“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.

Impact of Audre Lorde: “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”

audre_posterWhile attending a professional event, I ran into a male colleague who lives across the country.  When the day’s events ended and we went for tea, the very first conversation he initiated was a discussion about the breasts of his ex-girlfriend who was also at the event, a woman who he described as “always thick up top” (with an accompanying hand gesture to match).  While also describing how she looked in the black jeans he fondly remembered her always wearing, I let the brotha slide and assumed he was delirious from trauma (this ex has dogged him in a way that I have never seen ANY woman do before…and he lets her).  I will say here that this woman is an ethnic white woman (i.e., a non-Western-European woman who passes for white but does not receive full benefits as white, though her children do), a fact that will soon be relevant to this story. I don’t particularly care about black men’s racial dating preferences— I am with Mo’Nique on this one:  just don’t come running back to sistas when you get disrespected and “nigger-fied,” stop expecting black women to mammy you up when you get wounded.  Not even 20 minutes after his aloud remembering/daydreaming of his ex’s body, a man of color, who we both knew, joined us and then immediately complimented my appearance.  My friend made sure to let me know that he was infuriated by this man’s show of misogyny in complimenting me.  It is just too obvious so I won’t even bother to interpret this inclination to be offended when a sista gets a comparably respectful compliment after you have waxed on, just 10 minutes before, about a white woman’s body.  Two weeks after this incident, I let the brotha know that his overly-sexualized language was not cool.  Well, let me tell you, he wasn’t tryna hear NONE of that.  I was just going off, my critique was coming from nowhere, my observation was inaccurate and decontextualized (he didn’t remember talking about other women’s bodies was his response, so I must have been lying), and, on top of all that, I was told I was treating him as an inferior, basically enacting white supremacy on him.  Yes, I was THE ONE chasing whiteness. I was the one he said was acting like a white man. And despite being publicly D-I-S-S-E-D by this woman, he continually needed to let me know that he had deeply loved her, that she was who he had once intended to spend the rest of his life with, all a way of letting me know that he could sexualize/discuss/honor/protect his woman in any way that he wanted, whenever he wanted, and that I was too much of the inferior-black-woman-stock to dare criticize her or him.  It was as if the likes of me had committed some kind of serious affront by even mentioning this woman (he was the one who always brought her up—she is simply NOT the kinda person I know).  He even aggressively defended her Virtue, Truth, and Honesty by emphatically insisting that each time she initiated contact with him via social media and the like (over the course of many, many years), she always backed off if he had a girlfriend.  Let me shed some light here: on each and every occasion that she initiated digitized sexual banter, her husband and small child were down the hall or maybe even in the same room (with brothaman convinced that he was simultaneously offering deep, serious commitment to the girlfriend he had nearby though he kept a skank always waiting in the wings). He was so mesmerized when this white woman claimed she loved him more than her own white husband that he could not imagine, not even for a minute, that she might be less than virtuous. Let me shed some more light here about race and gender.  I know NO 40+ year old sista-professor who has unprotected sex with so many different men, WHILE still married to her white husband, that when she gets pregnant, she has no idea who the babydaddy is, confidently extorts many men for false paternity without hesitation or remorse (deliberately doctoring documents), introduces her son to all her suitors/tricks (with the boy even asking “are you gonna be my new daddy?”), and then has a black male professor adamantly defending/ praising her as the Virgin Mary Mother.  These are not new behaviors that a woman would acquire at age 40 but a lifelong, devoted lifestyle. You see, sistas in the academy, or ANYWHERE, do not receive praise, love, and protection for these kinds of lifestyle choices— to paraphrase Sherri Shephard: we get called Supahead for way less than that. Less than 2 months after their “formal relationship,” the prized trophy, of course, dropped the brotha, moved on to yet another (probably, a new white man), got herself a divorce a few months later (a given when you are visibly pregnant by someone else), with brothaman so deeply wrapped in his narcissistic delusion that he saw NONE of this ish coming and couldn’t seem to grasp how and why he lost my friendship (amongst other things). NOTE: parents might want to think deeper about the kind of college classes they are paying for…ain’t no way a “professor” got time for all these EXTRA extra-marital activities and be focused on their own or somebody’s else child too.  What I am most interested in here is highlighting this brotha’s automatic inclination to silence me, to let me know that I was crazy and too unworthy/non-woman/de-sexual to critique him or discuss his trophy/ethnic white woman. It is a deep memory that will always stay with me because the event we were attending was lily-white and so here I was with the only real color in the place, just as silenced and degraded as anywhere else.  Though armed with an ability to memorize an arsenal of Audre Lorde quotes, it has never occurred to this brotha that his language and actions are wholly problematic, that he is wholly colonized. When you choose, over and over again, and so deeply cherish (and spend all your money on) a white woman who has never treated you as anything other than her big, dumb black buck— while calling/regarding black women as angry and bitter— you can be sure that your consciousness and spirit will never rest near the area code or time zone of Audre Lorde’s.

