Race, Reproduction, Reparations (The 3 Rs)

One of the things I love about blogging is that it gives you a chance to use this experience/practice/process of writing to get closer to what you think and what is important to you.  Granted, I am a writing teacher, so I may be biased, but sometimes you just gotta write it out to ride it out.  That said, I get inundated with the academic school year and all I am writing are project guidelines and comments to student writing, rather than tracing the path of my thinking.  Despite the avalanche of things I need to do, I just gotta stop and pause to reflect on one of the many things I have been following lately: Jennifer Cramblett’s lawsuit.

jennifer-cramblettBy now, everyone has heard of Cramblett’s lawsuit. As a recap, here is the basic gist. Cramblett and her partner are suing a Chicago-area sperm bank after she became pregnant with sperm donated by a black man instead of a white man she had picked. I can’t help but be curious to see how this case will go. Race, reproduction, and the law have always been intimately linked. As early feminists have always told us, the family (the nuclear family) is always a kind of surrogate for the nation-state and all of its attending politics and values about which race, gender, class is most worthy and most human— and therefore, legitimately replicable. I have so many questions because the outcome of this lawsuit will mean so many things. Here are just a few of these questions: Continue reading

Happy Mother’s Day to the Women Who Have Kept Me (re-posting)

mD2014Many already know that my mother lives with me now.  After she lost her job in the recession crunch, I had to do some financial wizardry and move her from Ohio to Brooklyn and become a new head-of-household of sorts (I have always been able to make a dollah outta 15cents but this took a little EXtra creativity).  As I get older, I realize that most of us daughters will be facing similar circumstances in caring for aging parents. My mother, however, does not consider herself aging so we go to a Jazz Brunch/Bar in Manhattan every Mother’s Day and by Jazz, I mean a real quartet that does covers like “All Blues” from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, NOT that Kenny-G-Twinkle-Twinkle foolishness.  It has only been in the last few years that I have even been in the same city as my mother on Mother’s Day so I figure we may as well go all out (which, for my mother, also means eating my dessert.)

"Fruit of Generosity" by Leslie Ansley (exhibited at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in 2012)

“Fruit of Generosity” by Leslie Ansley (exhibited at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in 2012)

I know Mother’s Day can be mostly a Hallmark invention, but I must admit that I like a day to put it all on pause for mothers. For me, that means all the women in my family who have raised me… which is a lot.  I have strong memories of being a little girl and various adults, especially my family and close neighbors, asking me: “who keep you when your momma work?”  OR “who keepin you right now?” (the second question was for when I was on a part of the block where I wasn’t supposed to be or at the corner store without permission). Who keep you?  That’s always been a favorite expression of mine.   Continue reading

For All Black Angels

washington-cherry-treeIt was a fellow second grader who first told me that Santa Claus was not real.  I remember coming home with many questions, not about Santa, but about everything else I could think of.  The tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, Mickey Mouse, the talking animals in my children’s books, Scooby Doo, Bugs Bunny and EVEN Wonder Woman were not real.  That’s a lot for a child to ingest in one day. There was one fiction that I never questioned though.  It was a story that a family friend, who I think of as an uncle, told me.  I had come home excited from school talking non-stop about what I had learned about President George Washington.  My uncle told me to rethink my excitement because the Big G.W. wasn’t all that.  According to him, GW chopped down momma’s cherry tree, lied about it, and so my uncle had no choice but to whup dat ass.  I told everyone about my amazing uncle after that, despite the naysayers and player-haters who insisted that my uncle was not old enough to know GW.  My uncle IS old was my vehement response.  Plus, my uncle had animatedly replayed the whole conversation for me.  You couldn’t make up something like that as far as I was concerned.  I offer this story not to highlight my eventual discovery of my uncle’s age and tall-tale-telling but as a way to counter a problematic Christmas book about African American children.  The fact that my uncle, a man who cannot read and write, replaced white greatness with people who look like me in an everyday children’s conversation is a kind of love and political capacity that escapes far too many.

116637200On Cyber Monday, I searched the corners of google and bing for multicultural Christmas books for children.  I wanted to especially see what African American children in such books did and how the idea of Christmas was depicted in black homes (I decided to save Kwanzaa for later which produces much more interesting books, quite obviously).  I purchased the 1997 text, An Angel Like Me by Mary Hoffman, because the illustrations by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu are just stunning. I was drawn to the text because it takes on the issue of why Christmas paraphernalia features white characters and not brown ones.  Everything that I read online seemed to offer a great review.  While I don’t agree with arguments that white writers can’t compose stories for black children, in this case, those arguments gain some validity.  The lack of connection to black families, black storytelling, and race pride distorts this writer’s entire ability to compose a narrative about black children and their families.

