Remembering Sojourner Truth: Reading Men and Nations

“The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles” by Faith Ringgold (1996) In this lithograph, Madam C. J. Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ella Baker hold out their quilt. Vincent van Gogh, well known for his paintings of sunflowers, stands to the right. Willia Marie, a fictional character at the bottom left, entertains the women in conversation.

“The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles” by Faith Ringgold (1996)
In this lithograph, Madam C. J. Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ella Baker hold out their quilt. Vincent van Gogh, well known for his paintings of sunflowers, stands to the right. Willia Marie, a fictional character at the bottom left, entertains the women in conversation.

In my first academic job as an assistant professor, I was not allowed to choose what classes I wanted to teach, what times or days I would teach, or ever permitted to create a new course. There was a level of toxicity that began already in the first semester. Because the other newly hired assistant professor and myself taught at a critical point in the program where assessment data was vital, the chair and her two flunkies senior administrators once sat we two newbies down under the pretense of a “meeting.”  It was just my first two months at this job and here we were, literally yelled at like misbehaving children: we needed to learn to do what we were told was the gist.  The senior faculty, of course, were left alone. I started to get real heated and, at one point, started rising up from my chair.  I don’t know what I was planning to do but as far as I was concerned, I was a grownass woman so sitting there obediently listening to an incompetent chair and her flunkies senior administrators (the chair made 100K more than I did) so violently weasel her way into getting two, new assistant professors just out of graduate school to do HER work for her was just… TOO… MUCH (she called this feminist collaboration).  I was a brand-new assistant professor but I wasn’t THAT kinda brand-new.  The tirade, however, abruptly ended when my fellow junior colleague started crying (as I have already described, white women’s tears always fulfill this function.)  That was my very first semester as an assistant professor and that ain’t even the half; each semester only worsened, putting the H-O-T in hot mess.  Needless to say, there has never been a single moment in my professional life where I have missed or thought fondly about this department or its leadership, a department that is pretty much defunct now.  I do, however, deeply miss the sistafriends I made at that college.

SOJOURNERAs soon as that “meeting” started, I noticed the peculiar way the chair and her flunkies senior administrators were looking at one another.  I knew from jump that this meeting had been pre-planned and that something real foul was afoot.  I am also someone who loves language and discourse; though I am not always quick enough on my feet to interject rapidly and cleverly, I will often commit a conversation to memory and this “meeting” was one of those times.  Who talked first, second, and then the turn-takings were so memorably awkward and poorly performed that I just KNEW this “meeting” had been pre-orchestrated under the chair’s tutelage (she was good cop; the other two were bad cop).  In fact, in these past eight years as a professor, I have learned this to be a common  form of discourse maneuvering in academia with white administrators.  When I suggested to my fellow-misbehaved-colleague that this was a premeditated homocide, she didn’t fully believe me.  It was many months into the schoolyear before she realized just how unethical this chair was.  Like with this moment, I have remained perplexed by my many colleagues who can’t seem to gauge the petty politics, backstabbing, scheming, lying, theft, and violence that is being waged against them behind closed doors until it is much, much too late (after they have cast their allegiances and trust in ALL the wrong places).  In direct contrast, when I described the turn-taking of that chair’s “meeting” to my sistafriends at that college, they pointed out even more slippages that I didn’t catch.  You see, these are women who read men and nations.

