Remembering Maya Angelou: “Everybody Takes Their Chance By Taking a Chance On Us”

angelou-picEvery semester, one of my students references or presents one of the following two poems by Maya Angelou: “Still I Rise” or “Phenomenal Woman.”  I think back to the first time I heard those two poems and I remember their stunning impact on me too.  Nevertheless, I get nervous now that Angelou’s work, especially these two poems, are completely commodified and co-opted such that any radical representation of black women in her writing is gone.  Of course, nothing I am saying here is new.  I have especially liked Cheryl Higashida’s discussion of Angelou in her book, Black Internationalist Feminism, where Higashida reads Angelou’s autobiographies as the legacy of black women’s work in the post-World War II anti-colonialist Black Left.  Higashida achieves a nice balance: she acknowledges Angelou’s presence as a Pan African radical; she criticizes the ways that Angelou oftentimes undoes the collective action and consciousness of the Black Left by celebrating individualist (and, thus, capitalist/neoliberalist)  triumph and achievement.   These two poles do not have to be opposing though.  Like I already showed just with black women’s scarf wrapping styles, you can be a bold and emboldened individual and part of a collective too: it just depends on the ideologies you use to situate that individuality.  Black women are often co-opted by mainstream audiences who, in turn, force Angelou’s revolutionary politics into the background by only celebrating the notion of a rise of phenomenal individuals.  Higashida gives me a way to resuscitate Angelou’s fierce Black Feminist Left/Internationalism since, more often than not, that is deliberately erased from view in public celebrations of her work, including those celebrations by mainstream black academics and popular black celebrities.  This ain’t no surprise though now is it?  Put a black woman’s words in the mouths of misogynistic men, undercover-racist white folk who just want folk of color to join the mainstream, or bougsie/wanna-be-rich-and-famous black folk and the message will surely lose its meaning.  Hardly a coincidence.

This semester was a bit of a switch with the video below that one student asked us to watch in my  class. This video features an interview with Maya Angelou after shock jock, Don Imus, authorized himself to call black women on the Rutgers Basketball team out of their names. In that interview, Angelou calls out black men who publicly call black women b**ches but who would never do such a thing with white women in power, giving the then president’s wife, Laura Bush, as an example. I found her most compelling when she responds to Russell Simmon’s comments (at 1:32):

In the beginning of the interview, Angelou erases racial and gendered specificity by calling all vulgarity the same and marking all speakers the same— that’s just not historically accurate as any rhetorician would tell you.  But then the FIRE comes, you can even feel a palpable difference in her speech and vibe. As she states, if black men called white women in power B-words, they would see how powerful they are: “see how long you will live.  There wouldn’t be enough rope to hang your butts.”  This is Angelou at her finest: a poetic way to basically call these men cowards and coons. Angelou goes on to remind us that black women “are last on the totem pole” which means that “everybody has the chance to take a chance on us.”  Again, Angelou at her finest: another poetic way to show that the deliberate degradation of black women by black men for public consumption (while being too scared to do the same with non-black women) only makes you a stupid fool and sell-out. This is the Maya Angelou that mainstream America doesn’t readily present to us: one who locates words and experiences in the unique bodies and historical experiences of black women.  Like she says, there is a reason black men and white men feel so free and comfortable to call women of African descent B-words and no other group.  She leaves it up to imagination and drops off a powerful suggestion at the end, at least this is how I hear it: keeping taking your chance by taking a chance on us and see how we handle your stupid butts!

What Angelou teaches me (and I would say that the same thing is now happening with Ntozake Shange and For Colored Girls) is that I must teach how and why black women’s writings get co-opted… and participate in uncomfortable conversations of how we ourselves participate in this.  It ain’t just the rap video vixens who are out here shaking their behinds for public consumption and pseudo-access to white male power. It’s an important lesson for understanding capitalism, black women, and black women’s rhetoric.

