Saturday, December 13, 2014

An Open Letter to My Ancestors

Dear Ancestors,

To those on whose shoulders I stand, I apologize. From the deepest part of me, I am sorry for the mess that we are in in this country. You knocked down the door of segregation and pushed us inside, but we didn’t know what to do once we got here. We thought our work was done. We gulped the Kool-Aid and didn’t know that it was spiked. Now we’re confused and disillusioned. But there is still hope for us. You didn’t give up; we can’t either.  

We messed up. We think that because we have advanced degrees, live in integrated neighborhoods, drive luxury cars, and send our kids to private schools that we have arrived. We think that because we can afford to have someone clean our homes have a diverse group of friends and maybe even have White friends and family members that we can eat at the big table. We thought we were in the House, but now know that we are still in the kitchen.

If we had not forgotten our history, we would not be surprised by recent events. We first came here as indentured servants, but when it was discovered that the color of our skin made us easily identifiable, we became an even cheaper source of labor--free. Most of us descend from Africans who came here as cargo; property, and we’ve never been able to completely wash away the smell from that trip. Hard Truth: We are the shit on the bottom of America's shoe. And no matter what we do, the stench of who we are stays with us.
Many of the founding fathers were slave holders: Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington among others. When Jefferson penned the words “all men are created equal” in the eyes of the Constitution, he was not speaking of African Americans. We were designated as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of property value. We were no different from the farm animals. Not much has changed. 

We should have known better, and maybe we would have done better. Doing the work that needed to be done instead of sitting comfortably on the legacy you left us. We nodded off into the good life thinking that we had accomplished something only to learn that we haven't. We are despised in the country of our birth. We are made to feel like outsiders and agitators dare we speak out against the injustice that is as American as apple pie and Chevrolet. 

The road to freedom is paved with your blood and your broken bodies. But your spirit lives on in us. How could we forget that? We are here because you chose to survive. We are here because you didn’t fall for the okey-doke. For every major victory, there has been backlash. From the Emancipation Proclamation to the election of Barack Obama, we have faced strong opposition to change. We have been, beaten, lynched, raped, bombed and the victims of other unspeakable acts of violence against us, and yet we are still looked at as savages of some sort. That’s why we kill each other, right?

 When Barack Obama was elected President of these “United” States and everyone was wondering if he was ready to be president, I was wondering if we were ready for him. We were not. Never in the history of this country has a President been so disrespected. I’m still trying to recover from the fact that three major networks decided not to air the President’s speech. Who does that?

Assimilated to the point of indoctrination, some of us are inebriated on the idea of inferiority. We actually believe that in America there is difference between Black people and Niggers, not understanding that we are ALL Niggers in the minds of many. From Phyllis Wheatley to Charles Barkley, some of us have drunk too much Kool-Aid and think that our arrival in this country is the best thing that happened to us since home-made buttered biscuits. I have to give credit where credit is due: the brain washing was thorough and complete. Once we learned to hate ourselves there wasn’t as much work to do to keep us in line.

The reality of our situation is that we have only been desegregated. We have never been fully integrated into American society. The society in which we were born into and still live in is racist. And that’s the norm. We can’t forget that. It is what it is. We can’t change the origin. We have to know that and keep moving.

I had to sit back and marinate on what’s happening because at first I was upset. I kept wondering where I was. I was thinking: This is America? Then is I realized, This IS America. I had to remember what so many of you have been telling us for years: without struggle there is no progress. So, I’m glad to see so much social unrest. I’m glad to see us struggle. For I know that progress will follow.

I’m sorry that we lost our way. I’m sorry that we forgot our place. But I know that we’ve always made a way out of no way. You showed us that. We were not expected to survive, much less thrive. But we have always been able to use that which was turned against us in our favor. So, while we might be the shit on the shoe, we also know that it’s our manure that made it happen. America is America because of the shit on her shoe. So, that makes us The Shit, right?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Bathing in the Beauty of Blackness

Last weekend, I checked out. I left the building because I needed to insulate myself from the ugliness of racism. So, I wrapped myself in the beauty of Blackness instead. The constant barrage of negative press and off-handed, mean-spirited and misdirected comments were wearing me down. I could not take one more “news” story or opinion from the keyboard psychologists and the armchair forensic experts on anything and everything from Cosby to Ferguson. I simply did not want to deal with anymore widely polarizing views on these and other issues plaguing Black America. 