SoujnerThese women of color on my first campus as a tenure track professor were phenomenal and though I knew they were dope when I was there, I never fully realized that having a set of sistafriends on your campus to lift your head  is a sho-nuff RARITY!  Notice that I said: women of color who are sistafriends.   That is NOT the same as having women of color on campus.  I am not talking about the kinds of women of color who come talk to you in closed offices but never speak up in public settings, a strategy often learned early on because it is so handsomely rewarded in graduate school.   These women might say they keep quiet because no one is listening to them but, more often, they choke their words to not lose favor with those in power, not ruffle white feathers, not take any risks, or not lose their token status (and many times go home to wealthy, breadwinning, and/or white husbands).  They are, in sum, passing for white. I ain’t talking about THEM women of color. I am talking about the sistas who read their environments openly and will read the institution out loud with you and, especially, when the time is right.  Quite honestly, I assumed that I would find a sistacypher like this everywhere, that institutional racism would inevitably mean as much but I have learned otherwise.  What I have missed most about these sistafriends is the way they read institutional racism AND patriarchy.  You see, that’s that rare gem right there.   Talking up institutional racism does not always come with talking up patriarchy and misogyny and I mean something more than talking about public spectacles from the likes of fools like Rick Ross.  I mean talking about the day-to-day workings of men in our workplaces— white men and men of color— all of their immediate articulations of societal structures, social hierarchies, and violence: we didn’t just co-sign our misogynistic black male colleagues who were actin the fool (dropping their “seed” anywhere, taking female students out for drinks, text-messaging/calling/visiting/closing-the-door with female students, etc); nor did we leave our feminism at the door and blindly support the campus’s white patriarchs and their violence.  Like I said, I have learned the value and rarity of these kinds of sistas in these past years.  You see, these were women who read men AND nations.  

sojourner-truth-poster3”I don’t read such small stuff as letters, I read men and nations.”  These are the words of Sojourner Truth, the famous African American suffragist and abolitionist.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton described Truth making this statement to her in a 1867 visit.  I have pushed myself to think deeply about this phrase because it is one that my students continually re-mixed throughout the past semester— always noticing this way that the black women who we studied were reading their social environments!  “Reading” someone is, of course, a popular African American verbal expression and usually means telling somebody about themselves after an extensive, head-to-toe assessment of who and what they really are.  I imagine this is part of the reason students of African descent gravitate to this expression— they already recognize it.  Remembering Truth, however, means we must take this expression much further. Reading men AND nations is still that rare gem: the ability to analyze and navigate white supremacy (nation) AND patriarchy (men).  I can’t think of a better way to describe what my circle of sistafriends was doing at my former college than with Truth’s statement: a present-day iteration of a historical reality and necessity .

graveThis semester, I wanted to really think about the reverberating references to black female figures that have occurred across multiple semesters of my teaching.  Part of me is responding to a tendency of mostly white teachers to describe mostly white students who reference a litany of white authors and novels in the course of classroom discussions.  This gets marked as intelligent and well-read and I do certainly agree.  However, within the scope of these parameters, I have never heard any black student be referenced in the same way for knowledge of black cultural history and persons (and what passes as KNOWLEDGE of people of African descent, even at the graduate level, is often so dismal that I am utterly embarrassed for all parties involved).  At best, when undergraduate students of African descent reference black cultural histories, these are treated as personal connections, not literate connections (as if white students describing white authors is NOT also about personal connection). Alternatively, black students might be seen as activating their prior knowledge which is admirable and tolerated but that is not the same as regarding these moments as sophisticated analyses.  Part of this series for me then was to push myself to see the recurring themes and issues related to black female cultural figures as articulated by students of African descent as literate connections and sophisticated analyses: to, in sum, treat black students’ ruminations as seriously as white students’.  My past posts about Aja Monet, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Queen Latifah’s “UNITY,” Eve’s “Love is Blind,” Audre Lorde, and now, Sojourner Truth, intended to show the recurrent references by students of African descent in my classes.  My goal was to hear more deeply… and build new pedagogical understandings from there.

Wrapping Our Heads: Archiving Black Women’s Style Politics

IMG_8438I learned to wrap my hair with a scarf with age-cousins to protect my braids and beads as a little girl.  Today, each evening, on a night when I have to go to work/school the next day, I twist my hair and still tie my hair with a silk scarf.  Now spring is ending, summer vacation is here, work is over, and the incentive for my time-consuming semi-daily twist-outs and intense moisturizing are long gone (check out HIMAY10NENCE for the most exquisite description of how time-consuming and difficult this process is!)  Couple all that with the fact that now is the best time to purchase scarves and what you have is a new fashion/hair moment: the head scarf as fashion, not just sleepwear.  At this time of year, I can find $10 silk scarves and $3 faux silk scarves all because capitalist clothing machinery imagines women’s scarves as fall and winter apparel for white women’s necks rather than the superfly and protective cover for black women’s heads.

