My Grandmother’s Intentionality: Languaging and Living

Audre Lorde QuoteMy father’s mother is the only woman who I have ever called my grandmother. She passed away a few years ago but I think of her always and talk to her often in my dreams.  As I get older, I see the intentionality that guided her life in renewed ways.

My grandmother wasn’t someone who you could call talkative.  She said what she meant and meant what she said.  I don’t recall any moment in my life when I ever saw her get upset and say something that she regretted later.  If she called you out your name, then that was your deserved name and unless you made a character change, that was the name that stayed with you.  Words were not things you took lightly and they were not things you could take back.  This is how most black folk I am close to think. Language shapes you and everything around you; it must always be intentional and it always was for my grandmother.  It is such an anomaly as an academic where talk-talk-talking-nonstop is what folk do.  There’s lotsa talking in these spaces— the arrogance and psychoses of always dominating the space by runnin your mouf— but not a whole lot of thinking and listening.  At best, I am usually bored and, at worst, I am often offended.  Strangely enough, I have read scholarship for years that indicates that my grandmother’s working class roots and vocabulary are a detriment to my language skills and yet the intentionality of her ways with words is the only one based in any deeply philosophical thought that I can see and hear for miles around me, despite all this middle class social capital folk have.

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

I don’t have any memory of my grandfather, my grandmother’s husband, because he died when I was very young. My grandmother was in her early 50s and never dated again.  I never even sensed from her, the way I do with many of the women around me as a child and now, that she wished she had a man or was ever interested in a man’s help or nurture.  Male attention was never the center of her life nor did she think it should be central to any other woman’s life.  At 50, after birthing 15 children, she was still very fly, always looking at least 10-15 years younger, tall, slender but very curved, with skin so smooth it looked like she woke up wearing foundation.  Even when she wore the family picnic T-shirt at 70+ years old, she adorned herself with pearls and shoes to match. She was, quite simply, content with who and where she was.  It’s a feeling that I can’t quite describe but one that I just don’t sense from many folks.  Most people I see are always trying to climb higher, become famous/known/seen, get to a more prestigious university (or pretend that the place where they work is Hahvahd), buy more things, have more clout.  There was never a time when I felt my grandmother was looking for something, for someone, for some place else, as if something was missing inside of her.  My father and his 14 siblings have often talked about how she would get mad at them for just staring too long at the Sears catalog which she called a Wish Book, something that she considered very dangerous.  You didn’t worship things outside of yourself that way, especially if it was connected to whiteness.

My grandmother would never have called herself a black feminist or womanist, those are academic labels that wouldn’t have done much for her life.  But when I heard Audre Lorde say things like “Who I am is what fulfills me and what fulfills the vision I have of a world,” I could gather those words into my being because of my grandmother.  Why would I ever be desperate for an alternative role model when I can clearly see and value the blackness from which I already emanate?  For me, my grandmother is one of the most radical black women/black people/intellectuals I know.  She lived her life never wanting to be somewhere else, never wanting to be something else, never wanting to be with someone else, never aspiring to be a social climber and insomuch that those projects/desires are always dictated by whiteness, she lived a life few of us today seem able to even imagine, much less achieve.

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.

Black Girlhood Stories: Violent Histories

tiana-the-princess-and-the-frogThough the cat was let out of the bag a long time ago and many know this by now, I will do the re-cap anyway. When Disney decided to create its first black princess— the 2009 feature film with Princess Tiana in The Princess and the Frog— the original plan was to name her Maddy.  Black folk had a fit because that sounded way too much like Mammy. To make matters worse, “Maddy’s” original role was to be a maid to a white family.  The argument was that Disney wanted to be historically accurate for 1920s New Orleans where the job opportunities for black girls would have been solely in the role of domestic servants to whites.  Long story short, black folk slowed down some of Disney’s fantasy of animating the “post-racial” Gone With the Wind for “Maddy.”  Instead, they made 19-year old Tiana a waitress, working hard to buy her own restaurant.  In the end, we obviously still see her serving whites (under the guise of her desire to be an entrepreneur).maddy  And instead of her prince being a white European male with a penchant for Jazz, as was originally scripted, her prince is a very light-skinned, racially ambiguous, lazy, playboy who has been disinherited from what look like royal parents if he does not change his ways.