audre-Lorde-warfareThis example is both extreme and mundane: extreme, in the sense that, no, most brothas ain’t this lost and pathological (I also suspect mental and/or neurological instability in this case); but the example is also mundane in that this example captures the everyday, automated kind of silence and invisibility of black women.  This silence is what I believe registers my students’ deep connections to Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” which we read from Sister Outsider. I noticed right away in the first semester that I taught black women’s rhetoric that the women in the class kept re-mixing quotes from Lorde’s essay into their own essays— each week, each class, for the entire semester.  Yes, every class! After that first semester, I decided that I would open the course with this particular essay and let Lorde set the definition for black women’s rhetoric where her title, purpose, and argument would be the guiding metaphor for black women’s rhetoric: transforming silence into language and action.

audre-lorde-posterI can’t even begin to convey how many young women of color in my classes reiterate, time and time again when commenting to Lorde, that they have choked their words after feeling punished with labels and messages (both overt and subtle) of being loud, angry, ugly, anti-woman, unworthy, aggressive, crazy, irrational, stupid.   What comes next is this: 1) a recognition that these labels and messages are silencing tactics; 2) an unwillingness to continue accepting those labels and messages as accurate; and 3) a newfound respect for shouting from the rooftops whether it be themselves or other women. I am looking forward to the final projects and final exams that I am collecting this week because I know that what I will be holding in my hands are 30 attempts at transforming silence to language and action.  I know that I will hold in my hands words from wounded souls who are doing more than merely memorizing Lorde’s words but making them real, people who will actually SAY AND DO SOMETHING.  Like I have said before about the black women who are constantly referenced in my classes, what I have been calling the Political-Intellectual Canon of Young Black Women, it is these moments in the classroom that remind me of the power of the women we study.  I can sometimes forget the impact Lorde has on young women who meet her for the first time. In the academy, we value the end-goal of acquired expertise and miss the divine and deep nature of the beginnings, those first introductions, and so sleep on the most important moments.  One of my students even told me that she keeps one Lorde quote with her at all times now (from her 1991 Interview in Callaloo):

Whenever a conscious Black woman raises her voice on issues central to her existence, somebody is going to call her strident, because they don’t want to hear about it, nor us.  I refuse to be silenced and I refuse to be trivialized, even if I do not say what I say perfectly… You can’t get rid of me just by saying I’m strident, or I’m too intense, or I’m silly, or I’m crazy, or morbid, or melodramatic; hey listen, I can be all of those things, and you still must open yourself to what I am talking about, in the interests of our common future.    

That’s a powerful definition of black women’s rhetoric… and a powerful quote to keep on my person at all times too, especially during this last week of portfolios and final projects.

Semester Begins to End…

Ida B. Wells "The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press."