I have gone to youtube for headscarf tutorials as much as for natural hair care regiments.  It is not a coincidence that at precisely the moment when black women are exploiting social media to educate and communicate with one another about natural hair that headscarf fashions are also taking full bloom.  Yes, the headscarf is connected to natural haircare and protection, but there is also a whole other public discourse happening here, one that is re-tooling and re-vocabularizing black women’s beauty and heads away from a white media cartel that has quite purposefully desexualized, criminalized, and uglified black women in headwraps.

aunt-jemima3I think a lot about what possessed white media monopolies to craft historical images of blackwomen in headscarves as the epitome of unattraction, care of white children/families, desexualization, enslaved domesticity, self-hatred, and backwardness.  Here, of course, I am talking about Pancake-Making Aunt Jemima, the most obvious visual marker and stereotype (cartoons were also subsumed with such images). I won’t go into the history of Aunt Jemima and its ideological purpose in creating white nationhood (that will happen later this summer), but suffice it to say that derogatory and racist images of Aunt Jemima always depicted her in a headscarf, pretty much up until 1989 when she got a perm and pearls (of course, it was not JUST the headscarf that was mocked but the FULL body and skin). The question for me is: why did white women and white men need so desperately to take the cultural image of the black woman’s headwrap and negate it so fiercely?

The images in the slideshow below are taken from black women’s online sites (click here for a sample website).  I think the slideshow makes it clear that it took an INORDINATE amount of calculation, time, and visual sorcery/dishonesty for media monopolies to make such women and their adornments ugly. Was the distinctiveness of this beauty and style politics THAT threatening to the maintenance of white male dominance and white femininity?

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We know from the oral histories of former slaves collected by the Federal Writers Project that black women during slavery used headwraps for utilitarian, symbolic, and ornamental reasons. Even those interviewers, considered young “progressive” whites for their time, talked about their black female interviewees in headwraps as typical, old “mammies” in head rags so you have to read the descriptive details about the ways the scarves were wrapped very closely.  In the objective descriptions of intricate scarf wrappings and patterns, you can hear that these were not women who considered themselves ugly or their headwraps as marking an informal, mammy time.

In even this famed photo of some of the slaves who built the White House, you can witness the range of headwrap styles.

In even this famed photo of some of the slaves who built the White House, you can witness the range of headwrap styles.

Black women’s headwraps protected their hair and scalp from heat and sun as well as kept their hair clean. But these wraps were also symbols and adornment.  There are records of slaveowners, particularly white female slave mistresses, who commented in disgust at how bright black women’s headwraps were, seen a mile away.  When I try to imagine what that scene must have looked like in reality, I envision something quite splendid!  While other whites would have understood these white women’s responses as a commentary on black women’s subhuman status, I see it as proof that black women in slavery used headscarves as ornaments that marked their beauty and themselves in community with other black women.  We also know from the historical record that black women wore different kinds of headscarves for formal events (funerals and the like) and also tied them differently for different occasions. In photos before AND after emancipation, you can see groups of black women in headscarves where no two headscarves look the same: the patterns and the wrappings are endlessly varied, working as a kind of improvisational performance reminiscent of a Jazz Quartet…. an elaborate individuality alongside community rhythm at the same time.

Other aesthetic philosophies are also operating here.  European-descended women, of course, wore headscarves too, usually called kerchiefs, but they were styled in a different way.  Headwraps tied at the front of the crown rather than at the nape of the neck is an aesthetic invention of West African women solely.  For the West/subsaharan African-inspired headwrap, facial features are intentionally highlighted with a scarf that wraps upward to draw your eyes up rather than allowing you to look down on a woman.  Since black women under slavery were the ones who did ALL of the sewing and weaving, black women obviously had access to a range of fabric remnants to create headwraps (they even used sailcloths when necessary); they also carried memories of African patterns and design (you can clearly see this in slave women’s quilts), cloth dying techniques, and alternative philosophies of women’s ornamentation. So these headwraps carried heavy meanings that black women both understood and actively manipulated.  While whites used headwraps to mark black women as different from and inferior to white women (there are records of laws in Louisiana, for instance, that made women of African descent wear their headwraps in specific ways to better recognize them, especially significant for those who could pass for white as mulattoes), black women had their own meanings.  Headwraps were particular to black women and represented radical ideas about hair, face, and beauty: defiant, self-empowered, communal, individual, resistant.  Was the distinctiveness of this beauty and style politics THAT threatening to the maintenance of white male dominance and white femininity?  Yes, indeed.  Nothing else adequately explains how something so seemingly benign as a headscarf had to be so demonized and mocked.