This was before the grand jury decision in Ferguson, so as the country waited to hear what we already knew, I left the darkness of a country still deeply divided by race to seek solace in the love I have for my own people. I yearned to see people like me living life. Being normal.  Not being characterized by race. Not being demonized or victimized. I needed an alternative view of what makes me, Me. So, I took a respite from media and conversations around the proverbial water cooler and chose to focus on the strength and the beauty of Black culture. First stop: film.

On Saturday morning, I rose early and went to see Beyond the Lights. I love the work of Gina Prince-Blythewood, and I had been following the back story for Beyond the Lights, so I was ecstatic when it was finally released. And even though I had seen it opening weekend, it was worth a second look. On the surface, it was a simple universal love story, and who’s not a sucker for a good lover story? But below the surface it is a story of why it's important to live life authentically.  And yes, love is universal, but it's as refreshing as the first spring rain to see faces on the big screen that mirror me. And so I cocooned myself in Noni and Kaz's story and rooted for the happily-ever-after. Second stop: dance.

Saturday night I went to see the Dance Theater of Harlem (DTH) at the historic Auditorium Theater.  It was their first time in Chicago in 10 years. When DTH stopped touring years ago, I was saddened by the news. But when I found out they were coming to Chicago, I bought tickets and the timing couldn’t have been better.  As I sat in the audience watching those beautiful Black bodies in motion, I was in heaven. It's no secret that classical ballet is comprised of those mostly of a lighter hue, so there are very few dark spots in that sea of whiteness. But DTH founded by Arthur Mitchell the first African-American Principal dancer with New York City Ballet and Karel Shook In 1969 has been a training ground for African-American ballet dancers. The company is definitely diverse now, but there was enough color filling the stage to satiate my desire for cultural recognition and reconnection.  The first two dances were typical classical ballet, but the last dance was ballet to the hits of Aretha Franklin and James Brown, and it brought the racially-mixed audience to its feet. Next stop: church.

Still not ready to return to the ugliness of a racist reality, on Sunday I settled in for some good ole’ down-home religion. I am not an avid Church goer, but I love the faith of Black people. Since coming to this country we have learned to fill our spiritual well when it runs dry. Gospel music is a balsam for my wounded psyche. And on Sunday evening, I tuned into the Trinity United Church of Christ broadcast streaming live on the internet. The choir was dressed in African attire and Pastor Moss had on a jacket made from African fabric. His message was on immigration, and Pastor Moss spoke of the parallels between the African-American experience and that of current immigrants. He cautioned us not to get caught up in the rhetoric around the issue of immigration and forget where we came from. I watched the church service and was in fellowship. Last stop: Literature

Then I curled up in the bed with my favorite African-American historical romance writer Beverly Jenkins who weaves little known history into the stories of Black people.  I am reading the third one in the Destiny series. This one is about Pilar, a Black pirate who steals the ship of Noah, one the Yates men in the series.  My choice to bask in the beauty of Blackness would cause some to label me a racist, but as a woman of color with little power, I am far from being a racist though I can be prejudiced and bigoted. But I'll save that for another conversation.

Weighted down by racism and oppression, I needed to take the time to take that weight off me. Bathing in the beauty of Blackness reminded me on whose shoulders I stand. It reinforced for me that I come from a people who are tenacious, who are resilient, who get knocked down again and again but like the Phoenix will rise. I bathed in the beauty of Blackness, and my soul is soothed.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Why I Hate Chris Brown’s Song “Loyal”

When a rich nigga want you
And your nigga can’t do nothing for ya
These hoes ain’t loyal
By Chris Brown

“These hoes ain’t loyal.” I wake up too many mornings with the hook playing in my head. Here’s the kicker: I hate this song! And yet I can’t get it out of my head right now because it’s stuck on repeat. This happens every time I’m somewhere the song plays. I like the beat and I don’t want to because I can’t stand songs with misogynistic lyrics. So, the fact that this song won’t leave me alone, means that I need to write about it. I need to explain why I detest this and similar songs that treat women as things. A hoe is a thing; it’s an object. It is a tool to be used. It is easily discarded and replaced. So, when we sing along to the catchy beat, we subconsciously accept that women and girls are things. We accept that they are disposable.  And we don’t recognize their humanity.

When we sing along, we can go along with Jamal Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, MD who was speaking to his congregation back in June about cheating men, and talked about the other woman and said, “These hoes ain’t loyal.”I listened to the entire sermon so as not to be sucked into a sensationalized news story because I know how things can be taken out of context. But this was not the case. His sexist, homophobic, misogynistic sermon made references to “sanctified sissies” and “baby mamas”, too. So the song lyrics fit right in with the rest of the foolishness. 