The story gets set off when a black family breaks one of its angel ornaments.  Tyler, the young protagonist of the book, immediately asks why angels are always white, blonde, and feminine.  No one can answer his question.   NO. BODY.  He even asks his mother why Jesus is depicted as white.  Again, no one has an answer for him.  Not a single adult can answer and most seem to say: hmmm, I never noticed that.  Really?  No single black adult in the book has ever thought about whiteness?  How on earth have these black folk survived slavery, Post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Reagonomics, post-racism?  Finally, at the end of the book, an art student who babysits for the family, who also couldn’t answer Tyler’s question about the prevalence of white angels, carves Tyler a brown angel that looks just like him and the story ends happily ever after. Now, for some folk, this story is not enough cause for disgust.  Well, they are wrong.  Get off this blog!  It ain’t for you or about you. Only someone who does not know black families and cannot sociologically imagine how they function in this world could write this kind of book.  Could you ever imagine me going up to my uncle, asking him about whiteness, and him NOT having any answer?  Do you really think that any child in my family who asks why Jesus, Santa, or angels are depicted as white finds people who are so stumped that they cannot provide any answer?  You think I ain’t got some answers that I relate in fantastically creative narratives?  Do you think that all we do is sit around and eat sweet potato pie over the holidays and never talk about anything?  What a stoopit book!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA friend recently suggested that I watch an interview with Marianne Williamson where she talks about love.  Now, some of that New Age spirituality gets a little weird to me, but, hey, to each their own. Some of it just borrows too heavily from Non-Western spiritual traditions and remixes all of that for American, bourgeois individualism.  Nevertheless, there are times when a definition or phrase moves me deeply.  In this interview, Williamson gives a definition of love that describes black folk beautifully.  She is not, of course, talking explicitly about black people, but about a kind of everyday practice that I attribute to them: “a spiritual, mental, emotional, personal strength that I develop in myself to refuse to see you as other people might have chosen to see you today.”  She calls this a kind of sacred, daily practice when you “give birth, rebirth, to [someone’s] own self-confidence, their own belief in themselves, their own strength and glory, because you see what others might not see.”  I get this kind of sacred practice and strength everytime I talk to one of my sistafriends and mentors who refuse to see me from the lens of a violating, white, dominant gaze.  I also get this every time I talk to one of my colleagues of color about something that has happened; they don’t ever act like I am overreacting or sweep everything under the rug like most white colleagues do— they have the ability to see and hear me and offer an alternative paradigm outside of white norms.  I can’t think of a better definition than SACRED to describe the teachers, mentors, parents, family, extended family, scholars, friends who see the beauty of black children and families, and choose to portray that back, despite the world that constantly suggests otherwise. I can tell you that it is ONE HELLUVA thing to step out in a world each day that tries to minimize my expertise, question my awareness/consciousness/ability… but then come home to a partner, sistafriend, auntie, uncle, pops, momma, or neighbor who tells me to keep on keeping on, moves me past the toxic energy of dumb folk, and reminds me of who and what I am.  One Helluva Thing!  Though this book ain’t worth the paper it is printed on, its ignorance did remind me to always remember what Black Love is and does.

This little children’s book simply doesn’t pass mustard for representing black children and families.  You need to see us before you can write about us.  There are authors who represent exactly the kind of love I have described and who do achieve a rewriting for black children.  I will turn my attention to them now.

Runnin with the Rabbits but Huntin with the Dogs

bill-withers-grandmas-hands-1973I have always liked Bill Withers’s song, “Grandma’s Hands.”  He takes what is seemingly part of mundane, everyday utility and reads an entire history and philosophy of life there.  I could do the same thing with my grandmother’s words, though I am ashamed to admit that it is really only at this late stage in my life that I am truly understanding them.  She gives me an explanatory model for things.  I actually named my dissertation based on one of her expressions: running with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.  That became the title of the introduction for my book but it really frames all of my thinking.

As silly as it sounds, I am just starting to realize that academics/professors/scholars RARELY actually mean what they say and write/talk about.  Unfortunately, it’s taken me a long, long time to get this simple fact.  Like I have already said, my grandmother always used words and language intentionally.  I just wasn’t raised in a world where you would write a book or deliver a speech on a topic because it was a hot-topic item but not something you actually believed in.  That would be runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.  Now, of course, many of these issues are related to power.  For instance, in my field, you can publish articles about teaching students of color but never actually teach any of them (or, really SUCK at it).  That is to be expected in a knowledge-production system where a select white privileged group decides who and what gets published even when they know nothing at all about communities of color.  You can also go home and beat the hell outta your wife but if you have the right mentor, the right university pedigree, and the right connections, your career will be catapulted forward as someone with solutions to violence.  That’s just patriarchy working there.  And like I have discussed here on the blog, George-Zimmerman-styled racists can get published and hyped in my field as radical agents of social justice.  These examples are things I have just come to expect.