I hope it makes sense how and why I use youtube to “archive,” if you will, black women’s headwrapping today.  Given the history I have discussed, it seems safe to say that the endless renditions of black women’s headwrapping and design materials that you can find on youtube tutorials (which include women from the Americas and Europe) represent deep, ancestral ties.

Page 28 of the June 2013 Issue of Essence Magazine

Page 28 of the June 2013 Issue of Essence Magazine

These are not just the scarves that all black women have come to know— those wraps either we ourselves or women around us wear to bed at night. No, these wraps by young women on youtube are used as the centerpiece of outfits or as THE accessory which sets off the rest, just like what their predecessors did.  My time in classrooms is also a good litmus test: I have seen more and more young black female college students wearing fabulous, intricate headwraps in the past five years than EVER before.

I hear a lot of people say that today’s black women are taking back the headwrap from the negative, racist stereotype of white media’s invention of Aunt Jemima.  But I don’t see us as taking anything back... I think we are holding on to what we have always had.  

AfroDigital Women and the Underground eRailroad

Underground_Railroad_MapIn the past few years, I have relied on black women’s youtube channels to move me away from the creamy crack (translation: perm/relaxer) and towards natural hair styles and protection.  Even CNN and Sesame Street have taken stock of the politics of black women’s natural hair.  I became fascinated with what black women do for and with one another on these hair, style, and beauty channels.  I won’t go deeper into these polemics about hair and black women for now (that’s a longer analysis).  I am just using my AfroDigital HairStory here as an introduction to the role of youtube viewing in my life. I am most interested in how black women are creating visual/print/audio/digital communities across multiple topics via youtube and the processes that I use to find these black women.

Most people have been using the personal channel function on youtube for years now, uploading a host of corny and tacky personal videos, crazed-looking rants about nothing, or shrines to themselves and their offspring.  Though I don’t do anything particularly interesting with my youtube channel, I have always been fascinated with the ways that black women use youtube.   Of course, my analyses of the social networking available via youtube isn’t anything new when you look at all of the analyses of the similar media cartels of Facebook and Twitter.   I, however, prefer a more audio-visualized experience and, personally speaking, can’t stand facebook’s appeal to far TOO many as a hook-up spot/strategy (worsened recently with its new dating functions).  As much trouble as fools get themselves into with Facebook thinking they can start real relationships, locate a quickie real quick, or keep the flames burning on old conquests, you would think folk would have learned something by now.  Lesson-learning is not forthcoming for a fool though so I go forth elsewhere.

The Cast of Afro City

The Cast of Afro City

When I type terms like black womanism, black women, and black feminism into a youtube search, I am appalled at what comes back at me: 1) black men explaining why black women are undesirable and unlovable in comparison to other races; 2) all kindsa folk across every ethnicity explaining why black women’s criticisms/anger/beef/feelings are unwarranted (it is all black women’s fault, no matter what the issue); 3) black men and women describing the damage that black women’s womanism and/or feminism are causing to children, families, and nation (with some still going as far as Shaharazad Ali who wrote a book way back when telling black men they should slap black women who she likened to rat and dogs). When I type in black girls, I get videos of young black women fighting with a comment system that ranks the fight like it’s off-track-betting. These images are mind-boggling but certainly not surprising given the history we inherit.   I had to do something different to search for places where black women were using youtube to talk to one another in ways that challenge racism, sexism, capitalism, homophobia, and every soul-negating issue that denies our life force.  80% of youtube suggestions of related videos at the right side are irrelevant to me, at best, or downright offensive so I know to only look at what the people who I subscribe to are uploading.  That’s how I found the show, Afro City, which I followed simply because I was drawn to the very look of the women whose aesthetic dimensions are completely different from the mainstream (and where Afrocentricity/femininity does NOT mean the likes of Shaharazad Ali).  Now I go to what my own subscribers have liked (I only have about a dozen right now so this doesn’t take much time) and what they have subscribed to and I can see a deeper, more relevant set of chosen audiovisual texts that are shaping black women’s lives. When I find a video that I like, I obviously go to that channel and see what else is there.  Most times, it’s a dead-end, but every now and then I can find some gems where I am introduced to new playlists and vloggers, youtube shows, see new channels to subscribe to, and see videos worth watching that the channeler has liked.  If you are interested in real intellectual and mental elevation (most people in the digital universe are not) rather than quickie and often banal socializing and the like, then what happens is that you start visiting all of the places that the black women you respect on youtube visit in order to find more black women.   While this kind of search that I describe is all self-evident, obvious, and common, I think it is still worthwhile to notice the process.