When we sing along, we are not offended by the pastor’s remarks. We are members of the congregation clapping and standing up in agreement.  We are mostly African-American women being bamboozled and hoodwinked by the words of a charismatic preacher who is once again blaming women for the downfall of men. What’s even more interesting in this scenario is Bryant chose to use this particular song to chastise women for not being loyal when his marriage ended due to his infidelity in 2013. He was calling women out in the sermon when he was the one who stepped out on his wife. 

When we sing along, we can accept that three professional African-American women hanging out at a hotel in Manhattan couldn’t have been anything other than professional hookers. On August 28, three friends: Kanataki Washington, Cydney Madlock and J. Lyn Thomas were seated in a restaurant in the Standard Hotel in Manhattan when an African-American man introduced himself and offered to buy the women drinks. But before they could take him up on his offer, a security guard whispered in the man’s ear and ushered him away. Washington said the security guard told them, “Come on ladies. You can buy a drink, but you can’t be soliciting.” 

The security guard insisted that the women were soliciting sex. And when the women reported the security officer, they were met with indifference, and told that security personnel were hire through an outside agency. But a few weeks later, Washington says she received an email from a staff member of the hotel inviting Washington and her friends back for a dinner (valued at $400) and a bottle of champagne. None of the emails addressed the women’s prostitution claim, but the hotel was willing to pay them to come back which was a slap in the face. The hotel was okay with paying the women for being insulted, but wouldn’t acknowledge the insult. 

When we sing along, we accept two teens found dead and bound together along a road in Duval County, Florida as par for the course. Angela Mangum and Tjhisha Ball were best friends according to their family members, and both the girls had been working as strippers at the time of their deaths. Law enforcement officers in Jacksonville, Florida are looking for tips, but the story has gotten little media attention. In the few news outlets that I’ve seen the story reported, the pictures that are shown are mug shots of the women who were arrested but never convicted of any crime. 

When we sing along, we see these pictures as confirmation that “these hoes ain’t loyal” and deserved to die. We don’t see them as victims because we like our victims clean; we like them White; we like them right according to a strict code of conduct that says bad girls can’t do good, and good girls aren’t bad. So, that there is a killer(s) on the loose, does not hold our attention. We flip the page or scroll onto the next news story if we have even seen this news story at all.

When we sing along, we don’t raise an eyebrow when we learn that a police officer targeted African-American women and sexually assaulted them. Daniel Holtzclaw, a 27 year-old officer with the Oklahoma police department preyed on middle-aged Black women. Eight women have come forth since February of this year complaining that they were pulled over during traffic stops and fondled, ordered to perform oral sex and even one women accused Holtzclaw of rape. He was arrested August 20. His bond, originally set at $5 million dollars was reduced to $500,000 and Holtzclaw has been released from jail and placed under house arrest. Across the nation we are protesting police brutality and excessive force. And yet we are quiet around this decades old issue of police officers abusing their power and assaulting Black women. 

When we sing along, we are not outraged that a mother of three lost her life just this month for not responding to a man trying to get her phone number. Mary “Unique” Spears was leaving the repast of a family member, when a man started harassing her. He wanted to know if she was single, and if he could get her number. He was persistent, and when Spears’ boyfriend tried to intercede on her behalf, the man took out a gun and began shooting. He shot Spears once, and when she tried to run he shot her twice more.
When we sing along, the seeds of misogyny take root in our mind and become entangled with rational thought. So even when we clean up the lyrics and sing, “these girls ain’t loyal”, we know that the girls in this and songs like it are still tools of a trade designed to degrade and devalue females in general but  African-American women and girls in particular who society consistently classifies as hoes and treats as such.
So, think about that the next time you find yourself bobbing and singing to Loyal.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Why the Fascination with Big Booty White Girls Give Me a Wedgie

