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!

Lessons from Natural Hair & White Women’s Ongoing Racism

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"My Natural Sistas"

“My Natural Sistas”

This is that time of year when I spend a great deal of time online watching videos and reading articles on how to moisturize my hair.  Between the on-and-off again single-digit cold weather, my hair is dryyyyy.  It’s the typical saga of natural hair for black women in cold winters.  Because my hair has changed its length and texture since my no-heat commitment, it seems that what worked last year doesn’t work this year.  This isn’t a lament about black hair though, because I actually like looking at these blogs, articles, and videos.  The images are stunningly beautiful, the sistas are often funny as all get-out, and the advice is ON. POINT.

Naturally GG

“Naturally GG”

It’s the language of it all that fascinates me.  It’s always in the language, like these phrasings and positioning:

Protective styling (and headwrapping)

Avoiding over-worked hair

Understanding and mixing shea butter

Letting the scalp heal (especially if newly non-relaxed)

Working and nurturing the roots

Cherish My Daughter

“Cherish My Daughter”

I’ll just go for broke and say it straight out: only black women could and would talk about HAIR— their bodies— this way… and digitally so AT THAT!  It’s a discourse wrapped in notions of freedom from work and destruction.

It should not come as a surprise that my conversations with black women, from the compliments to the sharing of styles and product purchases, are qualitatively and quantitively different.  Those conversations are so foreign to most white women around me that this may as well be a language other than English. In many ways, this IS another language. We are talking Afrikan experience.  What other women would make the healing of roots, self-protection, and rejuvenation with shea butter the road to survival?

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You can see then why I was so stunned by a recent blog article circling the internet about a young white woman expressing her turmoil when she realized, during yoga, that the “young, fairly heavy black woman” behind her must resent her thin, white body.  Yeah.  You can’t make this up!  On top of living a racist delusion, she has co-opted a spiritual, non-western practice, YOGA (we seem to forget that yoga was not invented by middle class white women), to experience a false racial superiority.

Charyjay

Charyjay

Now, can sumbody please tell me why women who invent and design practices and languages just to maintain non-white alternatives to their HAIR—with digital tools to educate and sustain one another about it— would be pining away at white women’s bodies?  If that weren’t enough, this white woman also configures herself as an advanced yoga practitioner, but if this is where her mind is during the process, what the hell kinda yogi is this?  I enjoyed Kristin Iversen’s discussion who critiques the commercial white feminism of the journal alongside white colonization of yoga. I also value Tressiemc.com’s review of research on black girls who also have a critique of white standards of beauty at a young age. That’s why I am confused by the black women who perceive this moment as a possibility for good dialogue.  Good for whom?  Black women?  This moment replicates nothing more than Sylvia Wynter’s now longstanding critique of white femininity in her analysis of the Tempest in its depiction of Miranda: the only woman in the New World/Island, the “mode of physiognomic being” that gets canonized as the only “rational object of desire” and “genitrix of a superior mode of human life.”

I won’t mention this woman’s name, because she is not worthy of that.  Just trust that her own physical appearance in no way matches the admiration and awe that she thinks her body engenders.  I ain’t sayin she ugly, but she sho ain’t cute. For black women out there who do aspire to whiteness, this ain’t the white woman they would be aesthetically mimicking (especially when she is sweaty and funky.)  How does someone of such absolute visual mediocrity become convinced she is the center of physical attraction? As is so strikingly evident here, it is a pathologized, corporeal white-thinness alone that is supposed to mark aesthetic power and desire. Truth is, this little dumb blog post isn’t worth the attention it has received (and brought the writer into focus in ways she was perhaps too young to understand, though the journal surely did, with the intimacies of her personal life now publicly on display, i.e., drug abuse).  For my part, I will keep moisturizing my natural hair and using a black woman’s language with black women to navigate the world.  I won’t be standing behind any white woman any time soon with the desire of being that.  I have my own self and black women’s language to sustain me. [/ezcol_1half_end]

“This Woman’s Work”: Sybrina Fulton

Mamie-Sybrina Collage

My Collage of Mamie Till-Bradley, Emmett Till, Sybrina Fulton, and Trayvon Martin

“Trayon Martin is the Emmett Till” of our time… that’s a statement I have continually heard in these past days and I would have to agree.  The corollary is also true here:  Sybrina Fulton is the Mamie Till-Bradley of our time.  In Sybrina Fulton’s talk at the rally at One Police Plaza in New York City this past weekend, I was particularly inspired by these lines:

As I sat in the courtroom, it made me think that they were talking about another man. And it wasn’t. It was a child, who thought as a child, who acted as a child, who behaved as a child. And don’t take my word for it. He had a drink and candy. So, not only—not only do I vow to you to do what I can for Trayvon Martin, I promise you I’m going to work hard for your children, as well, because it’s important. (see 16:43 to 17:20 of the footage shot by Democracy Now).