I mean something a little more than these everyday scenarios that I just described. Here’s what I have finally figured out: folks be FLAT-OUT LYIN…runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.  Imagine a radical gender studies scholar who then goes home and makes his children and wife wait on him hand-and-foot like they are serfs in his kingdom.  Go on and get that image in your head because you might just have his book on your shelf and be quoting him regularly as someone who is disrupting gender norms.  He doesn’t mean any of that.  Let’s take another example.  Imagine a department full of folk who teach and talk about critical theory forever and a day but when a black male student in the department is called a N**** and when a Latina student is called a wetback, all you get is D.E.A.D. S.I.L.E.N.C.E.  Is this critical theory in action?  Or are these people just faker-traitor-perpetrators?   Now imagine a scholar who people (well, let me be honest— not all people, just white men) herald as a champion of sustainability and yet, on the ground, every policy and utterance he makes is so corporate, standardized, and neoliberal that you may as well be working for the Conservative Right.  Yeah, get that image in your head nice and good too because folk in my field will call THAT the NEW LEFT if you let them… runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.

Princess-Ariel-disney-princess-7095223-841-1014Like I said, I have learned these lessons very slowly and today is no different.  I decided to look for videos from someone in my field who marks himself as a radical Marxist of color; I thought maybe I would add his work to one of the modules my students get to choose this semester.  I found some self-aggrandizing performances of really bad poetry (and that’s bad meaning bad) and more than 100 videos of his daughter with more than 50,000 views on youtube alone, posted by him and the mother of the child (also a self-proclaimed Marxist).  Now, really, I should have known to expect this foolishness from them but I felt a certain kinda way to to see this biracial family raising a little brown girl to publicly dance and sing in outfits like a pink, Mickey Mouse tutu with two kittens who she has named after Disney princesses. I won’t even replay my general feelings about the dangers of raising brown and black girls to see themselves as white disney princesses since I have already done that TO DEATH here at this website.  I really do get how hard it is as parents to displace Disney but you also gotta get how hard it is for anybody to see you as a radical third world Marxist with 100s of such videos.  In the least, if you consider yourself anti-capitalist, non-hegemonic, and non-standard, you need to admit just how slippery that slope is when you don’t even counter your small child’s total embrace of Disney, white ballerinas, white princesses, and all things pink.  That’s about as standard, capitalistic, and hegemonic as it gets.  All of these folks calling themselves Marxists and theorists of political economies but then go and use technology solely as a neoliberalist shrine to children’s conspicuous consumption (i.e., Pokemon, Disney, iPads, bourgeois outings, et al on full display).  If only Marx could see them now!!  If you truly know Marxism and political economy, then you might not want to be listening to a damn thing of what these folks have to say.

My grandmother wouldn’t have left this as simply a contradiction amongst life’s political difficulties under capitalism though.  When you understand a construct like runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs, you have to follow through and ask the tougher questions like: How is the total embrace and worshipping of white femininity part and parcel of how gender works in this version of Marxism?  You have to question how and why academics circulate their theories of political economies such that white women/whiteness stay at top.  As a black woman, you can’t afford to NOT ask such questions because you will be hunted by these folk who are only pretending to be a rabbit beside you.  It is hardly a coincidence that my grandmother offered such a violent image about people who are not politically on your side but pretend to be.  The complexity and sophistication of my grandmother’s expression and her determination to live a life according to its meanings are at the core of how I define black working class consciousness.*

2-dogs-hunting-rabbitThese have all been hard lessons for me to learn.  As strange as it may seem, I would prefer my students to come at me, in full force, as the next kingpin of the G.O.P. rather than think/act like the G.O.P. but then turn around and call themselves Howard Zinn.  My GOP example is extreme because I have never actually had such students, but the point remains.  Today when I have to explain to my students the kind of writer that I want them to be, I think of my grandmother’s life as an example: Say what you mean and mean what you say.  Know who you are and what you are really about.  The last thing I want is for my students to be the kind of academic writers and thinkers that I can find in my field.  From where I stand, academic writing/speaking in this field is all about FLAT OUT lying about everything that is important and that should be REAL.  My students deserve a writing curriculum that asks them to tell and know their Truths.