Ida B. Wells
“The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”

Tired, Tired, Tired…It’s the end of the semester and I am just wiped out.  The tank was inching towards empty a long time ago but now, it’s just fumes.  Part of my fatigue, I believe, comes from the amount of work and time it took to try and make my rhetoric class a richer multimedia experience.  I was doing that at the same time that I was reading an extensive amount of my students’ writing.  I assign writing for each reading, which means I assign writing for every class.  I don’t give quizzes and exams because I am collecting the equivalent of 4-5 pages, at minimum, a week per student (a combination of blogs, vlogs, and print).  I do not grade these weekly writings as finished, polished essays; it’s just for ideas and articulation (there are final writing projects where I do that more traditional thing).  In weekly writing, I am not looking at format, organization, coherence, or even logic… just ideas.  With 30 students, that’s at least 150 pages of student writing per week for one class.  And, yes, I still read and comment to each page, and not with that bland, white liberalist discourse that constitutes most of what gets called response theory in the still-white-dominant composition studies.

Rosa Parks "I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear."

Rosa Parks
“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”

I don’t believe students will actually do the writing unless I comment to it and I don’t think peer critique is enough.  Peer dialogue is a vital part of my class but for the most part, the content here is all new for students so the person who DESIGNED that content has to be present in a student’s progression of ideas and feelings (I can always rest assured that students have not learned much about or read much of anything by black women at my college).  If you don’t have time to read what your students write, I say stop assigning so much of it or, in the least, we have to stop being disappointed when students don’t give us what we are looking for because we haven’t built in enough of a feedback system to articulate our curriculum.  I get that students need to write a lot and do it on their own, but, really, that jus ain’t gonna happen.  I had graduate teachers who followed this liberalist philosophy and assigned us writing that they didn’t collect. Guess how much of that writing I did?  NONE OF IT.  Had NO time for that.  That kind of thing only works for avid journalers; I am not one of them.  The only substantive writing that I do now (I am not talking about texting, etc… I said SUBSTANTIVE) is for public: this blog or print publications.

Judith Jamison "Learn the craft of knowing how to open your heart and to turn on your creativity.  There's a light inside of you."

Judith Jamison
“Learn the craft of knowing how to open your heart and to turn on your creativity. There’s a light inside of you.”

For those students who are like me when it comes to journaling, I KNOW that if I don’t collect their writing, they will not do it; and if I don’t respond to their writing, they will not do it earnestly and they certainly will not fully learn the content.  Most importantly, it is really in the responding to students’ individual writing that an individual and consistent relationship with each of my students forms.  Those kinds of individual relationships don’t happen deep enough in class lectures and office hours alone.  This is all pretty simple.  After all, I’m a compositionist and writing teacher and this is how most of us teach;  however, even those that write and present about pedagogy seem clueless—most folk in the field who I see and hear are some of the worst and most boring teachers around.

Assata Shakur "Freedom in the right to grow, it's the right to blossom, Freedom is the right to be yourself."

Assata Shakur
“Freedom in the right to grow, it’s the right to blossom, Freedom is the right to be yourself.”

Here’s the caveat with all this responding to student writing: by the time the semester ends, you will be wiiiiiiped out.  This particular rhetoric class that I have right now really just OD’ed on this writing stuff.  In the last reflective assignment, what I called Neo-Soul Ruminations, I asked students to stop and pause and piece together the second half of the semester’s learning.  Knowing THESE students, I gave them a five page MAXIMUM!  Yes, no more than five pages!  I just can’t read more than that right now.  But don’t you know some of them hustled that?  Figured, well, she didn’t say double-spaced or size 12 font so they went and gave me tiny-print, single-spaced writing that, yes, met the five page maximum.  Again, that’s one day of class.  Imagine that for 30 students, for one class.  They killllllllin me!  K.I.L.L.I.N. me! Sometimes I wonder about these college teachers who say things like: my students will just agree with what I say or say what they think I want to hear; my students won’t write much or won’t veer from traditional formats, 5-paragraph essays, or standardized Englishes.  Could somebody send some of them squares my way, please?  Cuz I don’t see nuthin like that in front of me this semester and I could really use a break!

Audre Lorde "It is not our difference that divide us.  It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences."

