehow robbed her of certain elements of her mind.

She can only tell us now how badly she hurts and wants to go home, to Alabama.

She used to tell us how much she admired Obama and how frustrated she was that the Cavs couldn’t win a championship, even with Lebron back on the team.

At the nursing home where she was sent a couple weeks back, after spending two weeks in the hospital with the staph infection, she’s listed as “full code.”

This means that if she goes into cardiac arrest, the staff is supposed to call for an ambulance, and the EMTs are supposed to do whatever they can to save or resuscitate her.

She’s “full code” here, too, at the hospital where we–my mother, father, daughter, and I–are waiting right now for the surgeon to give her an arteriogram in her infected leg.

The doctor says her foot is “mummified” because of the poor circulation in her leg. The staph infection aggravated the situation to a dangerous extent.

There is no more pulse in the flesh. If the blood doesn’t start flowing more effectively, the necrotizing effect will spread. Her pain will continue and become more agonizing. The death of the leg will spread upward, to the thigh.

So if the arteriogram doesn’t work, and widen the artery in her leg, the doctor will take the leg. Her health will become even more fragile. She’ll be one step closer–in the most literal sense–to not being here anymore.

I am afraid of the doctor taking her leg. I am afraid of what the shock of the loss may do to the rest of her. I am afraid of losing her.

One of the most disappointing parts of being a person is how limited our understanding of our own lives can be.

It’s only now, as I stare down the possibility of losing her, that I realize how amazing my great-grandmother is.

Even as an infirmed old woman, she had a way of being happy. She knew how to do that in any circumstance. I think it came out of her immense appreciation of God and quiet faith that everything was happening just as it should.

When the family lost my grandmother–her only daughter–I never saw her drop a tear. She saw my grandmother in a dream a few nights after her funeral, looking like she had before the cancer had wasted her, and she was comforted.

She said my grandmother had a new body; she was in a better place; and there was no reason to grieve.

This is what woke me up to how strong and resilient she is.

This is what made me as fully thankful as I am to be her blood.

My great-grandmother once said she would’ve been a writer if it had ever occurred to her she could be.

She loved stories and always believed there was at least one in her worth telling to the world.

In my most heady moments, I imagine that I am the realization of this dream of hers: I am the writer she might’ve been.

In my more humble moments, I am simply thankful to have inherited her love of words, her vivid imagination, and her desire to create.

The nurses just took her to surgery a few minutes ago. I was hiding in the hallway when they came to get her, crying where my daughter and mother wouldn’t see me.

I want her pain to stop, but I don’t want her heart to stop.

I want to make her understand what I understand finally-that she has always been a tremendous source of inspiration for me.

I love my great-grandmother. She helped raise and shape me.

She took care of my baby from the time she was six-weeks-old until she was four. She made me feel safe, leaving my baby in her hands while I went off to work.

She used to tell me, all the time, that she couldn’t believe how bright I am.

She used to tease me about my hair and clothes, but always make sure that I knew how proud of me she was and how deeply she loved me.

I don’t have my great-grandmother’s faith, unfortunately; I have my own rather dark sense of realism, so I can’t write with certainty that she will come out of her surgery whole, or she will recover and be even better than before.

I can say, though, that watching her cope with advanced age and illness has been hard, but it has also helped me.

I will live full code from now on, doing everything I can to be the woman I dream of being.

My great-grandmother is my model. She’s taught me.

I know better than ever now how important it is to treasure people and time.

I know better than ever how important it is to appreciate the life (the family, the story) that’s been gifted to me.

 

 

 

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

 

 

A Black Feminist on the Blame Game

I’m a proud and adamant black feminist.

And ever since I took on that designation, in my late teens, I’ve had a lot of men and women argue with me about how “problematic” it is for me to call myself a feminist as a black woman.

The standard explanation that they give me–for why feminism is so destructive to black life and community–is it emasculates and displaces men.

But the meme that I saw on Facebook earlier today explains why I think black feminism is absolutely necessary:

meme

Black feminism is necessary because it helps black women to see the fallacy in misogynistic bullshit like this.