 

*My grandmother (and my youth) would have been “officially” categorized as the “black poor”, but my grandmother did not call HERSELF that.  She saw herself as a worker so when I say black working class, I am not excluding the “black poor,” I am just excluding the whiteness of THAT label.

August Beginnings & Back-to-School Bling

afroAs a little girl, I cut my mother’s hair once…when she was sleeping.  Not much, just a little trim, but not really having a conception of time, I imagine that I thought it would grow back right away.  Needless to say, that experiment was not appreciated so I turned my attention to my next, unsuspecting victim: my father.  At the time, my father had a very large afro.  If I said I would grease his scalp, he would pretty much let me do what I wanted with his hair.  While he was watching the game or something on television, I would grease his scalp and then braid his whole head of hair in tiny braids, put colorful barrettes on each end, then dress up my dolls and do their hair to match.  That could take the better half of an afternoon or evening (it was a slow graduation from two-strand twisting to three-strand braiding).  My father is also a pretty chill person (and pretty funny) so if he needed to go outside for something, he would go out, just like that, with a head full of barrettes— take out the trash, help the elderly couple down the street, go to the co’ner sto’, you name it.  I would often be by his side, excited for everyone to see my creation.  And I was always very encouraged by my audience who told me to keep doing that to my father’s hair because he was lookin realllll good; it never once occurred to me that them folks was teasing.  My father once took his license photo like that after I agreed to tone down some of the barrettes; it was just too time-consuming to undo all of the braids and pick out his afro.  Let me tell you, that license picture got a whole lot of views, it was like the 1970s version of going viral.  Again, I assumed it was my hairdressing talent that was so intriguing.  I smile when I think about it: all of these people who made sure to never squash who I was. I remember it as a community that always found humor and celebration in the everyday.  Though my father was haunted by the many demons that squashed the fullness of working-class/working-poor black men who had just come home from the army in the 70s, I always remember my father as a comrade in my aesthetic creations and I took full advantage of it.

Imagine this Jacket... with sequin&rhinestone roller skate emblems all over!

Imagine this Jacket… with sequin&rhinestone roller skate emblems all over! And pants to match!  Wowzers!

A close replica of my roller skates... just add more handmade pom poms!

A close replica of my roller skates… just add more homemade pom poms!

Every August, my father scraped together his money, took me back-to-school shopping, and pretty much let me run through Montgomery Ward and get whatever I wanted.  It was a dream come true.  Sometimes I could spend $50; in a really good fiscal year, it was $75.  My parents were divorced and not communicating with one another which, to my delight, meant that my mother could not interfere with my choices.  When you shop with my mother, it’s all about practicality (since this could very well be the only time in the year when we bought new clothes.)  For my mother, it’s all about: how long will it last, can it be let out when you grow more, what else does it match, is it comfortable, how do you wash it, can you wear it on a gym day, can you wear it when it gets cold out…. all that ol’ mundane stuff.  My father did not talk that way; he did not think he really knew what kind of clothes little girls wore so I took the opportunity to educate him myself.  On one occasion, that meant a very shiny, blue jacket with pants to match, covered in sequin-and-sparkle-speckled roller skates with tassels for buttons.  It was F-A-B-U-L-O-U-S and ON SALE!  Score!  My mother, on the other hand, was furious.  You can’t wear that to school… and… blah, blah, blah.  If I had been allowed, I would have worn that joint EVERYday.  To top it all off, this outfit matched my roller skates AND the pom poms on the toe!!!!  I mean, really, what more could you ask for?

Every August, like my teacher-colleagues everywhere, I turn my attention to back-to-school, no longer as a student but as a teacher. It’s all about syllabi, projects, and classroom assignments now.  When you walk into Staples these days, you just know who the teachers are and if you look at the supplies in their hands, baskets, or carts, you can tell which grades they teach too.  This August, I am remembering rituals at this time of new beginnings.  I am excited for the new classes I will teach, my new train/subway/commute route, my new colleagues, and all the new students who will walk through my classroom doors.  My collection of children’s books, many of which are oversized, fit on the floor-to-ceiling shelves in my new office. I have 6 feet of leftover space for new books or other collectibles (or transfers from home shelves teeming over) and a big comfortable chair.  I even found out that the modular shelving system comes with extra shelves when I need them (space like this a real rarity in New York City).  For me, this is all just F-A-B-U-L-O-U-S!  Another score!

In the past years, August would hit and it would just feel like doomsday: “the cotton is ready to be picked” is what I would OFTEN say….and I meant it too!  But this year, I get to savor the rituals, the excitement, and the newness in the air.  As a little girl, I marked all of that with a little bling.  Inspired by the adults from my childhood, I am re-realizing that new beginnings and the everyday should, indeed, be celebrated.