Remembering Sojourner Truth: Reading Men and Nations

“The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles” by Faith Ringgold (1996) In this lithograph, Madam C. J. Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ella Baker hold out their quilt. Vincent van Gogh, well known for his paintings of sunflowers, stands to the right. Willia Marie, a fictional character at the bottom left, entertains the women in conversation.

“The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles” by Faith Ringgold (1996)
In this lithograph, Madam C. J. Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ella Baker hold out their quilt. Vincent van Gogh, well known for his paintings of sunflowers, stands to the right. Willia Marie, a fictional character at the bottom left, entertains the women in conversation.

In my first academic job as an assistant professor, I was not allowed to choose what classes I wanted to teach, what times or days I would teach, or ever permitted to create a new course. There was a level of toxicity that began already in the first semester. Because the other newly hired assistant professor and myself taught at a critical point in the program where assessment data was vital, the chair and her two flunkies senior administrators once sat we two newbies down under the pretense of a “meeting.”  It was just my first two months at this job and here we were, literally yelled at like misbehaving children: we needed to learn to do what we were told was the gist.  The senior faculty, of course, were left alone. I started to get real heated and, at one point, started rising up from my chair.  I don’t know what I was planning to do but as far as I was concerned, I was a grownass woman so sitting there obediently listening to an incompetent chair and her flunkies senior administrators (the chair made 100K more than I did) so violently weasel her way into getting two, new assistant professors just out of graduate school to do HER work for her was just… TOO… MUCH (she called this feminist collaboration).  I was a brand-new assistant professor but I wasn’t THAT kinda brand-new.  The tirade, however, abruptly ended when my fellow junior colleague started crying (as I have already described, white women’s tears always fulfill this function.)  That was my very first semester as an assistant professor and that ain’t even the half; each semester only worsened, putting the H-O-T in hot mess.  Needless to say, there has never been a single moment in my professional life where I have missed or thought fondly about this department or its leadership, a department that is pretty much defunct now.  I do, however, deeply miss the sistafriends I made at that college.

SOJOURNERAs soon as that “meeting” started, I noticed the peculiar way the chair and her flunkies senior administrators were looking at one another.  I knew from jump that this meeting had been pre-planned and that something real foul was afoot.  I am also someone who loves language and discourse; though I am not always quick enough on my feet to interject rapidly and cleverly, I will often commit a conversation to memory and this “meeting” was one of those times.  Who talked first, second, and then the turn-takings were so memorably awkward and poorly performed that I just KNEW this “meeting” had been pre-orchestrated under the chair’s tutelage (she was good cop; the other two were bad cop).  In fact, in these past eight years as a professor, I have learned this to be a common  form of discourse maneuvering in academia with white administrators.  When I suggested to my fellow-misbehaved-colleague that this was a premeditated homocide, she didn’t fully believe me.  It was many months into the schoolyear before she realized just how unethical this chair was.  Like with this moment, I have remained perplexed by my many colleagues who can’t seem to gauge the petty politics, backstabbing, scheming, lying, theft, and violence that is being waged against them behind closed doors until it is much, much too late (after they have cast their allegiances and trust in ALL the wrong places).  In direct contrast, when I described the turn-taking of that chair’s “meeting” to my sistafriends at that college, they pointed out even more slippages that I didn’t catch.  You see, these are women who read men and nations.