It helps us to cope with the undue hostility with which so many black men treat us in an attempt to hide from culpability for what they’ve done with their lives and to themselves and their families.

Tonight is not the first time that I’ve read this particular story of the destruction of the black family, in which black women are the scapegoats for black men’s inability to fight effectively against certain destructive influences in their lives.

It’s not the first time that I’ve read this fucked-up fable of what “feminism” did to the black family, but it’s the first time that I’m going to argue against it on this blog. Because it’s untrue.

In the 1950s and 1960s, yes, there were far more married black people than there are now. But we have to look at the factors that contributed to that outside of the absence of feminism.

The church played a much more encompassing role in black life at that time.

College and professional careers were only possible for a small segment of the black community, so adult rites of passage boiled down to getting a job, getting married, and having babies.

Segregation made it so people socialized almost exclusively with other black people, so they paired off almost exclusively with other black people.

Black people made–believe it or not–even less money than they do now, so men and women used marriage to combine incomes and strengthen their chances of survival.

Marriage was much more of a necessity than it is today.

Yes–the feminist movement of the 70s gained women better pay and more work opportunities, making marriage less of a economic mandate and more of an option, but let’s be realistic about how much the feminist movement of the 70s–the mainstream feminist movement–the white feminist movement–really benefited black women. It didn’t do as much as people like to pretend.

In fact, according to the Census Bureau, black women still make less income than white men, white women, Asian men and women, Hispanic men and women, and black men in 2016.

So in actuality we stand to gain more than anyone when it comes to creating two-income households.

This has been true for us since Emancipation.

Because welfare doesn’t make single black women so financially stable that they would discount the prospect of marriage and a two-income household.

According to the statistics, unmarried women receive an average of $337 in monthly benefits compared to $447 for households headed by single men and $420 a month for households headed by married couples.

In all, people on welfare received an average of $404 a month in food stamps, SSI benefits, TANF, or general assistance in 2012.

To be middle class in America–which is what most people–black, white, purple or polka-dotted–desire, you need to make anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000 a year, depending on where you live. If you receive $400 a month from the government, you’re only getting $4800 a year. That’s far below the poverty line.

Even if you’re getting other forms of assistance–Section 8, Medicaid–along with the cash, you’re not a middle class existence. You may be benefits rich, but you’re cash poor.

Plus, the capacity to live off most forms of welfare usually only lasts for about 60 months (five years), thanks to President Bill Clinton. It’s not a legitimate replacement for a financially contributing spouse. It’s not a legitimate replacement for a living wage or job.

But we can even step away from the money discussion. We can deal with the whole “independence” thing. Perhaps once and for all.

The story says black women “were told” they were independent in the 70s, and that’s what caused us to separate ourselves from black men–to “remove” them from our homes.

Well . . .

Because of the circumstances by which we came to America, black women have had to be independent. Independence wasn’t some revolutionary concept that feminism introduced to us in the 70s.

Slavery required us to learn to survive without the protection of our men or their participation in family life.

The continual disfranchisement and murder of black men that continued through Reconstruction and Jim Crow made it so that many of us had to play breadwinner either because we could acquire more gainful or steady employment than our men or our men were taken from us by lynching, incarceration, war, and disproportionately poorer health.

Yes–in the 90s, mass incarceration became the most destructive force to the black family alongside drug abuse and homicide. So the story gets at least part of it right. The government has used certain forces, historically, to remove black men from black homes.

The story is wrong, though–I think–in making black women seem complicit in the disappearance of black men from the community through some collective, antagonistic choice to pursue “independence.”

I think black women have chosen survival, from slavery until now, because a certain level of dependence on black men has been impossible, and I think it’s unfair to vilify us for that when we are victims of institutional racism too, and black men have not done everything that they could to avoid certain racist traps or overcome certain psychological and social pathologies that keep them from being as healthy as they need to be in order to function.