UGGRBattleCreek

This sculpture is the largest memorial to the Underground Railroad in the U.S. It features Harriet Tubman leading a group of escaped slaves, Erastus and Sarah Hussey and the Station Masters for the Southern Michigan Underground Railroad Operation ushering slaves into their basement

The process that I describe speaks to the ways in which black women must always search for alternative discourses for and about themselves using a kind of underground railroad system of connections and next stations. Black women talking to other black women as and about black women are not going to be readily publicized and easily locatable. When you want spaces to hear and SEE black women using visual, audio texts, you need exacting techniques and details to reach new e-railroad stations.

Impact of “Love is Blind”: “You Need to Elevate and Find”

Popular meme brilliantly critiqued by Deborah Cooper as a tactic used to control and entitlement to black women's bodies.

Popular meme brilliantly critiqued by Deborrah Cooper: even “good men” use this language when thinking they are entitled to black women’s bodies.

True to her promise, Deborrah Cooper promised to bring the rain even harder on her website after black men kept dismissing her comments about male sexist behavior.  For those who don’t know, Cooper’s videos, books, and blog are dedicated to black women and relationships with the kind of vibe where I feel like I am talking to that auntie, mother, cousin, grandmother, or godmother with the special knack to insert well-placed cusswords in an unrelenting reading of black men, misogyny, and relationships. If you know the kinds of women I am taking about, even when you don’t agree with Cooper, you will feel like you are on the frontporch on a hot summer day listening to womenfolk as they shake their heads at all of the foolishness they see. Recently, Cooper shared the story of one of her followers who was walking home from a grocery store in Brooklyn.  Cooper’s fan reports that she saw a black man arguing with a black woman and their two daughters with the daughters, little girls, fighting the dad off.  The man grew angrier and more violent so the sista watching called the police.  As she called the police, the black men on the block just stood there, watched, and laughed, with one pair of young men enjoying the show so much that they sat and ate a candy bar, fully engrossed.  Suddenly, about 15+ black girls, maybe in high shool, came along, saw what was happening, and poised themselves to give this man an old-fashioned beatdown.  If the police hadn’t come when they had, he would have gotten it even worse.  I find this image of black men looking on and laughing at a black woman being physically, publicly abused, along with her small daughters, deeply haunting and depressing.  A brother and comrade told me recently that he sees strong correlations between the rise of black male diatribes (i.e., all over youtube), the increase in violence against black women, and the onset of new numbers of white supremacist/KKK-offshoot groups since 2008 (before Obama became president, there were a little more than a 100 white hate groups and yet, after 2008, there were more than 1000.)  In an era of newfound white supremacy, violence against black women will inevitably steepen and increase, that’s the kind of history and world we live in.  And if bourgeois/capitalist culture incorporates black men, even if as coons (think Lil Wayne or Flava Flav’s television show), then it is inevitable that violence against black women will be the price of the ticket for that.  All women are objects under capitalism and black women will fare worst in those equations. This image of the 15 young black women ready for revolution is very striking and haunting, but perhaps, it was always a reality already in the making.

