Happy Mother’s Day to the Women Who Have Kept Me

I did these sketches (above) many years ago.  When I first drew these, I was trying to capture what the women in my family look like on any given Church-Sunday.  I remembered this sketch today in thinking about Mother’s Day and so added some words: Today I thank every woman who ever kept me… [Yes, this post is a re-mix of previous mother’s day posts. Click here for those.]

I have strong memories of being a little girl when adults, especially my family and close neighbors, asked me: “who keep you when your momma work?”  OR “who keepin you right now?” (the second question was 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 one of my favorite expressions.  No one in my family or immediate kin network ever asked “who babysits you?” I was never babysat. I was always KEPT.

There is a philosophy at work here for how black children need to be raised and looked after: keeping black children is simply a different kind of love. It is more than merely sitting with them, teaching them, or taking care of them; it is a kind of valuing that only black communities have been willing to provide for black children.  You keep the things that are most valuable; you do not discard them even in a world that encourages you to do so.

This notion of KEEPING also makes me think of my mentors and sister-friends today who have also kept me in all kinds of ways. And while I don’t mean to diss the brothas here, it has been the women who have made me accountable to a higher calling. They are the ones who have kept me sane, kept me grounded, kept me strong, kept me humble, kept me whole, kept me honest, kept me full, kept me real, kept me righteous, kept me right ….and kept my well-being as their first priority.   They have kept their high standards, their moral authority, strong example, and good karma as a model for me, especially in those times where the folk around me have claimed these things but stayed too stuck in stupid and triflin to actually achieve any of it.

So today I thank every woman who ever kept me… my mother, my grandmother, my ancestors/she-elders, my aunties, my cousins, my mentors, the older girls down the block, and all of my sister-friends now.  Happy Mother’s Day to all of you!

Class of 2013: Congratulations!

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

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

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

Impact of 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.

Remembering PhDivas…

C-DayToday, I celebrated my birthday with family and friends.  I like the day to be one where family and friends cocoon one another so I went with my mother and friends to my favorite Mexican restaurant in Manhattan.  In the section where we chose to sit, we were near two large Latino families, a Latina lesbian couple, a group of late-20-sumthin, beautifully adorned black women who commanded the room’s attention, and a group of Jamaican women my age who gave the most exquisite analyses of the problems with black men I have ever heard.   My Indian waitress was very fly and kept my favorite drink flowing, the restaurant’s specialty Prickly Pear Cactus Margarita. James Brown, Lakeside, and Julieta Venegas (especially my favorites,  “El Presente” and “Me Voy”) bumped in the background. It was a perfect New York City outing— I am convinced that you really just can’t get this kind of mix anywhere else. Though I certainly should not have been thinking about work as I celebrated, I found that I was, most specifically in relation to my course that starts next week on Black Women’s Rhetoric.  Friends, work, and birthday seem to coincide for me this year.

My two closest friends from graduate school— more affectionately known as Honeijam and Yoyo— are two people who I am thinking about most.  I don’t really know how we decided to start sending each other lavish birthday gifts, usually art or rituals for self-care, but I know it started in graduate school and continues today.   We were the only women of color in our cohort in graduate school and we made a pact to one another that we would finish the coursework in three years, plus two more years for the dissertation.  We called ourselves the Ph.Divas! I was the most unbelieving which probably accounts for the reason why I was the last to finish in our final year.  Honeijam was no joke and got in your face all the time and was, unsurprisingly, the first to finish.  Yoyo bridged all communication and birthed a beautiful baby girl at the same time that she birthed her dissertation.  Baby Diva was in full Diva attire at our graduation ceremonies.

We kept our pact to one another and I know that I would not have made it out if it weren’t for them.  The alienation and hostility that you can encounter as a black woman in graduate school is very real.  It is still all too common that you don’t see anyone who looks like you; and no one from your history or background is included in the books you must read for your classes and exams. Yoyo and Honeijam were my buffers.  That’s what we did for one another.  It extended beyond mere support during coursework and dissertation writing though.  On one occasion, during the writing of my dissertation thesis, I just couldn’t pay the fees required to maintain matriculation with my 36K/year job as a college instructor with a 5/4 load.  This meant that I couldn’t access the library or the other campus spaces/documents that I needed. By that time, I had inherited a house that was a fixxer-upper in a crack-neighborhood that no one wanted to live in at that time, to put it mildly, from an engagement that ended very badly.  I was learning how to be my own contractor, putting up dry wall by myself on the weekends, teaching, and doing graduate school, all at the same time, pretty much with a broken heart the whole way through. I had no family in the area and no family with the funds to even ask for twenty dollars, much less a personal loan.   Any extra penny went to a bucket of paint; credit cards had to be kept clear to do things like fix the roof before it caved in.  In that context and in New York City, that 36K meant cup-of-noodles pretty much every night.  I went to campus one day to try and arrange something when I couldn’t access anything anymore because of my unpaid bill (you cannot enter doors of any building in NYC without ID).  The desk help just looked at me like I was crazy.  “Your bill has been paid”  the woman told me.  “What?!”  I asked her to look again and then the light bulb went off: the Ph.Divas paid it!  I was right and it was like pulling teeth to get them to allow me to pay them back and it’s not like they had the extra funds themselves.  I could tell countless stories like this about my Ph.Divas— like the time I was really sick, immobile, with no food in the house, 5 dollars in the bank, and no energy to walk to the store to get even 3 dollars worth of something. My then-boyfriend was, of course, nowhere to be found.  All of a sudden, I heard a knock on the door and there were the Ph.Divas with groceries and then just went to town in my kitchen and on me until I felt better.  That was what graduate school was like: three soul-sisters who pulled each other through.  It feels like every conscious black woman that I know can tell this kind of story about their sisters.

Happy C-DaySo, yes, this is what I am thinking about as I plan my class that meets this week and as I end today’s celebration. I often have my students do presentations where they have to do rhetorical analyses, not of famous activists but of black women they know or are somehow part of their lives (this includes popular culture).  I don’t think I have been so good at helping students see that the everyday practices of love, care, and sustenance that Honeijam and Yoyo embody as black women are black women’s rhetorics.  I mean rhetoric here as something much more than the persuasive style to move an audience towards your goals.  I am talking about a disposition where the most maligned group effects a kind of shift, an alteration of the geographies of white privilege, where you imagine and enact an alternative future and way of being human.  It is a counter-ideology that manifests itself in the daily workings of making a black woman’s life possible in settings where that life is not welcomed.  I don’t know how to communicate that to my students other than to tell them the stories of my Ph.Divas.  One of the best parts of my birthday today was my reminder to do so.