Friday, July 27, 2012

Black Women’s Public Cries: Mothering, Death and Activism

Trayvon Martin
I don’t know how many times I’ve sat down to write this piece; each time I walk away thinking I’m not ready for this. The pain I feel about the loss of our children leaves me with such grief that I literally become immobile. After the recent shootings in Aurora, CO I thought about dusting this piece off—I wrote this piece on Mother’s day 2012. However, I was still crippled. It’s taken me a few days to comprehend the depth of my feelings. I realized that I was mourning. I was mourning in a way that I’ve never mourned. It seems that every since the brutal killing of Trayvon Martin, I’ve been in mourning for the children of my community.

Trayvon Martin’s murder touched me in a way that I can’t always explain. It is only upon reflecting on my feelings with an older, and much wiser, woman was I able to name the fact that I was in mourning for this child. A child I never met. Yes, I was compelled by the nature of his death. But for me it was something much deeper. It was as though I had lost my child.

As the weeks progressed and we learned more about Martin’s murder, I made a conscious decision not to listen to any of the rhetoric of the case. Although I made this decision, I continued to think about this “case”. Particularly, I kept thinking, If this were my child, how would I respond? Would I become an activist and mourn publicly, or would I mourn only in private? Then I started thinking of all of those Black women who lost their children to colonialism, the institution of slavery, and the institutionalization of racism and its correlate poverty. Then I stopped and asked myself, what would society look like if all these Black mothers choose to challenge the systems that robbed them of their children? Also, what would society look like if all of us who “other-mother”, as I found myself doing for Trayvon Martin, also publicly cried out?

 What would a global social movement, in protest against the brutal and senseless killing of our children, look like?

There is no way for me to chart the loss, broadly defined, of our children at both the national and global levels. But consider the following:
  • In 2008, Blacks, [in the U.S] constituted 17 percent of the youth population (10-17). They constituted:
o   31 percent of all juvenile arrests.
o   26 percent of all juvenile arrests for drug abuse violations.
o   52 percent of all juvenile arrests for violent offenses.
o   58 percent of all juveniles sent to adult prisons. 
  • African Americans were overrepresented among police shooting victims in every city the publications [ColorLines] investigated. The contrast was particularly noticeable in New York, San Diego and Las Vegas. In each of these cities, the percentage of black people killed by police was at least double that of their share of the city’s total population. 
    The U.N.  32 children under 10 among the dead in Syria
  •   More than 400 children in Syria have been killed since the start of the uprising last March, according to human rights activists.  .
  •   In 2008, 65,646 children age 0-9 died of AIDS in South Africa
In his speech to the National Urban League, President Obama stated, "Every day and a half the number of young people we lose to violence is about the same as the number of people we lost in that movie theater" in Aurora, Colorado. Our children are dying!

These are somebody’s children. They have been removed from our communities as a result of structural violence—poverty, lack of health care, lack of education, and racism. We will probably never see the faces of their mothers. We’ll probably never see their tears. Many of them will remain nameless and unknown to us. Hopefully they will be comforted by a loved one. Hopefully, some stranger will walk by and bless them with a smile. 

Over time, many of us will forget their stories. As the media spotlight another story, the cries of these mothers will move to the recesses of our minds. We’ll move on to worry about what’s for dinner, how to make the next car payment, and the everyday challenges we face. Sometimes the tragedy is just too much for us to bear and we need a reprieve—we need to avert our eyes. We leave these mothers to mourn on their own. But, what if there is an alternative? What if we turn our grief into action?
Mamie Till Bradley, Emett Till's mother, crying over Emett's coffin
 What if we moved the conversation away from gun access (a valuable and much needed dialogue) to include poverty and other forms of oppressive structures? How might this help to form a movement that’s inclusive of mothers and other-mothers? We cannot turn our heads in the face of such violence. We need to (re)claim our communities. We cannot sit back and wait for others to come in and do it for us. They will fill our ears with rhetoric and no action. Our fore-mothers, such as Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, provide us with a platform to build a movement. We need to write, we need to sing, sing like Nina Simone so that the world can hear our pain, we need to influence and make policies—in both the public and private sectors, we need to occupy the streets. We need to throw open our coffins and show the world the brutality our children suffered. We need our version of MADD. We need a mother’s day to honor these women. Such a day is needed to let them know that we recognize their pain. We need a social movement—one that addresses the multiple causes that encourage and perpetuate the deaths of our children. Let's turn our grief into activism.