When you think of the difficulty Mamie Till-Bradley had in securing her son’s body (Mississippi seemed to block her every move to have his body shipped to her in Chicago), it seems strangely reminiscent of the days Sybrina Fulton had to wait for her son’s body to be named Trayvon Martin, rather than the original John Doe white police proclaimed him to be, unworthy of even an investigation. It is not simply that both mothers lost their sons to white violence, publicly paraded by the courts’ refusal to convict their murderers.  It is the way these women opened up  their grief to the world and to a social analysis of that world.

Mamie Till-Bradley has not often been written into the chronicles of history as radical; it has mostly been black women and black feminists who have done this work and will continue to do this work with Sybrina Fulton’s life also.  Both of these women’s radical, emotional openness is simply chilling for me.   Ironically, we are in an age where everybody thinks they are “radically open” because they can post photos and videos on any and every social networking site of: 1) their children performing liberal rituals of white, nuclear American familyhood such that facebook, google+, and youtube become the new “Leave it to Beaver”; 2) themselves, friends, and family and the neoliberal objects/vacations/outings/performances they have materially acquired as the site of today’s corporate-induced narcissism.  All that “openness” but ain’t none of it like Sybrina Fulton’s! Or Mamie Till-Bradley’s!  An openness that looks American apartheid right in the eye rather than promote its whiteness!  At a time when most people use the “public forum” to simply promote the system we are in, Mamie and Sybrina halted the empty notions of progress, material celebration, and mainstream values that a white world would want to visually represent as Truth.  If there was ever a definition of speaking Truth-to-Power, this is it.

I think about Sybrina Fulton quite often and I cringe at the label that I hear too many often giving to her: strong black woman.  Yes, Sybrina Fulton is strong.  Who would suggest otherwise?   Yes, I understand the sentiment because so many of us hold her close and dear to our hearts and prayers, hoping she will know she is loved and cherished, shaken to our own core by the pain we can only imagine she is enduring.  Yes, we feel the awesomeness of her ability to stand in the face of that pain, brutality, and ugliness. But we need some deeper understandings of this legacy of black women and black mothers who defy all odds to love their children and challenge a world that hates black people.  Violence against black children is violence against black mothers so strength ain’t even the half.

Our current context is one that melds:

Multimedia cartels where most Americans visually circumscribe and incessantly celebrate mainstream, white familyhood, a continual site of historical violence and exclusivity in this country— I am not suggesting this is limited to the U.S., you need only watch the current foolishness surrounding the Royal Baby in England to know the U.S. has never been alone in mobilizing white imperialism to define family/nation;

WITH

A world where black motherhood is demonized and made into public spectacle for a gaze as white as the viewing of Gone with the Wind Tune in any Tuesday or Wednesday to Tyler Perry on OWN; he, of course, has not invented these images but when we promote them ourselves then you KNOW we’s in trouble (last night, Big Momma sang a slave spiritual to her white female boss, further castigated her own black daughter-turned-prostitute, and begged/sobbed for son’s release from prison).

When you place Sybrina Fulton into this kind of context, you begin to see why the label “strength” just won’t do for a black woman like her.  And you begin to see why so many black women will write her body, story, and pain so centrally into the history of black people and black freedom.

Teaching Black Women’s Rhetoric: (Re)Hearing Feminist Discourse

It only occurred to me late in the semester that I could make a youtube channel with my current course, African American women’s rhetoric (it is called BlackWomynRhetProjct Channel).  I have organized the class chronologically so in some ways, this new epiphany could only come now.  I guess that will be my excuse because, really, I should have been doing this all along.  The website is good to archive the daily reading and writing assignments, but the channel lets me create a much richer archive of materials for students to use as both reference and supplement.

As soon as we left the early Civil Rights Movement and entered the 1970s, the videos and documentaries of historical footage as well as current speeches and lectures given by black women increased 100-fold.

So my class now begins to draw more and more from multimedia sources rather than just print sources.  This is much bigger than whether or not we have students read digital texts or print texts in our classes, a simplistic conversation that many teachers seem to think is some kind of hallmark of new, critical-digital pedagogies.  My class is not about reading for reading’s sake, but about (re)hearing black women by examining their multiple rhetrics.  If the text is online, good; if it’s in print, that’ll work too.  Who cares?  My job is to make multiple texts accessible to my working class undergraduate students in financially accessible ways.  The fact remains that when you are dealing with historical black women, YOU READ WHATEVER YOU CAN FIND WHEREVER YOU CAN FIND IT!  Who publishes and who gets a voice is still controlled by a white dominant culture, whether that be digital or print, so you can still count on black women not being equally or respectfully represented in any space.