Audre Lorde
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

The other issue that I am reluctantly admitting is that I live in a severely delusional state by nature of spending so much of my time around 18-22 years old.  It makes me forget that I am old and can’t do the things they do.  All that staying up late at night to write and read and work on problem sets?  Puhlease!  Ain’t no way I can do that anymore. The other week I was in our main student building where my classroom is housed and at 9am, I saw two, little, itty-bitty skinny ol’ things, all of 19 years old, eating an extra-large pizza all to themselves with supersized Mountain Dews, talkin about schoolwork.  At 9am!  I didn’t even know you could buy pizza at 9am in the morning.  By the time I passed them on my way after class, that whole box of pizza was gone and they were talking about potato chips, M&Ms, and French Fries.  I think I gained five pounds, increased my blood pressure, and raised my bad cholesterol levels just listening to their conversation.  You can easily get caught up in a delusional reality in these settings because this is just NOT what you can do when you are my age.  Just because your 20 year old students have energy at the end of a semester, do NOT assume you can hang with that!  Last night I was part of a panel for the sociology honor society.  The students were of course, amazing, and I suddenly realized I was the “deadbeat” that I had always called my aunts, uncles, and parents.  Here we’d be at the family reunion dining hall (it’s a large family so we need a hall when we come together) and all they ever did was sit around and talk, just sittin there, and talkin.  That’s it.  Buncha deadbeats.  Well, last night, after the event, the students were running around, cleaning up, making plans.  Nope, not me. By the time 8:30pm came around (my commute to work starts at 8am), guess what I was doin?  Sittin… and talkin… and THAT’S IT.  Now it’s official: I am a deadbeat.

Eunique Jones All photos here are by Eunique Jones and part of her project at: becauseofthemwecan.com.

Eunique Jones
All photos here are by Eunique Jones and part of her project at: http://becauseofthemwecan.com.

On a more serious note, no one cares about my fatigue, nothing in my life is about to slow down, none of this stuff ever really lets up— not the bills, not the work that still has to be done, and not the dealings with the “unsafe”/self-proclaimed-radical white racists at the job.  The best thing about being a teacher though is the energy of undergraduate students.  On Wednesday, Christina sent me the link to Eunique Jones’s photography project that E.M. Monroe introduced to me during Black History Month. Christina’s email to me featured a collage of these children’s photos who represented all of the women we have talked about in my course (the photos on this post are some of the photos in the email Christina sent me).  Christina’s email gave me a new realization about Eunique Jones’s project: only a black woman could capture the beauty and deep aesthetic diversity of black children, guide black children in positioning themselves—both literally (i.e., the photo shoot) and figuratively (i.e. the racial memory)— as inheritors/heir of black traditions, and give that back to black people with texts that reach the masses. Yup, I said it: ONLY A BLACK WOMAN.  Now essentialize THAT! The next morning, Christina brought a spoken word poet, Parlay, to class who attends a neighboring university to introduce the day.  Afterwards, by the time the late afternoon rolled around, Karina came to my office with the best damn, homemade empanadas I have ever had.  To riff off of Eunique Johnson’s campaign: because of my students, I can… tired and all… with an avalanche of students’ writing to respond to.

Anti-Princess Campaign Continued

In January, I started thinking/blogging about what I then called my anti-princess campaign for young black women.  I did indeed use children’s books this semester in my class for one lesson, books that specifically and deliberately rewrite the oppressive roles of women, race, blackness, and the lives of black girls in fairy tales.  I thought for sure that my students would think me insane, but they caught on and ran with the importance of these gender/race critiques throughout the semester.  Unlike some popular young white youtube feminists, they did not easily dismiss Disney’s psychoses of light-as-right and dark-as-bad or treat these color issues as neutral, a privilege that only white women and near-white women still seem to enjoy.  I will continue these lessons/discussions in my classes in the future.  Strangely enough, the sitcom/corporate conglomeration of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” prompts my newest sense of urgency against princess indoctrination for young black women.