facilier_500There are are so many problems with The Princess and the Frog that they are too numerous to detail here.  What disturbs me most is Disney’s proclaimed desire to accurately portray the history of 1920s Jim Crow New Orleans by casting a black girl as a maid while having no interest in representing the historical terror of racism, white violence, or white people’s reign under Jim Crow at this time.  The only character who inflicts terror and violence is the dark-skinned, gap-toothed black voodoo man, Dr. Facilier, who releases black-shadowed demons and is later dragged to the underworld for his sins.  So in sum, The Princess and the Frog offers black girls and women very little.  Though this has not been the focus of this series of posts in my anti-princess campaign, I want to also add an important interjection: the culture that cultivates black girls to want to become princesses is equally dangerous for black boys.

We cannot ignore that, unlike every other Disney princess, Tiana must exist as a frog/animal for MOST of the story (when she first tries to kiss the prince/frog, she turns into a frog too and stays that way for most of the movie).  princess-tiana-prince-naveen-princess-frog-the-princess-and-the-frog-9987343-1280-800Tiana is literally denied a human form/humanity for most of the movie because of her connection to and curse from a black man, Dr. Facilier, making it hardly coincidental that for her to finally receive a prince, he is not black.  And while many have praised Disney for creating an interracial relationship, no other princess has been cursed by a black man and then married off into another race.  We see flashbacks of Tiana’s very loving father in the movie but he was killed in World War I so, quite literally, loving black men are merely a memory in Tiana’s life while darkness and danger are her present reality in relation to them.  Given the mainstream focus on the high rates of HIV and genital herpes amongst black women who are in relationships with black men, this Disney film seems very connected to the demonization of black heterosexual relationships and sexuality.  I am not suggesting that these statistics related to AIDs and genital herpes are not serious cause for alarm and necessary political attention for black women and that we can simply ignore these statistics because the media always represents black men as subhuman.   What Disney achieves, however, is the erasure of a whole new generation of black boys and young men who can only be cast as Tiana’s most dangerous peers.  Black men are only a memory/history of goodness; it will only be white or light-skinned men who can help and love her now.  These are dangerous, violent, white supremacist, heterosexist, patriarchal ideologies (not to mention the fact that it only took Tiana’s prince 20 minutes to forego his previous desire for multiple women— which is, perhaps, the biggest delusion of all for a young woman).

This post wants to nod to a place that overturns Disney’s usual, mathematical equation of whiteness+lightness=goodness and blackness+darkness=evil.  For that reason, I turn to Bessie Smith and the Night Riders where the terror that the book comments on is real …and is connected to the literal and symbolic originators of a real violence: white men as KKK in the Jim Crow South.KU KLUX KLAN As The Princess and the Frog shows, we are not afraid to scare children with demons, black voodoo men, or monsters, so we should  be ready to roll out the fire, witchcraft and sorcery of the KKK in U.S. history too.  Bessie Smith and the Night Riders delivers on that!  The magic and revision in this story means turning a curious, little black girl into the main character who alerts a black woman, Bessie Smith, and thereby saves a black community.   Perhaps, then, the best parts of Bessie Smith and the Night Riders are that these black women do not need men to rescue them from real-world danger at all; they recognize the ways that white men inflict terror on black women, not deliver them from it; and they are not cast as mammies/waitresses by way of calling up “history.”

So we move on now to a very real story about very real black women… a story for children that is now officially part of my anti-princess campaign for young black women and girls.


This story, written by Sue Stauffacher and illustrated by John Holyfield, is about a little girl named Emmarene.  For Emmarene, there is one thing that will fulfill her heart’s desire: to see Bessie Smith perform.  She stands alongside other people in the community waiting for Bessie’s infamous train to ride into town.  And it is critical that this is where the story starts, right at the intersection of Jim Crow rule and place.  1Columbia Records had to make Smith a personal train car because she was not allowed in the ‘whites only’ sections when she traveled. The South Iron and Equipment Company made the car especially for Bessie, with two stories, seven staterooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom so that it could hold everyone in her show, all obviously black people who wouldn’t have the freedom to use the bathroom and eat where/when they wanted in the South without alternate living/traveling quarters. The car could also hold the tent that Bessie’s crew created so that she could perform in multiple, alternate venues right there in the open. The car was painted bright yellow with green lettering so when Bessie came to town, everyone knew it: it was the visual marker of Bessie’s presence as much as it was the visual marker of the reality of de jure segregation.