But that does bring me to youtube, where, arguably, I spend too much of my time.  Let’s face it: by 2010, the amount of videos being uploaded to youtube was the equivalent of 180,000 feature-length movies per week.  In less than a week, youtube generates more video content than Hollywood has done in its entire lifetime.  Now I won’t act like that is cause for celebration; it just means I have some greater odds to find some black women on youtube than in Hollywood (which won’t require an avalanche of material for that comparative statement to be true).  I have seen more than my fair share of videos on youtube of black men who pontificate that black women are just copying white women, that white feminism has corrupted black feminist souls and minds with arbitrary discussions of patriarchy, that black women are not as worthy of attention/love/partnership as other more domesticated women of color (who are, of course, lighter in hue), that black women emasculate black men in the ways they treat the fathers of their children, that black women are actually white men in disguise when they boss black men around too much, that black women can be casually/publicly named bitches and hoes (words used as regularly by online “talk show” hosts as rappers).  I could go on and on with these examples.  I stopped reading video comments a long time ago so that I wouldn’t be continually insulted by outright, deliberate misogynistic slurs (i.e., which songs compliment “bedroom mixes” and other sexual encounters). Needless to say, if I just watched youtube, I would think that most black men who talk about black women sound ABSOLUTELY NO different than white-racist Daniel Moynhan who, in his 1965 Moynihan Report, blamed all economic “failures” of black communities on the nature of overly-aggressive black women.  I place these kinda folk in a special youtube category: DAMN FOOLS WITH A VIDEO CAMERA…UPLOADED.  I mean, really, the kind of stuff these folk say makes me wonder if they really get that people can hear them?

So yeah you hafta wade though some realllll dumb bullshit on youtube (I just don’t have a more polite way to say that, sorry). But then… yes, but then…. you can find the footage from the documentary on Shirley Chisholm that got lost on the chopping block, that one sentence that means the world, like this jewel:

“I want history to remember me… as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself!”

There is the ability to watch Barbara Jordan’s speech on Nixon’s impeachment, play it back over and over and over, for free, so you and your students can hear those pauses and annunciations that she makes, see the photo where Jordan is sitting right next to Shirley Chisholm, and marvel at how, at 2 o’clock in the morning, Jordan opens her statement to Congress by letting them know she has an unwavering commitment to the U.S. Constitution (and seems to know it better than anyone else in the room) even though she was never included in its original framing!!  Yesterday, in class, I could hear my students take on the rhythmic pronunciation patterns, pauses, and accents on words like SUS-PEC-TED in their own language to talk about Jordan’s language.  And as a class, we could all hear how Jordan takes the words of the Constitution and almost takes you to church (her father is a minister so this is not simply a misapplied, figurative expression here but a description of the format in which Jordan recites text to an audience) while, at the same time, offers a closing statement in what feels like the kind of trial where you’d hope Jordan was the  lawyer on YOUR side (Jordan is a lawyer so this is not an accident either though these hearings are not a trial.)

Today, I am watching and selecting lectures by and documentaries about  Angela Davis (there isn’t much available on youtube spanning her 1990s lectures but I suspect that will change soon enough.)  This gives me the chance to move students’ images of Davis past her iconic figure in the 70s with an Afro, mouth always wide open, on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and show her as a full intellectual-activist, now and back then.  I have just finished the second part of her lecture (click here for first part) at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta on March 24, 2009 for the keynote address of Emory University’s Women’s History Month.

What I am struck by at this moment is the importance of (re)hearing feminist discourse because, in this second part of the video, Davis talks about the ways in which we must challenge many of Obama’s policies.  What strikes me  here is how differently she does this, while still maintaining a kind of class/imperialism analysis.   Davis mobilizes her critiques without the stain of the anti-black subtext that I feel and hear from the White Left/non-Black Left, folk who I have never seen or heard think deeply about the racial apartheid in which we live and that they benefit from.  I just don’t trust them when they launch their mouth-grenades on black folk and neither should anyone else.   Davis also mobilizes her critiques without the kind of ego-driven, look-at-me-look-at-me, spotlight-mongering tendencies of people like Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, though she is clearly as iconic and famous as they are.  While I have agreed with many of these critiques from these camps, there has always been something amiss for me, a real kind of disrespect that cannot be removed from the fact that Obama is a black man, just in the way that these activists frame their rhetoric.  Davis reminds just how differently Black Feminist Rhetoric operates and why her critique is one that I can hear and see as transformative. I need to make sure that I hear this kind of Black Feminist Rhetoric more— I especially now see the ways youtube can drown out the other voices once I find the right spaces where black women are being heard.