Friday, July 20, 2012

We just have to wait...

I'm trying to be patient with myself concerning the shootings in Colorado. Friday is my typical day to blog. Given the unfolding story of the shooting in Colorado I don't think that its appropriate. I  want  to write about this as it resonates deep in my spirit. I want to write a post that  is respectful and nonjudgmental. My desire is that my words and thoughts aren't simply a response to the shock of the event.  I'll post next week.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

I don’t see you as a Black Woman and other White women’s ramblings

A couple years ago I guest lectured for a colleague. Her class, a master’s level course, was discussing diversity and corporate America. I was asked to speak on my experiences as a woman of color in a majority White institution. I walked in and wanted to declare “yes indeed, I’m live and in color.” I sure did bring color to the room. But at this stage of my career, I’m, relatively speaking, accustom to being the “only one”. This is something that I live with, although I’m never really accepting of it—but that’s a totally different post. 

I did the standard introduction--this is who I am, here are my credentials, etc. Then I spoke to my experiences of disrupting racialized and gendered spaces. I told these MBA perspective students of my experiences of being stopped when entering campus. I’m sometimes stopped, although my parking decal is visibly displayed, and asked to identify which building I’m going to. I’m often asked, in a discreet manner, if I’m faculty. When I respond that I am, I sometimes hear “you look so young”. I don’t look that young. But I accept the flattery. My stop and ask experiences occur in the same library where some personnel request that students prove that they are actually students. 

As I speak, I see the look of discomfort on some faces. After all, these stories can’t be true. Some students discreetly look away from me. Some boldly stare me down waiting for their opportunity to show me how my experiences are not the result of race-gendered structures. One young man said to me that maybe I’m stopped as a result of the car I drive. With a smile I replied “I drive a Mitsubishi Outlander. I’m not rolling up in here on 20-inch rims blasting Snoop.” Over time, I’ve learn that humor is to racism was sugar is to medicine. Just a smile makes the bitter pill of racism go down (caution, this only works in some circumstances). One student asked if I’d considered that I was stopped as I result of my style of dress. “Oh, they can tell how I’m dressed as I sit behind the wheel?” was my response. But this is not what stirred my ire. 

What stirred my ire was the young White woman who declared “Oh, I don’t see you as a Black woman. I just see an intelligent woman.” This was meant as a compliment. However, I’m never sure how I’m expected to respond after such a declaration. Am I supposed to say good for you that somehow you have been able to evolve where race is no longer something you see? How does a 30-something-year old woman who has lived her entire life as Black respond to such a statement? 

 I responded by saying “You’re not going to like my response.” All the while with a genuine smile on my face. I then explained to her how this statement, in essence, erases me and fails to see me for who and what I am. I also asked her if she ever stopped to think how I wanted to be seen. For those who at this point might think that I’m bitter or the so-called angry stereotypical Black woman—I’m not. Just like my Italian-American neighbors I want to celebrate who and what I am. They wave flags, speak in Italian, name their children in so-called typical Italian names, yet rarely do I ever hear someone condemn them for doing such. So why can’t I be Black? I AM A BLACK WOMAN. This means something to me. And equally, it means something to others in the world who use my race to tell me how and what I should be in society.