I also think the story that black women chose independence and welfare over black men ignores a really important truth about how most black women feel about love and marriage.

Black women by and large want to get married. They want partners. They want co-parents. They’ve been conditioned by religion and tradition. They seek to be socially and psychologically validated by marriage like other women do. You see it all the time in the media–educated, professional cis hetero black women lamenting the fact that they can’t find cis hetero black men to marry.

If independence robbed them of the desire to be married, this tired-ass news story wouldn’t still be circulating like it does.

So the story in the meme doesn’t reflect the reality–that black women are just as conditioned by patriarchy as anyone else.

N0–the story in the meme tells the lie that black women’s independence destroyed the black family–it makes black women the “enemy,” if you will–to cover up for how culpable black men are in helping to destroy the black family.

“Angela Sams” may be who posted the story, but I doubt very seriously that she–or another woman–composed the story, and, if a woman did, she did it more than likely to ameliorate the resentment–male to female–that gave life to the prejudiced lies it tells.

Because let’s be real here: Institutional racism does account for the absence of a huge number of black men from black homes. But if we go back to the 60s and 70s, it was integration that began the noticeable shift away from marriage in the black community.

Once black men were able to go to college and pursue professional careers, they lost interest in getting married (and they still get married later than white, Asian, and Hispanic men or remain unmarried at a higher rate than white, Asian, and Hispanic men).

Once they were able to socialize with women of other races, black men began dating and marrying them (25% of black men that married in 2013 “married out” versus 12% of black women that married in 2013).

Then there’s the personal choices that a lot of men made in the 80s and 90s that took over their lives.

A lot of men chose to use crack  and became addicted and unfit to participate in family life. A lot of men chose to sell crack and ended up murdered and incarcerated. Some men contracted AIDS from bad lifestyle choices and died from the hateful disease.

And we can go back even further and be even more frank.

A lot of black men have simply abandoned their families. They’ve walked away from their women and children; they haven’t been dragged away.

So many men that migrated from the South during the Migration never went back to get their families.

So many black men from Emancipation to now have been invited to leave their families because they were abusive, shiftless, or unfaithful.

In various ways, and through their own decisions and actions, men largely subtracted themselves from the black home, then and now.

The myth of the impeccable black family of the mid-20th century is just that. The black American family has never been the pillar that we’ve wanted it to be because it originated in slavery–it was besieged from its inception.

And it’s also true that the overwhelming lack of father figures has made it difficult for black men to be effective parents. That the lack of married models has made it difficult for black men to know how to be partners.

But these crises within the black community have just as much to do with what black men have chosen for themselves as they have to do with what black women have chosen for themselves.

Again, millions of black men–across generations–have fled their responsibilities, not been pushed out of them.

They have either put themselves, knowingly, in positions where the government was entitled to remove them from their homes, or they’ve left of their own volition.

The misconception at the center of the argument that black women wholesale “removed” black men from their homes in the 80s is that black men are total victims of some unholy alliance formed between black women and white men.

It conveniently glosses over two truths that I think contribute directly to the estrangement of black women and black men.

The first is that victims can be aggressors.

You can be oppressed by institutional racism but then turn around and oppress those that are stacked under you on the social totem (women and children).

In fact, it’s likely that you would because white patriarchy is your model for leadership and “success (For example, black women are almost three times as likely to die as a result of domestic violence and intimate partner violence than White women. We only make up 8% of the population, yet 22% of homicides that result from DV/IPV happen to us).

The second thing the story tries to blanket over is the fact that black men can’t have it both ways.

You can’t portray yourselves as devoid of autonomy, agency, respect for women, or intelligent understanding of the black American condition but then blame black women from turning away from you as a source of protection, support, love, or assistance.

By making an argument that seeks to absolve you of responsibility for your role in destroying the black family–that it’s all black women’s fault–you undermine your subargument that the black family needs you.

You make it sound as if you have nothing to offer black women but the opportunity to strap your pouty, powerless asses onto our backs with the kids and our own racist and sexist baggage and try to make it over the proverbial finish-line of respectability before collapsing from prostration first.

