While 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.
This 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.
I 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.