Every semester, one of my students references or presents one of the following two poems by Maya Angelou: “Still I Rise” or “Phenomenal Woman.” I think back to the first time I heard those two poems and I remember their stunning impact on me too. Nevertheless, I get nervous now that Angelou’s work, especially these two poems, are completely commodified and co-opted such that any radical representation of black women in her writing is gone. Of course, nothing I am saying here is new. I have especially liked Cheryl Higashida’s discussion of Angelou in her book, Black Internationalist Feminism, where Higashida reads Angelou’s autobiographies as the legacy of black women’s work in the post-World War II anti-colonialist Black Left. Higashida achieves a nice balance: she acknowledges Angelou’s presence as a Pan African radical; she criticizes the ways that Angelou oftentimes undoes the collective action and consciousness of the Black Left by celebrating individualist (and, thus, capitalist/neoliberalist) triumph and achievement. These two poles do not have to be opposing though. Like I already showed just with black women’s scarf wrapping styles, you can be a bold and emboldened individual and part of a collective too: it just depends on the ideologies you use to situate that individuality. Black women are often co-opted by mainstream audiences who, in turn, force Angelou’s revolutionary politics into the background by only celebrating the notion of a rise of phenomenal individuals. Higashida gives me a way to resuscitate Angelou’s fierce Black Feminist Left/Internationalism since, more often than not, that is deliberately erased from view in public celebrations of her work, including those celebrations by mainstream black academics and popular black celebrities. This ain’t no surprise though now is it? Put a black woman’s words in the mouths of misogynistic men, undercover-racist white folk who just want folk of color to join the mainstream, or bougsie/wanna-be-rich-and-famous black folk and the message will surely lose its meaning. Hardly a coincidence.
In the beginning of the interview, Angelou erases racial and gendered specificity by calling all vulgarity the same and marking all speakers the same— that’s just not historically accurate as any rhetorician would tell you. But then the FIRE comes, you can even feel a palpable difference in her speech and vibe. As she states, if black men called white women in power B-words, they would see how powerful they are: “see how long you will live. There wouldn’t be enough rope to hang your butts.” This is Angelou at her finest: a poetic way to basically call these men cowards and coons. Angelou goes on to remind us that black women “are last on the totem pole” which means that “everybody has the chance to take a chance on us.” Again, Angelou at her finest: another poetic way to show that the deliberate degradation of black women by black men for public consumption (while being too scared to do the same with non-black women) only makes you a stupid fool and sell-out. This is the Maya Angelou that mainstream America doesn’t readily present to us: one who locates words and experiences in the unique bodies and historical experiences of black women. Like she says, there is a reason black men and white men feel so free and comfortable to call women of African descent B-words and no other group. She leaves it up to imagination and drops off a powerful suggestion at the end, at least this is how I hear it: keeping taking your chance by taking a chance on us and see how we handle your stupid butts!
What Angelou teaches me (and I would say that the same thing is now happening with Ntozake Shange and For Colored Girls) is that I must teach how and why black women’s writings get co-opted… and participate in uncomfortable conversations of how we ourselves participate in this. It ain’t just the rap video vixens who are out here shaking their behinds for public consumption and pseudo-access to white male power. It’s an important lesson for understanding capitalism, black women, and black women’s rhetoric.
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.
Here 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:
You’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.
I 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.
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.
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.
U.N.I.T.Y. Another one of them songs so many young black college students today still seem to know, even though it was released in 1994. There is more going on here than a mainstream success story about a rap song.
This week, we looked at femcees, bgirls, and female DJs as rhetors in my class which invariably means folk start talking about Queen Latifah’s UNITY (again, this is not from my explicit directions since students were given over 50 artists/videos to choose ONE from this week). This year I just went ahead and added the cut to a very long playlist. Of course, this year, like all years, UNITY was a point of chosen focus and all hell broke loose in class. Maybe that’s an overstatement. I’ll just be more bourgeois and say the class grew contentious. Yup. Over Latifah’s UNITY. This has happened every time for more than a few years now.
Here’s how it goes down. Some student, typically white (a white student or a non-black student who culturally identifies as white), who is not a Hip Hopper, proceeds to tell the black women in the class that this song is neither positive nor socially valuable. Queen Latifah is routinely condemned for HER language and for her aggressive content, lyrical style, voice, and body postures. Yes, this condemnation happens every single time and always around the word, “bitch.” Because of the song’s message, radio stations didn’t bleep Queen Latifah when she said “bitch,” “hoe”, or those infamous, opening lines “Who you callin a bitch?” These words are left in tact no matter where it gets played and are not marked as “other” with labels of parental advisory suggestions.
You know what else happens every single time Queen Latifah and this song get condemned in my class? The sistas just ain’t havin’ it.Not a single one of them.
Though I always loved that young people were influenced so positively by the song, the song seemed rather trite and, to me, stopped short on analysis (I had been a die-hard Latifah fan on the first two albums, not really this third one). If a man calls me a bitch or hoe, Ima check him and get at him. That just seems like a rather casual fact-of-life to me. I was actually teaching high school at the time when the record dropped and even witnessed a young black woman beat the hell out of a boy who wouldn’t stop calling all girls in the school bitches; they ironically became good friends after that and, not ironically, he stopped using the B-word. So this argument and request that black men stop calling black women bitches and hoe sounded like a simple-enough position to me. Queen Latifah (as femcee, that is) is hardly the most “aggressive” or in-yo-face personality my students meet in the course of a semester. In fact, I would argue that Shirley Chisholm gave the folk the business even tougher this semester. But yet, these women of the past are not perceived as a threat to white students who authorize themselves to publicly devalue black women, even in a college classroom that is 95% filled with educated black women whose academic records and abilities far exceed theirs (I am a writing teacher and grade the papers, so you can trust me on THAT one). This is why I need the classroom to remind me just how thick this ish can get. Apparently, what I see as a pretty simple and straight-forward request on Latifah’s part ain’t easy to digest at all, not even 19 years later from the song’s release date. Black men targeting black women (or some of them, as the apologists, from Tupac on down, like to say about not saying all women are bitches and hoes, as if that’s different) is VIOLENCE, plain and simple, and it is very regularized and normal. When I forget that, all I have to do is listen when someone references U.N.I.T.Y. and watch white students, both male and female, do their best to deny Queen Latifah’s right to name and define herself outside of bitch and hoe!
I had a long conversation with one of my students, Vaughn, about this song. Vaughn pointed out what he sees as the real threat that Latifah poses: it’s her deliberate and clear call for black solidarity. Misogyny and sexism are called out for the sake of black unity, not for the sake of shaming black men, and Queen Latifah does this successfully. Of course, theorists and scholars are often quick to remind me that it is naive and romantic to think that one song or one artist can counter and reverse patriarchy and deeply embedded systems of social injustice. But, if Vaughn is right, and I think he is, then the disruption that THIS song wreaks each time it plays or gets discussed in my classes has more power than what we like to admit. When I say I learn from my classrooms just as much from the scholarship I read, it is these kinds of lessons I have in mind. Maybe Queen Latifah hasn’t converted the misogyny of black men with this song, but, as far as I can see in my classrooms, she certainly intimidates and threatens white power… let em know, Queen!