Booty, booty, booty, booty, booty everywhere—and I’m over it. I am sick of the fascination with big booty White girls. And no, I am not a hater.  I have a bodacious backside of my own. But what gives this big booty girl a wedgie the size of an extra-small thong is the current media saturation of protruding posteriors of White girls as if it’s the best thing since peanut butter found jelly. Big booties ain’t new!  Big booty Black girls have been holding it down since the beginning of time.
Women of African descent have always had backsides that didn’t conform to the norm, and outside of our communities we have been ridiculed and scorned and encouraged to cover and camouflage our butts. Growing up, our mothers and grandmothers sang the praises of the Almighty Girdle as the fix-all to control and contain our God-given bottoms. They knew what we had, and they knew the trouble it could cause so they encouraged us to bind our behinds while the men folk encouraged us to strut our stuff. I think the art of switching (walking while swaying the hips) originated and was perfected in the Black community by a Black woman with a basketball booty who wanted to make sure its grace and movement was appreciated by those lucky enough to behold it.
In the days before music videos and social media, many of us reveled in our bootylisciousness.  I’m not bragging when I say, the booty songs back in the day, Da Butt, Baby Got Back and Bootyliscious to name a few were definitely Black girl anthems. We had one asset that we could call our own. We may not have had White girls bouncing and behaving hair, or their any-other-color-than-brown eyes, but we definitely had more junk in the trunk. And any Black girl worth her ethnicity did not want to hear the words, “You got a White girl (aka pancake flat) booty!”
And we reigned booty supreme, until the 90s when a Latina by the name of Jennifer Lopez strolled on the scene, and all eyes were on this petite dynamo’s terrific tush. It was a terrible day for Black women because once again some other non-Black woman was getting credit denied to us. Yes, JLo is a woman of color which should have lessened the blow, but it didn’t really because for as long as we know, we’ve been made to feel bad about our otherness—the differences that set us apart from the dominant culture--and then along comes a Latina who could easily pass for White and gets credit for an asset that was once black.
Jennifer was rear ended by Beyonce who has made a name for herself in the derrière department. And if that isn’t enough to let you know who’s on top in the best bottom category, there is one of our own seated in the White House, and as ridiculous as it may seem, First Lady Michelle Obama’s booty has been deemed newsworthy (like everything else about the Obama family) a few times. We could finally have pride in our backsides! But. . . not really. When Salon writer Erin Aubre praised the attributes of Michelle’s gluteus maximus, it stirred up quite a debate. So, much in fact that the Huffington Post posed the question if was appropriate to talk about Michelle’s butt.  Readers weighed in on the taboo topic of the First Lady’s tush.
We couldn’t talk about Michelle’s booty, but hey, we had Bey. Things were going well until Beyonce was butted by none other than Kim Kardashian who has one of the most admired and envied celebrity backsides. Every time I turned around there was someone talking about Kim’s butt. When Kim came on the scene, big booties, moved mainstream. Then Nicki Minaj took over Kim’s number one spot. There are Top 10 celebrity lists for everything, and when I looked up best booties, Nicki and Kim are holding the number 1 and number 2 spots respectively. But what got my panties in a bunch is that Black women, the originator of the ba dunka dunk, the junk in the mid-sized to large trunk only had two spots out of ten.  Really?  We had been robbed—again.
 First it was Bo Derek who made braids all the rage. Hello? How long have we been wearing our hair braided? Some of us have even been terminated for wearing braids branded as “too ethnic”. Then it was Angelina Jolie’s pouty lips. Full lips were so much in vogue, that women started getting injections to make their lips bigger—oops!—I mean fuller. Because big lips were what Black women had before luscious lips became popular and then “big lips” became “full lips” (because full sounds better than big) and then Black women were able to stop using make-up tricks we had been taught to minimize the size of our lips.
Hip-hip music videos brought the booty into the spotlight, but it was still not socially acceptable. Women who chose to flaunt their fabulous fannies were judged harshly—until now! What music videos fetishized and objectified, society has now normalized—if the booty in question happens to be alabaster in complexion.  Nicki was recently criticized for her Anaconda album cover. But Kim, the married mother of a young daughter and the queen of bootie selfies gets a pass? I haven’t seen any open letters to Kim about showing her ass.  
From squats to injections, to articles and videos galore, there is a surplus of information on how to get a bigger butt. And now big booties are not only acceptable, they’re coveted. I guess we should thank White girls for giving our derrières their due just as we have Miley Cyrus to thank for legitimatizing twerking. Side eye. I’m so over this latest episode of cultural appropriation. There is even a documentary, Bottoms Up—Rise of the Backside, that traces how booties have moved from cult fetish to main stream acceptability.  There’s a tan booty on the poster for the film that does not look like it belongs to the originator and creator of Big Booties—Black girls! So, yea, I’m sick of the whole big booty White girl obsession. It makes me feel like I’m wearing a dental floss thong. A friend of mine said there's a thin line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. And the line has been crossed-again!