You make it sound as if you’re holding a grudge against us because we’ve developed our own set defense mechanisms to navigate the negative effects of slavery while still retaining some level of pride, dignity, and sanity, and I think it’s only natural–it’s only logical–for us to be apprehensive of what you might do to us when given intimate access to our bodies, hearts, and minds to relieve that grudge.

I also think it’s fair to say that you–black men–do just as much deflecting from your choices as black women do.

You’ve done just as much to hurt the black community as black women have done with our entrenched attitudes about the need for self-sufficiency or so-called high-achieving partners.

And of course you have. James Baldwin tells us that dealing with racism’s constant onslaught distorts our personhood in a myriad of ugly ways. Toni Morrison’s whole fictional oeuvre illustrates the ways that racism corrupts the most fundamental of our human characteristics and behaviors.

Morrison has even said, “Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly . . .”

Black people love in a lot of mistaken ways because we are wrong about ourselves. We don’t realize how amazing we are. We don’t realize how undeserving we are of the horrible way American treats us. We don’t realize how powerful we actually are to stop so much of the pain we put ourselves and each other through.

We don’t realize that love is the answer to so many of the problems that we have. Love for ourselves and love for each other. Across all those falsely drawn color, gender, class, and sex lines.

And until we learn to talk about what really makes it difficult for cis hetero black women and men to love each other–until we grow brave enough to get emotionally and intellectually naked with each other about our true wants and needs, hopes and fears–our dealings will remain as one dimensional and masturbatory as that fucking stupid meme.

Our homes will never become the incubators of greatness and exultant blackness that they can and should be.

 

 

The Terms of Our Relationships

The other day, I did a no-no. I watched an episode of “Love & Hip Hop.” And it was just as disturbing as I expected it to be.

In the scene that rattled me the most violently, Tara and Amina were arguing yet again over Peter Gunz–the poster child for masked misogyny and acute irresponsibility.

I could make an encyclopedic list of all the things about the scene that bothered me, but the main thing was that Amina kept saying she “loved” Peter as an explanation for why she was subjecting herself to his mistreatment.

It made me think of how horribly misunderstood and misused that word is.

As so many people have said, in so many different ways, love is not a source or cause of pain.

It’s the ultimate balm.

I’m a teacher. So misunderstanding presents to me like a puzzle. When I see that someone doesn’t “get” it, I try to figure out why so I can help her to “get” it. That’s what I consider my job.

So when I saw Amina on the screen, screaming about her “love” for Peter, I started thinking about how she could’ve gotten there. How she could’ve arrived at such an incorrect and harmful definition of that word.

What I concluded is that we–people generally and black women particularly–need to study up on the lexicon that exists for so-called romantic feelings.

There is the thing called love, yes. It exists. It’s real. But it often isn’t what we feel for the people with whom we become romantically (by that I mean sexually) involved.

There are other, more accurate words for what we feel–that are uglier, yes, but more illuminating–more useful–more truthful.

We need to know and use those words so that we’re not fooled and subsequently fucked over by our feelings.

One such word is attachment. Attachment is a “deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space.” Attachment is not necessarily affectionate; it’s not necessarily reciprocal; and it’s not necessarily healthy.

When you’re attached to someone, you respond sensitively to them. You feel something when a person enters your space; you feel something when a person leaves your space; and you feel something when that person draws closer or more distant from you emotionally and psychologically.

Attachment isn’t love, though. Because love is a strong and constant affection for a person. It involves sexual attraction, but it isn’t solely that. That’s attraction or desire–another word. Another feeling.

Love contains desire, but it isn’t just the desire to have sex with someone. The desires of love are to protect, support, connect with and provide for someone.

Love is reciprocal and built on respect, understanding, acceptance, care, and health (freedom from sickness).

Attachment can be built on fear, insecurity, loneliness, or any other negative emotion.

Attachment is not love. Love is not just attachment.

Attraction is not love. Love is not just attraction.