SoujnerThese women of color on my first campus as a tenure track professor were phenomenal and though I knew they were dope when I was there, I never fully realized that having a set of sistafriends on your campus to lift your head  is a sho-nuff RARITY!  Notice that I said: women of color who are sistafriends.   That is NOT the same as having women of color on campus.  I am not talking about the kinds of women of color who come talk to you in closed offices but never speak up in public settings, a strategy often learned early on because it is so handsomely rewarded in graduate school.   These women might say they keep quiet because no one is listening to them but, more often, they choke their words to not lose favor with those in power, not ruffle white feathers, not take any risks, or not lose their token status (and many times go home to wealthy, breadwinning, and/or white husbands).  They are, in sum, passing for white. I ain’t talking about THEM women of color. I am talking about the sistas who read their environments openly and will read the institution out loud with you and, especially, when the time is right.  Quite honestly, I assumed that I would find a sistacypher like this everywhere, that institutional racism would inevitably mean as much but I have learned otherwise.  What I have missed most about these sistafriends is the way they read institutional racism AND patriarchy.  You see, that’s that rare gem right there.   Talking up institutional racism does not always come with talking up patriarchy and misogyny and I mean something more than talking about public spectacles from the likes of fools like Rick Ross.  I mean talking about the day-to-day workings of men in our workplaces— white men and men of color— all of their immediate articulations of societal structures, social hierarchies, and violence: we didn’t just co-sign our misogynistic black male colleagues who were actin the fool (dropping their “seed” anywhere, taking female students out for drinks, text-messaging/calling/visiting/closing-the-door with female students, etc); nor did we leave our feminism at the door and blindly support the campus’s white patriarchs and their violence.  Like I said, I have learned the value and rarity of these kinds of sistas in these past years.  You see, these were women who read men AND nations.  

sojourner-truth-poster3”I don’t read such small stuff as letters, I read men and nations.”  These are the words of Sojourner Truth, the famous African American suffragist and abolitionist.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton described Truth making this statement to her in a 1867 visit.  I have pushed myself to think deeply about this phrase because it is one that my students continually re-mixed throughout the past semester— always noticing this way that the black women who we studied were reading their social environments!  “Reading” someone is, of course, a popular African American verbal expression and usually means telling somebody about themselves after an extensive, head-to-toe assessment of who and what they really are.  I imagine this is part of the reason students of African descent gravitate to this expression— they already recognize it.  Remembering Truth, however, means we must take this expression much further. Reading men AND nations is still that rare gem: the ability to analyze and navigate white supremacy (nation) AND patriarchy (men).  I can’t think of a better way to describe what my circle of sistafriends was doing at my former college than with Truth’s statement: a present-day iteration of a historical reality and necessity .

graveThis semester, I wanted to really think about the reverberating references to black female figures that have occurred across multiple semesters of my teaching.  Part of me is responding to a tendency of mostly white teachers to describe mostly white students who reference a litany of white authors and novels in the course of classroom discussions.  This gets marked as intelligent and well-read and I do certainly agree.  However, within the scope of these parameters, I have never heard any black student be referenced in the same way for knowledge of black cultural history and persons (and what passes as KNOWLEDGE of people of African descent, even at the graduate level, is often so dismal that I am utterly embarrassed for all parties involved).  At best, when undergraduate students of African descent reference black cultural histories, these are treated as personal connections, not literate connections (as if white students describing white authors is NOT also about personal connection). Alternatively, black students might be seen as activating their prior knowledge which is admirable and tolerated but that is not the same as regarding these moments as sophisticated analyses.  Part of this series for me then was to push myself to see the recurring themes and issues related to black female cultural figures as articulated by students of African descent as literate connections and sophisticated analyses: to, in sum, treat black students’ ruminations as seriously as white students’.  My past posts about Aja Monet, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Queen Latifah’s “UNITY,” Eve’s “Love is Blind,” Audre Lorde, and now, Sojourner Truth, intended to show the recurrent references by students of African descent in my classes.  My goal was to hear more deeply… and build new pedagogical understandings from there.

Class of 2013: Congratulations!

700-0-CC908-Class-of-2013-Cheek-Cheer-Tattoos-000Today was the first, soon-to-be-annual Graduate/Faculty brunch at my college.  Graduating seniors who are connected to student clubs and/or student government invite faculty who they would like to say goodbye to.  Thank you to Christina Berthaud and Chanel Smith for inviting me to be their guest today.  We ended up talking way past the event until we got kicked out of the room  when it was being prepped for the next function.

It was such a pleasure to sit and just talk with these young black women today, one off to law school and the other set for a career in public relations.  Unbeknownst to me, I had heard of them before since their roommates had taken previous classes with me. Amazingly, these 8 black women met as assigned roommates in their freshmen year of college and pretty much stayed roommates (along with other freshmen dormmates) throughout their four years of college.