I guess that I simply don’t have the privilege to define myself. Instead, I must be seen as the “intelligent” woman—as though my intelligence can be determined by simply looking at me. Or even worse, blackness and intelligence can't co-exist. So I'm required to pick one and only one--Blackness or intelligence. I also asked her why was it important to her not to see me as a Black woman and how this might result from her experiences while having nothing to do with Black women? I received a blank stare and then a tucking of the head. In an instant, I morphed from the intelligent Black woman to the evil Black woman because I resisted someone’s definition of me. 

Black women don’t seem to be permitted to exist in the imagination or even the social reality of some white women. Consider the recent article that appeared in a Utah Magazine titled “Utah Magazine Celebrates Women Of Color.” All of the women on the cover appear white. The picture under the heading displayed seven women all dressed in bright colored clothing. According to Taylor, who reported on the response to this piece,

“Our good friends at Gawker caught up with Bennett and she was completely clueless as to what the term means to the rest of the world. “That was not intended as an ethnic comment,” Bennett told Gawker when they called to ask her if she was familiar with the traditional understanding of the adjectival phrase in question. “It was just clever wordplay. It was that women add color, and there’s more than one meaning of color.” (emphasis added)

Vanity Fair, in 2010, show-cased rising stars on its cover. Amanda Seyfried, one of the stars gracing the cover, was interviewed on the View. Whoopie Goldberg asked her about the absence of persons of color on the cover and why she was surprised by someone asking her to reflect on this absence. She replied, “I hadn’t thought about it. I mean I hadn’t seen it….It’s true, but there is a lot of different hair color.” The conversation quickly turned to the wonderful women of color who had been nominated for Oscars and her other acting roles. Wow! There are diverse hair colors. Does this compensate for the marked absence of women of color? As I watched this, and even years later I am saddened, angered, and dismayed. I feel the same way after reading Bennet’s display and her claim that there’s more than one meaning of color. Even if Bennet didn't know of the politics of this naming process, there was no one at the magazine who knew differently? Theoretically I understand the absence of women who look like me from our cultural representations. However, psychologically it is painful to comprehend. 

The students, Bennett and Seyfried all seem clueless; clueless about their privilege and clueless about others’ experiences with race, class and gender. They are unaware of the struggles Black women, and women of color more generally, encounter in naming themselves. They are unaware of the politics of a self actualization. Not to belabor you with a history lesson, but the term woman of color originated in 1977. Yet, in 2012 some aren’t even aware of the term and the politics of this naming process. This speaks to a larger project that seeks to erase Black women from our social imagination. 

Planned Parenthood
Such erasure is not only taking place in the social realm, but it is also occurring in the realm of politics. Since the passage of the welfare reform legislation in 1996 do we speak of Black women in our policy discussions? Think about it. There is an alleged circle of sistas in the Obama administration. I dare you to name five of them without doing a Google search. Michele Obama has become a darling among some, is it because she is a Black woman or is it because she is a fashion icon that allows people not to see her raced body? Where are the Black women who publicly challenge our foreign policies? How are they positioned in the main-stream media? Where are the Black women in the discussion on reproductive health? Many critiqued the recent House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on religious liberty and the birth control rule for its representation of patriarchy—the hearing was dominated by men. Very few analyzed this hearing via a lens of race, gender, and class and their intersections. Where were the women of color at the hearing?

Not seeing Black women in our social and political realms and even in our imaginations (as in the case of the TV show Girls) is a telling story. This is part of a larger political and social movement to erase Blackness in the hopes that we “can all just get along”. The erasure of Black women speaks to the dark-side of multiculturalism; one that strives to encourage us not to see differences among and between groups. Seeing differences is not the problem. The problem is that people use differences to oppress. Multicultural teachings and ideals have not resulted in the dismantling of the oppressions. Instead, it has rendered the material consequences of differences invisible. Multiculturalism gives those in power the tools to ignore some segments of our community with claims such as I don’t see you as a Black woman. This claim suggests that I’m just like you. No I’m not. Race has real consequences. One only has to look at the rate of HIV infection among Black women—and no, this is not the result of higher promiscuity among this group or the actions of men on the down low. One only has to consider the rates of breast cancer and resulting deaths among Black women to realize that race and its intersection with class and gender still matter. One only has to walk the halls of academia to realize that, yes, race matters.