At the suggestion of a student, I recently watched Sheree Whitfield on the “Iyanla Fix My Life” show on OWN.  Despite the people who swoon under the influence of the Entertainment Industrial Complex (and so didn’t find Sheree tantalizing enough on the show) or the non-reflective folk who thought Iyanla went too far, I felt like I got to see some social issues worth discussing for once.  Though I have certainly appreciated Iyanla Vanzant’s no-nonsense relationship counsel in her books, I have always been disappointed that she doesn’t make her analyses of black women’s lives more politically/historically based.  That coupled with the fact that I think her spending/money /celebrity status and habits actually match the kind of consumerism represented by something like Bravo, I am always a bit distrustful of swapping out self-help/self-indulgence for social and political analyses.  Nonetheless, I thought Iyanla was provocative in some of her interviewing and nudging.

I am fascinated by the first half of this segment when Sheree  tells Iyanla that she got married because she was looking for a man to love her, a deep admission if you ask me and a seemingly honest one. When Iyanla asks Sheree what it looks like for a man to love her, Sheree answers that it is the same fairy tale that all girls have.  Iyanla asks for more of what Sheree means.  I am fascinated here that Sheree never really answers Iyanla.  We don’t even get complete sentences from Sheree, something about THE man, THE life, some pickets and some fences.  There is nothing substantive here, no real image of two people trying to come together in sustaining ways; there are only materialistic images that  COMPLETELY lack coherence or logic.  Sheree doesn’t actually become coherent for me and able to form sentences until she begins to describe how painful it was for her to have to pretend that she was living this LIFE, to pretend that she was being loved, to pretend that a loving partnership was ever there or forthcoming, and to always pretend that she was happy and had it together.  Iyanla asks her “to go there and really look at that” and take on some very real pain.  I think Iyanla can be brilliant at getting women to look at their individual lives and pain this way, to really see when, where, and how we are pretending to be happy and/or are willing to put up with too much for fleeting moments of happiness.  But I also think that really going there requires that we look at how these are socially conditioned experiences, wanna-be fairy tales that never come true, so empty that they could never have real substance, a kind of nothingness that occupies such a consuming part of our emotional and mental being.  Have I pretended to be happy to keep the peace with my family, with a partner, or with a lie I have wanted to maintain that existed nowhere in reality?  Sure, I have.  Why are so many pretending we don’t know what Sheree is talking about but acting like, instead, the foolishness on RHOA is relatable?  The kind of pretending that many of us do/have done is part of our own individual baggage, yes, but it’s also part of some serious social programming related to consumerism, sexuality, and genders and women need to examine all that politically, not merely individually.

Iyanla manages to humanize Sheree’s ex-husband in ways that we were obviously unable to see in the various seasons of the Real Housewives sitcom, but I was deeply disturbed by the depiction of Sheree as the sole reason her ex-husband was stereotyped the way that he was.  A corporate machine like Bravo exists to profit off of black people’s pain, not help them overcome it.  Surely, Sheree is not innocent but it’s too convenient to simply blame a black woman for the negative depictions of a black man who chooses NOT to pay child support and be part of his children’s lives.  I am not suggesting that Sheree is a victim since she obviously chose all on her own to be part of something as ridiculous as RHOA (and all of the crazy blogs that promote its gossip); but I also will NOT feel sorry for the man either— if you are that embarrassed about your personal business (broadcast on cable television), then you do not choose a woman who would go that route because you would know to make sure that what you actually value in your life/woman matches your own values.  Iyanla does confront Sheree’s ex-husband something beautiful by making him admit that he hurt this woman to her core by pretending to offer a love he never had, a love that Sheree needed. We also get to hear the ex-husband’s dream of what an ideal fatherhood would look like and he certainly convinces you that he can and will be exactly that kind of father to his children.

