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

Many of you 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 is 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.  No one in my family or immediate kin network ever asked “who babysits you?”   I was never babysat, I was always KEPT.  These are two completely different meanings that African American Language so brilliantly captures.  It is hardly coincidence that in a world that will bomb 4 little girls going to Sunday School, reference nine-year old actresses with curse words, and shoot a teenager dead for wearing a hoodie that black communities would use language to create a different world for black children. In my case, one of my female first-cousins kept me (most often, a cousin who I call Lat or Janet) or one of my seven Aunties kept me (most often an auntie who I call Aunt MamaLee.)  I also kept my little cousins and so did my mother– who is still called Auntie by these ex-in-laws even though my parents divorced when I was a small child.  There is a philosophy of mothering that elevates the role of childcare done by women that goes far beyond any biological definition.  And there is also a philosophy 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.  If we weren’t so self-hating by regarding Black Language and Vernacular Culture as “improper”/street/slang, we would see a worldview contained in it that could sustain us.

This notion of KEEPING also makes me think of my sister-friends today.  Most of us do not live near our extended families, not like the way we grew up.  I see my sister-friends go to great lengths to choose black daycare centers for their children and black caretakers who identify with black culture and black womanhood.  To me, they are looking for people who will keep their children, not babysit them or even teach them to read and write.  After all, as researcher/academic/professional, I would not need any school to teach any child around me to read or write.  I can do that much better.  What I would need is a community that will provide something much more than skills-building and childcare services: a community that will keep its children in a world that discards them at every turn.

As a grown woman now, everyone in my family still knows who kept me when I was little, which children I kept, and which children my mother kept so I thank every woman who ever kept me… my mother, 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!

“Age Ain’t a Factor”

So I will confess here that this post is a bit of, shall I say, a DETOUR.  Before I get into anything that even comes close to a discussion of education, liberation, and black radical traditions, I just gotta be honest about where I am coming from.

jaheimHere it is: I love me some Jaheim.  I usually think very critically about the images I place on this website but let me tell you that today is just NOT that kind of day.  These images are simply photos of Jaheim that I like to look at.  A whole other aesthetic principal going on today!

I always have, always will adore Jaheim (please, please don’t let him act a complete, triflin fool like most black male musicians). I’m really not into younger men. I like grownass men, my own age, but not much older (I already have a father and don’t need a replacement).  But for Jaheim (8 years younger than me), I make an exception to my rule.  Even when he seems to forget that you canNOT be black, a man, drivin way past the speed limit, smokin weed in your car, and NOT draw the heat of the POlice, I forgive him.  Young! See why I like them grown?  You don’t have to convince a grown black man of these things.  Nonetheless, this brotha is just too fine, even post-cornrows.  I loved his video with Regina King, who is also too fly, for no other reason than they aesthetically looked so good together in that audiovisual medium.

“Finding My Way Back” is perhaps a good motto for Jaheim right now since he lost his voice after being tased on his neck during his own bout with police brutality after his last album dropped.  I am rooting for his comeback.

It should come as no surprise that I bought his new single, Age Ain’t a Factor, and plan to buy the album as soon as it drops. I am very clear here that Jaheim had every intention of getting my attention and any black woman past 35.  And it worked. The fact of the matter is that we are the demographic with arguably the most flexible income, more inclination to use that money whenever we get some leisure time, and an undying sense of black solidarity.  We are a demographic that few seem to get. I like Jaheim targeting us as a market, if you will, with songs like this rather than with incessant, patriarchal relationship books, an issue I have already discussed here.  Maybe, Jaheim can start a new trend and turn the tide on black men’s mainstream, patriarchal discourse that keeps telling us we are unwanted. Here’s how he opens his song after crooning about his woman/baby:

jaheim2You’re like a wine, you get better with time,
Got your Nia Long on, it’s your song, you’re so fine
From everything that you wear, your kind of beauty is rare
And I swear you get better looking with every year
Got your sexual peak, your full figure physique,
Young girl can’t compete…

And since we’re in the kitchen, girl, let me get that muffin
You look better the older you get, Benjamin Button.

Straight nasty right there!  Trust me when I tell you that brothas do not ever offer up any compliment like this to me or most women my age.  This one is a rare gem.

I will get a little bit more serious here though. I am not trying to sound like some little 14-year old girl pasting pictures of Jaheim in her locker with some fantasy that he will be my knight in shining armor some day.   I don’t do that kind of star-gazing. I have no secret desire to be on stage with or ever be with a celebrity like many academics seem to have (they couch all this in sophisticated language and wanna-be postmodern analysis but if they could die and come back in the likes of Beyonce, Kerri Washington, or any emcee, they would.)  I’m good just as I am with no delusions or fantasies.

Jaheim Final Artwork_0I also don’t usually discuss men in this way on this site simply because I find it too heteronormative, a heterosexist practice I don’t endorse that makes men the center of women’s attention (they are not).  On the other hand, there is nothing radical or sustaining about avoiding discussions of black sexuality either.  That kind of avoidance only co-sanctions the fiction of  a white Puritan ethos (which has never existed in the first place).  So today I confess.  Give me a brother who looks/talks/sings like Jaheim, a brother unafraid to look and BE black, a brother who will forego acting like a teenager way past the expiration date on that, and a brother always connected to black working class consciousness/ language/ aesthetics and black women, and well, let me tellll you, we could make some whole new black radical traditions together!  This was a detour today, but the desired destination remains the same.

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.