Another feeling that gets mistaken for love is codependency. Codependency is “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner.”

Codependency is a dysfunctional need to help or be helped by another person, that is linked to a person’s inability to function on his or her own.

So when you need a partner to feel attractive or loved or whole or alive or even just seen, that’s codependency, not love.

When the only way you derive a sense of your worth is by “being there” for someone else, even when that person is disrespectful, abusive, cold, or ambivalent toward you, that’s codependency, not love.

We romanticize codependency in our culture. We praise and admire people for their willingness and ability to “be there” for others without examining whether that is a healthy thing for them to do.

If you’re getting swallowed up in your efforts to “be there” for someone, then it’s not healthy, and it’s not romantic, and it’s not admirable. You’re not “loving” the person for whom you’re “there.” You’re enabling that person.

Fixation is another dysfunctional emotion that we romanticize in our culture, that isn’t love.

Fixation is an obsessive attachment to another person. It’s being continually preoccupied with thoughts of another person and responses to another person–to another person’s words, actions, needs, and desires.

Fixation isn’t love because it usually doesn’t come out of affection for the other person. It wears a loving disguise, but it’s actually addiction. Addiction is disordered, compensatory behavior, not love.

So when a person has problems, but diverts attention away from those problems by clamping down emotionally on another person or a relationship, that’s fixation, not love.

A person that allows someone to fixate on them is not “in love,” either. That person is likely a masochist, if not a victim.

Masochism is receiving pleasure from the experience of humiliation or pain. Psychologists debate why some people are wired this way, but they don’t dispute the fact that many people are. They don’t say whether it’s “right” or “wrong” either; they only acknowledge that masochism can be dangerous because it opens people up to physical and emotional abuse.

Experiencing a person’s display of anger or dominance toward you as “he loves me” or “she loves me” is masochistic. It’s not necessarily wrong, but even if it’s tied to sex, it’s still not love.

Love doesn’t hurt. Love doesn’t seek to hurt. Love doesn’t seek ownership or control. Love doesn’t own or control you.

When Amina says that she “loves” Peter Gunz–a man that pursued a relationship with her while cohabitating with the mother of his two sons, married Amina in secret, hid the marriage while he continued to have sex and emotional dealings with the mother of his sons and Amina, then continued to bounce between the two women even after the marriage was exposed–she’s speaking incorrectly.

The message that she’s sending herself–that her feelings are good for her–is a dangerous one that keeps her locked into a cycle of self-abnegation and abuse.

Amina may be attracted to Peter; she may be attached to him; she may be fixated on him; she may even have masochistic feelings about the way he treats her; but none of that is love.

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have the right, or she isn’t “right,” to be with him, but I think it’s important to be clear.

Most of us are seeking love–that thing which will bring goodness to our lives–help make us happier and better.

So we need to be clear on what that is. We have to understand what it does and doesn’t do.

Otherwise, we create and perpetuate connections to people that do the opposite of love–that bring sadness, anger, bitterness, grief, depression, deprivation, loneliness, and sometimes even injury into our lives. All in the name of “love.”

The terms of our relationships are ours to define. We do not have to be trapped in relationships that don’t suit or serve us.

But we have to be clear on what those terms are.

Let me say that again because of how deeply I mean it:

We have to be clear on what those terms are.

We can’t slap the label of “love” on any old feeling just so we can continue having it.

We can’t slap the label of “love” on a feeling or relationship that we’re too weak or afraid to give up in order to make that feeling or relationship seem “right.”

We shouldn’t falsify love. We shouldn’t lie on love. It confuses us, the people that seek to love us, and the children that are watching us and learning about love from us.

That’s why we have to be honest about what we are feeling, even if it exposes us in ways that make us uncomfortable or ashamed.

We can’t fix what we can’t see as broken, and we don’t typically keep looking for what we think we’ve already found.

We have to be real with ourselves in order to find love that is real.

In my English classes, I say it all the time: “Terminology is everything.”

Love is not an all-encompassing term.