Congratulations CHANEL AND CHRISTINA on your gradation and for living, understanding, and so fully valuing sistahood.  I wish you all the best and, of course, much much  love and ongoing sistahood!

Impact of “Love is Blind”: “You Need to Elevate and Find”

Popular meme brilliantly critiqued by Deborah Cooper as a tactic used to control and entitlement to black women's bodies.

Popular meme brilliantly critiqued by Deborrah Cooper: even “good men” use this language when thinking they are entitled to black women’s bodies.

True to her promise, Deborrah Cooper promised to bring the rain even harder on her website after black men kept dismissing her comments about male sexist behavior.  For those who don’t know, Cooper’s videos, books, and blog are dedicated to black women and relationships with the kind of vibe where I feel like I am talking to that auntie, mother, cousin, grandmother, or godmother with the special knack to insert well-placed cusswords in an unrelenting reading of black men, misogyny, and relationships. If you know the kinds of women I am taking about, even when you don’t agree with Cooper, you will feel like you are on the frontporch on a hot summer day listening to womenfolk as they shake their heads at all of the foolishness they see. Recently, Cooper shared the story of one of her followers who was walking home from a grocery store in Brooklyn.  Cooper’s fan reports that she saw a black man arguing with a black woman and their two daughters with the daughters, little girls, fighting the dad off.  The man grew angrier and more violent so the sista watching called the police.  As she called the police, the black men on the block just stood there, watched, and laughed, with one pair of young men enjoying the show so much that they sat and ate a candy bar, fully engrossed.  Suddenly, about 15+ black girls, maybe in high shool, came along, saw what was happening, and poised themselves to give this man an old-fashioned beatdown.  If the police hadn’t come when they had, he would have gotten it even worse.  I find this image of black men looking on and laughing at a black woman being physically, publicly abused, along with her small daughters, deeply haunting and depressing.  A brother and comrade told me recently that he sees strong correlations between the rise of black male diatribes (i.e., all over youtube), the increase in violence against black women, and the onset of new numbers of white supremacist/KKK-offshoot groups since 2008 (before Obama became president, there were a little more than a 100 white hate groups and yet, after 2008, there were more than 1000.)  In an era of newfound white supremacy, violence against black women will inevitably steepen and increase, that’s the kind of history and world we live in.  And if bourgeois/capitalist culture incorporates black men, even if as coons (think Lil Wayne or Flava Flav’s television show), then it is inevitable that violence against black women will be the price of the ticket for that.  All women are objects under capitalism and black women will fare worst in those equations. This image of the 15 young black women ready for revolution is very striking and haunting, but perhaps, it was always a reality already in the making.

What I am suggesting here is that when I hear so many young black women in my classes still gravitate to and know the context, history, and lyrics of Eve’s 1999 “Love is Blind,” their discourse and memories are about more than just one song.  This is why I include “Love is Blind” in what I am calling the Political-Intellectual Canon of Young Black Women.  These lyrics feel like they are triggering a kind of lineage of blackwomenspeak and blackwomenthink about violence in our communities that students are building on:

This song, “Love is Blind,” is always voluntarily discussed by a black woman in my class whenever Hip Hop gets mentioned… without fail.  Every time. Interestingly though, I have not had students who particularly talk about Eve as a Femcee, only this song.  It’s all about the lyrics here:

Hey, yo I don’t even know you and I hate you
See all I know is that my girlfriend used to date you
How would you feel if she held you down and raped you?
Tried and tried, but she never could escape you
She was in love and I’d ask her how? I mean why?
What kind of love from a nigga would black your eye?
What kind of love from a nigga every night make you cry?
What kind of love from a nigga make you wish he would die?
I mean shit he bought you things and gave you diamond rings
But them things wasn’t worth none of the pain that he brings
And you stayed, what made you fall for him?
That nigga had the power to make you crawl for him
I thought you was a doctor be on call for him
Smacked you down cause he said you was too tall for him, huh?
That wasn’t love, babygirl you was dreamin’
I could have killed you when you said your seed was growin from his semen