By the end of the episode, the world which has scripted these lives still goes unquestioned though.  Sheree won’t confront why she wants to still build and live in a mansion (that has been under construction for years now), a mansion that eerily looks like a princess castle or the Barbie Dream House.  It also seems eerily appropriate that the mansion just sits there, unoccupied, in unfinished ruins.  Iyanla certainly lets the ex-husband know that his choices are his own, not the fault of Sheree.  Nonetheless, there is no real questioning as to how and why a man can avoid his child because the child’s mother isn’t nice to him.  There’s no real beef with what BlogMother at WhatAbourOurDaughters.com describes as a form of “Black Unity” that means we have “uniformly accepted the fact that Black fathers are ‘optional’ – like  AppleCare, or cruise control, or marble counter tops.” It seems socially acceptable for men to blame their decisions to be absent in their children’s lives solely on women’s behavior though those women’s behaviors were not scrutinized when men’s sexual appetites were being fulfilled during unprotected intercourse.  It’s all pretty much a blueprint for my basic definition of misogyny— an entrenched hatred of women where a woman receives more attention for her looks, sexual appeal, sexual favors vs. who she really is; an entrenched hatred of women where women are expected to be controlled/led by men (in the home and in the state) who are not to be questioned or challenged; an entrenched hatred of women where women’s bodies are constantly for sale (i.e., used to sell everything) and racially/ethnically ranked and valued according to a near-to-whiteness scale.

Quvenzhane Wallis at the 18th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards in January 2013.

Quvenzhane Wallis at the 18th Annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards in January 2013.

If this all seems too harsh, I want to just remind people that we are not talking about 16, 18, or even 25 year olds here who got caught up in their first serious encounter with erotic passion, got pregnant when too-young-to-parent, were still too innocent to know that love is never a singular/one-time experience. Nope.  These are grownass folk doin grownass things who then want to go and act like children when they reproduce children.  It is simply unfathomable to me that black folk would rationalize, in high-falutin vocabulary, on television, their refusal to play deep, present, sustaining roles in black children’s lives.  Here’s a recent reminder that we should all remember: since the 2013 Oscar nominations, Quvenzhane Wallis was constantly ridiculed, her talent was questioned, and when that wasn’t enough, she was called IN A PUBLIC forum a CUNT in tweets representing a well-read blog/newspaper.  She was NINE. YEARS. OLD. How are we running around here, for even a minute, ignoring black children when this is the routine treatment for a little nine-year old black girl?  Kristen Savali laid it out for us and Tressie McMillan beautifully followed through: not even white feminists rallying against misogyny gave a damn about these violent acts against a little black girl. How could any black man use Sheree or any woman to justify not being present in his black daughter’s life when THIS is what that little girl is facing?  Women like Sheree are the problem?  This is how we talk about black women? This is who we think endanger black children when we have white newsreporters publicly calling little black girls cunts?  At the risk of stating the obvious here: no mansion or Chateau-Sheree (which Quvenzhane could buy for HERSELF at just 9 years old) protected Quvenzhane from racial assault.  Only a community can protect her from that, one that is NOT distracted, hypnotized, and miseducated  by the material accumulation of capitalism/hyper-consumerism or the sexual gratification under misogyny or the reverence of/infatuation with whiteness via white supremacy.  If I sound disgusted, good, because I certainly am.  Black folk got no time for these kinds of conversations about black children. No time whatsoever.

I think this OWN episode is just an exaggerated version of the kind of misogyny and hyper-consumerism that is shaping many black people’s relationships with one another (Sheree is not the only one dreaming/building Ice Castles in the sand) and impeding any kind of real response to or even noticing of white supremacy.  Like I said when I first started  my anti-princess campaign, these are political conversations that we must have, the kind of political conversations that must replace white-washed fairy tales and the emptiness and pain such social fantasies inevitably create for black women. Fairy tale lies can never be the surrogate for sustaining black love, children, and communities. We need liberated relationships to sustain ourselves in a violent world.

Impact of U.N.I.T.Y.: “You Gotta Let Em Know”

U.N.I.T.Y. Another one of them songs so many young black college students today still seem to know, even though it was released in 1994.  There is more going on here than a mainstream success story about a rap song.