What I am suggesting here is that when I hear so many young black women in my classes still gravitate to and know the context, history, and lyrics of Eve’s 1999 “Love is Blind,” their discourse and memories are about more than just one song.  This is why I include “Love is Blind” in what I am calling the Political-Intellectual Canon of Young Black Women.  These lyrics feel like they are triggering a kind of lineage of blackwomenspeak and blackwomenthink about violence in our communities that students are building on:

This song, “Love is Blind,” is always voluntarily discussed by a black woman in my class whenever Hip Hop gets mentioned… without fail.  Every time. Interestingly though, I have not had students who particularly talk about Eve as a Femcee, only this song.  It’s all about the lyrics here:

Hey, yo I don’t even know you and I hate you
See all I know is that my girlfriend used to date you
How would you feel if she held you down and raped you?
Tried and tried, but she never could escape you
She was in love and I’d ask her how? I mean why?
What kind of love from a nigga would black your eye?
What kind of love from a nigga every night make you cry?
What kind of love from a nigga make you wish he would die?
I mean shit he bought you things and gave you diamond rings
But them things wasn’t worth none of the pain that he brings
And you stayed, what made you fall for him?
That nigga had the power to make you crawl for him
I thought you was a doctor be on call for him
Smacked you down cause he said you was too tall for him, huh?
That wasn’t love, babygirl you was dreamin’
I could have killed you when you said your seed was growin from his semen

Love is blind, and it will take over your mind
What you think is love, is truly not
You need to elevate and find…

I don’t even know you and I’d kill you myself
You played with her like a doll and put her back on the shelf
Wouldn’t let her go to school and better herself
She had a baby by your ass and you ain’t giving no help
Uh-huh big time hustler, snake motherfucker
One’s born everyday and everyday she was your sucker
How could you beat the mother of your kids?
How could you tell her that you love her?
Don’t give a fuck if she lives
She told me she would leave you, I admit it she did
But came back, made up a lie about you missing your kids
Sweet kisses, baby ain’t even know she was your mistress
Had to deal with fist fights and phone calls from your bitches
Floss like you possess her, tellin’ me to mind my business
Said that it was her life and stay the fuck out of it
I tried and said just for him I’ll keep a ready clip…

I don’t even know you and I want you dead
Don’t know the facts but I saw the blood pour from her head
See I laid down beside her in the hospital bed
And about two hours later, doctors said she was dead
Had the nerve to show up at her mother’s house the next day
To come and pay your respects and help the family pray
Even knelt down on one knee and let a tear drop
And before you had a chance to get up
You heard my gun cock
Prayin to me now, I ain’t God but I’ll pretend
I ain’t start your life but nigga I’mma bring it to an end
And I did, clear shots and no regrets, never
Cops comin’ lock me under the jail
Nigga whatever my bitch, fuck it my sister
You could never figure out even if I let you live
What our love was all about
I considered her my blood and it don’t come no thicker

1-soundwave-remix-finalI suspect the weight of this song rather than Eve’s person will become even more pronounced in the future since Eve has eclipsed any awareness of racism now that she is a celebrity …AND pregnant by her white millionaire British boyfriend— the race car driver, Maximillion Cooper.  See Denene Millner at My Brown Baby for a brilliant critique of Eve’s newfound colorblindness as the racial politics for raising her biracial child.  I am pretty confident that Eve’s song will continue to circulate in the annals of young black women’s memory and consciousness though Eve’s own politics and life story may not.

When I hear my students talk about “Love is Blind”– and when I think of the story from Cooper’s follower, the young women fighting back an abusive man on a Brooklyn street, and Cooper’s re-telling of violence against black women on her blog— I see a community of black women speaking into and against violence against them.  In a criminal (in)justice system where the men who rape and beat black women are treated SIGNIFICANTLY less harshly than when raping or abusing any and every other racial or ethnic group of women, it will be up to black women to (re)define justice and safety for their own bodies.  Certainly, no one else can or will do that for us.  When young black women know and discuss Eve’s song in my classes at no prodding of my own, this is the larger epistemological system that I know they are speaking into.

Young Black Women Define Rhetoric: “Being Around a Black Woman, It’s Contagious”

Thank you to Cydni Joubert who created this video-interview below for our English 3475 class, African American Women’s Rhetoric, to let us hear how dance, black women’s lives, and rhetoric all intersect.

 

And, thank you to Crystal Valentine who visited class yesterday and blessed us with this performance below.

 

For more on Crystal Valentine, please see Cydni’s slideshow below.