Black women are the canaries in the mine. We are disappearing and no one seems to notice. If we were ever in need of a Black feminist movement, the time is now.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Sexuality and Hair: The Day I became unwomanly and a butch

The first time I cut my hair, particularly short; I was about 16 years old. This was before the new “natural hair” trend that we are currently experiencing. Back then to be that young and bold (in the eyes of some) was truly a radical act. I went against what most thought as the proper performance of a girl/young woman. For me, it was one of the most liberating things, to date, that I’d ever done. I didn’t do it as an act of defiance to the scripts of womanhood. I did it because it felt right. It felt like me. It was freeing. 

Between the ages of 16 and 25 I experimented with many hair styles. You name it I tried it—braids, weaves, and naturals. My hair changed color depending on my mood. I had fun with my hair—for the most part. However, there was one thing that stayed constant during that time. I was never really in love with hair. I’m not a particularly fussy person and neither am I one to be moved by trends. However, I do know what I like and what I don’t. Hair is not high on my like list. 

Chrisette Michele

Around my 20th birthday (sometime in the early 1990s) I went to the barbershop on Rutland Road in Brooklyn, NY. There was a barber in this shop who had the reputation of being excellent. I sat in his chair, after waiting for what felt like hours, and told him that I wanted a tight fade. He gave me one of the best fades I’ve ever had. Like clockwork, I would show up for my edge up and trim. One morning as I positioned myself in his chair an older man mumbled, just loudly enough for me to hear, “a woman should never do that to herself.” The barber and I both ignored him. Not being satisfied at the lack of response, he said louder “that’s just not right and it ain’t natural.” My barber stopped, looked at him and replied, “I saw her with long her and I’ve cut her hair this short. To me she’s even more beautiful now.” Interestingly when I wore a head full of weave and braids no one was ever so bold to say to my face that it was “unnatural”.  

Little did I know that cutting my hair and wearing a fade would illicit such responses. Some men were so bold as to ask me if I was a “butch”. My cousins were questioned about my sexuality. The only thing that changed was the length of my hair. Unbeknownst to me was that my hair sent messages about my sexuality. I did not know that long hair = heterosexuality. 

Walking the streets in NY became increasingly more challenging. Prior to my fade my non-response to cat calls resulted in me being cussed and accused of thinking that I’m better than others. In my post long, permed hair era, my refusal to respond to such calls resulted in more than who the “fuck do you think you are!” to “ain’t nobody want you, you fucking butch!” I was told how I needed some “good stiff dick” to rescue me from my perceived homosexuality.

What I did not understand was how in the time it took to cut my hair my sexuality had changed. Beyond exposing how hair is valued in society, my experience taught me about the functioning of society and what academia eventually taught me was marginalization. The questioning of my sexuality, vis-à-vis the length of my hair, reflects how we define the boundaries of our community. It speaks to how we determine who is allowed in and what allows them in. So I could pass and be accepted into the community simply by wearing a wig. That simple act would deflect some of the street harassment I faced.

But it wasn’t just gendered-sexed street harassment that I encountered. I also encountered censorship from some older Black women in the community. In a short period of time, I became the damaged Black woman. Some would ask I if was sick. It never entered their imagination that someone would willingly cut their hair as short as I wore mine at times. When I would respond that I’m not sick, eyebrows would raise ever so slightly. Some women were polite enough to let that be the extent of the reproach and questioning. Others would be bold enough to ask, “why would you choose to wear your hair that way?” Some quoted the Bible to me about how my hair was my crowning glory and how it was against the teachings of God for a woman to deface herself by cutting her hair. In my mind I would think, I didn’t break any of the Commandments so there is still hope for me to make it into the Kingdom. In the meantime, I just couldn’t be accepted among my people. 

How has your hair been used as acceptance or denial into particular communities?