Love, Patriarchy & Capitalism: Prototypical

heart-of-moneyThough I don’t talk much about relationships on this site, intimacy is as political as anything else.  Relationships, families, and  co-habitation are mediated by a stunning marriage of patriarchy and consumerism.  So much of the partnering that I see seems to work like business ventures: dating is like making an investment and getting the right woman/man is like selecting a good stock option. Heterosexual women are considered accomplished when they find a benevolent patriarch (i.e., Steve Harvey) who will protect and provide for them even if the women are as dumb as hell (which, for patriarchy to work, is usually most desired).

Our language often reveals just how difficult it is for us to re-script these kinds of relationships. Here’s an example. An acquaintance (we never spent any time together so I can’t call him much else) once called me, in a very round-about way, his “prototype”, emboldened by Raheem DeVaughn’s cover of Outkast’s problematic song (a man celebrates that he has fallen in love AGAIN and is grateful that he has now found his “prototype” because if things end, he can presumedly be better at falling in love… AGAIN.)  I’ve never been impressed by this masculinist discourse. I’d be silly to think a man has called me, and only me, his “prototype”— that’s a line, not a life choice. Unfortunately, too many women might see a compliment in this foolishness. In a patriarchal system, men’s definition of and giving of “love” holds the most value, even if that really only means consumption, power, and objectification. Many might be confused by my offense here, so let me cut straight to the point: a WOMAN is not a prototype so, when in doubt, avoid any discourse that calls her a thing on-the-way-to-the-next thing.

I did tread lightly here: I didn’t even respond to this “compliment” at first, I then stated on the next day that I didn’t get the intention of these words, and then, finally, I asked, casually so, for the brotha’s intention.  No in-depth answer was forthcoming.  When I then later pressed for a real explanation while indicating that I was offended, the brotha still wouldn’t budge, talked about guitar solos instead, insisted that he meant something else without any discussion of that something else, and just got rude and accused me of not listening (and, yes, I responded back to that).  There was no apology and no reclamation of a sexist offense.  While it might seem like I am focusing on a rather trivial conversation, the larger issues of patriarchy and consumption are all tied into this seemingly small interaction.  This exchange is exactly what bell hooks talks about in The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (there are many interesting discussions about this book amongst men; I like the way the blogger and activist, Alex Knight, describes patriarchy as terrorizing his life and emotional maturity).  When men choose patriarchal power this way (and hooks calls emotional withdrawal/withholding, etc all forms of patriarchal power/male control), there is a real danger for both men and women: men give up the ability to really love, feel, or communicate when they only take their place as patriarchs; women embrace violence by allowing male domination and power to script their daily lives.

Because the song does not re-invent the definition of prototype, it’s a problem to use this language in reference to women.  Let’s look:

Definition of Prototype
From the OED: c.1600, from Fr. prototype, from M.L. prototypon, from Gk. prototypon “a first or primitive form,” properly neut. sing. of prototypos “original, primitive,” from protos “first” (see proto-) + typos “impression” (see type).
popular definition: an original type, form, or instance serving as a basis or standard for later stages.

With this “prototype” labeling, a lot is revealed: women are types and there is one model to be molded, not that much different from people I know who have one specific kind of car that they like. The very definition assumes a manufactured object where new replicas/women will be created, distributed, sold.  It’s almost like watching the next women come down a factory assembly line and checking their parts to see which ones came out right.  480barbiesIf this all seems like a harsh indictment, I should add that this same man would do things like run down the list of: 1) birthdays or birthmonths for his ex-girlfriends, including his “baby momma” who bears the same sign as him, with almost identical birthdate (thus making them, fairly recently, the perfect match); 2) the various attributes of these women’s personalities as well as their other, um, attributes, and; 3) the various gifts he gave these women (with lists of what they liked to eat).  When MY BIRTHDAY came around, this man didn’t even remember and accused me of not telling him the date. I didn’t care so much about the missed birthday, except for the fact that I had actually told him the date— it was the precursor to his aforementioned 3-point discussion.  As you can see, he was more interested in the memories of his pre-“prototypes” and zodiac matches. When women are mere prototypes, as this case shows, they are things and so, as objects only, they are not worthy of real care, remembering, priority, or value.  I could tell more stories like this but, more importantly, this brotha would insist that he does not run game as a playa-playin’-on and that he works wholeheartedly at anti-patriarchy.  Choosing to name and relate to women as “prototypes” after previous conquests (and thinking single women just want your “seed”) is a virtual blueprint for misogyny, not a meaningful way to live, love, and raise a family.  I don’t want to suggest that heterosexual men are the only ones who treat women like commodities because heterosexual women try to manufacture men too (loving a man based solely on what he can do/perform vs. allowing him to be fully human); men just have patriarchy on their sides and, therefore, are encouraged and seemingly rewarded when they promote this system.  My point is that framing relationships outside of and beyond the patriarchy and hyper-consumption in which we live is a feat most of us are not achieving, with the various men making covers of this song a striking example.  There is a tragedy here, one that hooks continually warns us of: without the relinquish of patriarchy, even when men are tryna do right for they women, like these musicians perhaps, they still only turn women into things/objects/prototypes.

Now some people tend to think that I go off the deep end with my politics and, well, I don’t care. The fact of the matter is that we are in a system and no one’s language and actions are innocent.  I am not suggesting that all is lost, only that there is real talk AND work to do. At the end of the day, loving/being with someone beyond patriarchal violence and consumerist logic is amongst the most revolutionary and human things we can do. Of all things, love—black love— needs to be radical.