This week, we looked at femcees, bgirls, and female DJs as rhetors in my class which invariably means folk start talking about Queen Latifah’s UNITY (again, this is not from my explicit directions since students were given over 50 artists/videos to choose ONE from this week).  This year I just went ahead and added the cut to a very long playlist. Of course, this year, like all years, UNITY was a point of chosen focus and all hell broke loose in class.  Maybe that’s an overstatement. I’ll just be more bourgeois and say the class grew contentious. Yup.  Over Latifah’s UNITY.  This has happened every time for more than a few years now.

Here’s how it goes down.  Some student, typically white (a white student or a non-black student who culturally identifies as white), who is not a Hip Hopper, proceeds to tell the black women in the class that this song is neither positive nor socially valuable.  Queen Latifah is routinely condemned for HER language and for her aggressive content, lyrical style, voice, and body postures.  Yes, this condemnation happens every single time and always around the word, “bitch.”  Because of the song’s message, radio stations didn’t bleep Queen Latifah when she said “bitch,” “hoe”, or those infamous, opening lines “Who you callin a bitch?” These words are left in tact no matter where it gets played and are not marked as “other” with labels of parental advisory suggestions.

You know what else happens every single time Queen Latifah and this song get condemned in my class?  The sistas just ain’t havin’ it.  Not a single one of them.

lupe-fiasco-bad-bitchThough I always loved that young people were influenced so positively by the song, the song seemed rather trite and, to me, stopped short on analysis (I had been a die-hard Latifah fan on the first two albums, not really this third one).  If a man calls me a bitch or hoe, Ima check him and get at him.  That just seems like a rather casual fact-of-life to me.  I was actually teaching high school at the time when the record dropped and even witnessed a young black woman beat the hell out of a boy who wouldn’t stop calling all girls in the school bitches; they ironically became good friends after that and, not ironically, he stopped using the B-word.  So this argument and request that black men stop calling black women bitches and hoe sounded like a simple-enough position to me.  Queen Latifah (as femcee, that is) is hardly the most “aggressive” or in-yo-face personality my students meet in the course of a semester.  In fact, I would argue that Shirley Chisholm gave the folk the business even tougher this semester.  But yet, these women of the past are not perceived as a threat to white students who authorize themselves to publicly devalue black women, even in a college classroom that is 95% filled with educated black women whose academic records and abilities far exceed theirs (I am a writing teacher and grade the papers, so you can trust me on THAT one).  This is why I need the classroom to remind me just how thick this ish can get.  Apparently, what I see as a pretty simple and straight-forward request on Latifah’s part ain’t easy to digest at all, not even 19 years later from the song’s release date.  Black men targeting black women (or some of them, as the apologists, from Tupac on down, like to say about not saying all women are bitches and hoes, as if that’s different) is VIOLENCE, plain and simple, and it is very regularized and normal.  When I forget that, all I have to do is listen when someone references U.N.I.T.Y. and watch white students, both male and female, do their best to deny Queen Latifah’s right to name and define herself outside of bitch and hoe!

I had a long conversation with one of my students, Vaughn, about this song.  Vaughn pointed out what he sees as the real threat that Latifah poses: it’s her deliberate and clear call for black solidarity.  Misogyny and sexism are called out for the sake of black unity, not for the sake of shaming black men, and Queen Latifah does this successfully.  Of course, theorists and scholars are often quick to remind me that it is naive and romantic to think that one song or one artist can counter and reverse patriarchy and deeply embedded systems of social injustice.  But, if Vaughn is right, and I think he is, then the disruption that THIS song wreaks each time it plays or gets discussed in my classes has more power than what we like to admit. When I say I learn from my classrooms just as much from the scholarship I read, it is these kinds of lessons I have in mind.  Maybe Queen Latifah hasn’t converted the misogyny of black men with this song, but, as far as I can see in my classrooms, she certainly intimidates and threatens white power… let em know, Queen!