Because she can’t afford a ticket and nice concert clothes, Emmarene sneaks around the tent where Bessie is performing and peeks her head into an opening, hoping no one will notice.  2While she is sneakily listening outside, she becomes the first to notice that the KKK have arrived with the intention of hurting everyone in the tent, with the usual tactics of setting the place on fire.  Emmarene runs inside and lets Bessie know.  Bessie immediately finds out what is going on, gets alarmed, and so steps outside to confront the white men in white sheets planning to terrorize yet another group of black people with a possible cross-burning, at least.  Bessie yells at them for quite a while, threatens them, and warns they better leave.   The KKK eventually ride off and Emmarene walks away as a heroine right alongside her idol, Bessie Smith, who invites her to the front row of the show.  It may not be a “happily ever after” (racism offers no such thing) but there is a real-life happy ending. The entire community is saved and revitalized by Bessie’s courage, actions, and her music.

3 copyThis story really does almost feel like a fairy tale in its imagining of one sole black woman being able to shake off a posse of KKK riders but all records indicate that Bessie Smith did just that.  In July 1927, robed members of the KKK rode in on one of Bessie’s tent performances and began to pull up the tent’s stakes. When Bessie heard of what was happening, she confronted these white men, shaking her fist at them, cursing at them until they left, and then simply returned to her performance like nothing had just happened. In this story, it is a black woman who saves black people from white menand it is a little black girl who recognizes and alerts everyone of the danger.   The only aspect of this story that is actually fictional is the presence of the little girl.  But with this fictive insertion, we see Bessie and Emmarene as a continuum of black women who can offer the most heroic rescue of themselves and their community.

4Raising little girls to want to emulate Bessie’s actions here is a world I wouldn’t mind living in. Think back to how Tiana gets fooled by the white bankers who act as if they will let her buy a restaurant (until, of course, her new Prince intervenes.)     Does it seem like Bessie or little bitty Emmarene would have made such a misjudgment of a Jim Crow institution and the white men who run it, especially since many of these white men would have adorned themselves in white robes at night as THE MEMBERS of the Klan?  Would anyone in that tent watching Bessie perform have been that foolish about trusting white bankers in 1927?  Why would we praise a story that represents a young black woman as gullible, exploitable, and naive when her community would have given her the tools to be exactly opposite of all that as the condition of her very survival under racial apartheid?  Why would we tell children this kind of story about black people in the Jim Crow South under the ruse of creating the first black princess?  And if black men are the site of violence that must be destroyed in order to become feminine princesses, then whose femininity is this? I am not suggesting that we can shelter children from entities like Disney; even if they do not watch the movies, they will hear of them from other children and see the images/brandings everywhere.  However, we CAN ensure that children know Bessie…and Emmarene, Flossie, Queen of the Scene, and many more.  To allow children to only know princesses and mark black men as the overdetermining evil is to be participating in black children’s self-destruction and in their erasure as black men and women.

With all the real-life examples provided in our living-historical-archive of  black women who confronted the most oppressive odds in relationship to their communities and against white supremacy, why are we letting Disney tell our children that black men will curse black women and so THAT is what we need magical rescue from?  It is just silly to think we could ever trust Disney with our image and history anyway.  Audre Lorde reminded us a long time ago in her 1991 interview with Charles Rowell in Callaloo what black artists have always known (she is talking about grants and large funding institutions here): “no society is going to finance its own reorganization or demise, or contribute to a culture bent upon radical change… political structures [do not] underwrite or finance its own alteration.”   So it seems like we have no choice but look to alternative, cultural spaces for radical images of black women and men… and make sure that those are the spaces that black children SEE.