Love is blind, and it will take over your mind
What you think is love, is truly not
You need to elevate and find…

I don’t even know you and I’d kill you myself
You played with her like a doll and put her back on the shelf
Wouldn’t let her go to school and better herself
She had a baby by your ass and you ain’t giving no help
Uh-huh big time hustler, snake motherfucker
One’s born everyday and everyday she was your sucker
How could you beat the mother of your kids?
How could you tell her that you love her?
Don’t give a fuck if she lives
She told me she would leave you, I admit it she did
But came back, made up a lie about you missing your kids
Sweet kisses, baby ain’t even know she was your mistress
Had to deal with fist fights and phone calls from your bitches
Floss like you possess her, tellin’ me to mind my business
Said that it was her life and stay the fuck out of it
I tried and said just for him I’ll keep a ready clip…

I don’t even know you and I want you dead
Don’t know the facts but I saw the blood pour from her head
See I laid down beside her in the hospital bed
And about two hours later, doctors said she was dead
Had the nerve to show up at her mother’s house the next day
To come and pay your respects and help the family pray
Even knelt down on one knee and let a tear drop
And before you had a chance to get up
You heard my gun cock
Prayin to me now, I ain’t God but I’ll pretend
I ain’t start your life but nigga I’mma bring it to an end
And I did, clear shots and no regrets, never
Cops comin’ lock me under the jail
Nigga whatever my bitch, fuck it my sister
You could never figure out even if I let you live
What our love was all about
I considered her my blood and it don’t come no thicker

1-soundwave-remix-finalI suspect the weight of this song rather than Eve’s person will become even more pronounced in the future since Eve has eclipsed any awareness of racism now that she is a celebrity …AND pregnant by her white millionaire British boyfriend— the race car driver, Maximillion Cooper.  See Denene Millner at My Brown Baby for a brilliant critique of Eve’s newfound colorblindness as the racial politics for raising her biracial child.  I am pretty confident that Eve’s song will continue to circulate in the annals of young black women’s memory and consciousness though Eve’s own politics and life story may not.

When I hear my students talk about “Love is Blind”– and when I think of the story from Cooper’s follower, the young women fighting back an abusive man on a Brooklyn street, and Cooper’s re-telling of violence against black women on her blog— I see a community of black women speaking into and against violence against them.  In a criminal (in)justice system where the men who rape and beat black women are treated SIGNIFICANTLY less harshly than when raping or abusing any and every other racial or ethnic group of women, it will be up to black women to (re)define justice and safety for their own bodies.  Certainly, no one else can or will do that for us.  When young black women know and discuss Eve’s song in my classes at no prodding of my own, this is the larger epistemological system that I know they are speaking into.

Young Black Women Define Rhetoric: “Being Around a Black Woman, It’s Contagious”

Thank you to Cydni Joubert who created this video-interview below for our English 3475 class, African American Women’s Rhetoric, to let us hear how dance, black women’s lives, and rhetoric all intersect.

 

And, thank you to Crystal Valentine who visited class yesterday and blessed us with this performance below.

 

For more on Crystal Valentine, please see Cydni’s slideshow below.

“Cut This Black Woman’s Chains”: Students Take the Cake!

I’ve never been very good with closure.  Classtime runs out, we can be in the middle of a discussion, folk need to go to their next class, and I’ll just blurt out, all uncouth, well, yall, it’s time to go.  And that will be the end of it.  No synthesis, no last words of encouragement, no group hug.  I can’t synthesize when I am still processing; and I’m not Jerry Springer with a final public service announcement. After 20 years of teaching, you’d think I would have found some solutions but I have not been able to succeed at any attempt.  Maybe I just don’t think serious issues are easily resolved with dialogue alone or I am resisting the simple, Western rush to solutions and conclusions to complex issues.  I no longer look for closure at the end of a class.  I do put a lot of thought into the first days and weeks of my classes, but I’m not good at going out with a bang on the last day.

IMG176When I was teaching at a small college in Brooklyn, I learned the importance of the last day though.  Students in an African American children’s literature class inspired me.  My plan was simple: let’s eat together on the last day and share what we have done for final projects.  That’s it.  Nice and simple. Well, they turnt it up and out.  They brought in trays, and I mean TRAYYYYS of food.  Their kids came too and told us what they liked about the literature (this was a Friday evening class of 39 women and 2 men, all of whom were thirty years old and above.)  And my favorite part, of course, was the special corner, far away from the kids, that was for grown-ups only: a maxi-bar that featured a bottle of rum from what seemed like every country in the Caribbean.  I made many trips to that special corner.  That’s a class that I remember fondly, I can still see each face in my mind’s eyes.  It’s the same for the students who did the assembly/performance with their families attending or the students with their curriculum showcases when I was a teacher educator.  You can’t really predict this though. Sometimes students are as dull and dry as wheat thins; other times, they are PURE FIRE. My point is that the last class should do something, you should feel the weight of the time that you spent together, you should feel like you have been somewhere together.  I no longer assume I can achieve that; students have to do that for and with one another.

Caroline CropToday, however, I thought I would be compelling and close the semester with my favorite thank you speech.  I would use black women’s audacity when even saying thank you to thank my class, as if it were me talking to them.  I am talking about En Vogue. Instead of walking up to the stage at the 1990 Billboard Awards, all fake-surprised and theatrically-shocked that they won for their single, “Hold On,” these sistas knew they had this award and so they performed an acceptance speech that blew away the crowd– in the very style of the song that was being awarded.  I don’t mean to suggest that I deserve the award En Vogue received, but I do feel like the semester was my own sort of award. I must admit that I was little impressed with myself.  I had finally found a good-bye lesson plan… but then my little stuff got showed up real fast.

IMG172Today, anthologies were due.  Anthologies are, well, just that.  Students create mini-curricula for their colleagues using black women’s primary texts that exemplify some rhetorical practice or process.  Instead of writing the traditional Western essay for this, they create an artifact that does the analysis. Last year, Fedaling made photocopies of texts written by black women, dipped them in tea, burned the edges, and then put them all in a well-worn, beat up piece of luggage.  This luggage was supposed to represent the way the family kept its identity papers, papers that had been passed down to her from generations of black grandmothers about their history and lives.  An opening letter explained the significance of each text and asked the viewer to add their own writing. Aysha used the same technique and put all of these papers in a decorated shoebox, to look like something she found under her mother’s bed. Celeste created a graphic novel of black supersheroes, “TEAM ABLE” [who consist of (A) Angela Davis, (B) Bessie Smith, (L) Lucy Wilmot Smith, and (E) Ella Baker]. These women do not fight traditional, individual villains.  Instead, they fight silence, inaction, and unconsciousness!  You get the picture here.  I am what we call a visual learner so I have always leaned on multi-media projects in class. Sometimes you just have to mix up the writing assignments because that gets boring real fast for me.  Plus, I can deduce my students’ understanding of black women’s history, black women’s rhetoric, and the connections they are making just as easily, if not more easily, with such 3D/multimedia artifacts as with any written exam or essay.  This year was a first though— it was a project I had never seen.

IMG174Today, Caroline gave us a process.  First, there was a collection of black women’s poems where black women discuss sexuality, their bodies; their right to love, live, and own themselves (the first image on this page).   It is called “For Colored Girls!”  There was an accompanying poster, now gifted to me, soon to be framed in my office (the second image on this page).  The process continued with a red velvet cake with chocolate on the outside (the third image on this page).  The cake was in the shape of a black woman’s torso, fully naked, demonized dark nipples in full tow, wrapped in chains (signifying too on the Swedish cake performance). Caroline cut the chains from the cake in front of all of us so that we could break this black woman free.   She then offered us the inside and outside of this new black woman, ourselves.

It was the perfect closure with a group of students I will not likely forget!  Like I said, the students themselves will do the work.  I’m glad that I was able to listen to that first group of 39 women and 2 men who taught me this lesson many years ago.