What Freedom Has Looked Like

I’m not someone who tweets so maybe I just don’t get it.  Maybe. When I see what happens there (and yes, I do call twitter a social place/location), I am sometimes stunned.  But then again, these are the kinds of discourses that have always happened behind closed doors anyway.

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Ad from Oregon PBS about History of Sex Education Classes

Let’s take, for instance, a woman who has semi-regularly tweeted photos of public sexual innuendos like signposts with the word, HUMP, on them.  It’s almost sophomoric, like in junior high sex education classes when the teacher shows photos of male and female genitalia and everyone starts laughing.  Except this ain’t a kid, this is a grown, professional woman who marks herself as a feminist.  Certainly, feminist consciousness demands that women’s bodies not be circumscribed and defined by Puritan notions of sex and sexuality and instead empowers women’s bodies from alternative spaces of consciousness and politics.  I get that.  Really, I do.  But this ain’t that so let me cut to the chase: I just can’t see myself, as a black female professor, lasting too long if I tweet out sophomoric sexual discourses for fun, with photos, and so willingly offer up a sexualization of my body in public spaces as a hobby for my pastime.  I can tell you that it wouldn’t go well for me professionally and black male professors certainly wouldn’t be out here calling me their sister-in-arms as the second coming of the Angela Davis/Black Power Mixtape. It just doesn’t go down like that.  Not for black women.  For those of us who consider ourselves real students of black women’s histories and black feminisms, we know that we live under very different scripts for race and gender. This twitter example that I am describing is not hypothetical; it represents the very real activities of a non-black female “professor” (in quotation marks since the person engages no intellectual/scholarly pursuits). Now what on earth would ever embolden a professional/professor to initiate such public, sexual invitations and expect relative impunity with no negative result?  That answer comes quite easily for me: the sense of freedom that comes with white entitlement… and, well, all of us ain’t entitled that way; all of us ain’t free.

Some might view my perspectives as conspiratorial or over-the-top but if you are a black woman, you better wake up fast because you don’t have the luxury of such dismissals.  You’ll see exactly what I am talking about when you witness white co-workers criticize black applicants for their lack of a far-reaching scholarly identity in their digital footprint though these white folk themselves ain’t got nothing nowhere about themselves and their scholarship.  You’ll see exactly what I am talking about when you witness white co-workers scrutinize a black woman’s resume, comparing it to items that can be googled— this for a black woman who has dozens upon dozens of lectures and accolades online, too many to count.  Meanwhile, the ridiculous onslaught of online tributes to vampires created by the non-black-female applicant goes unmentioned and unnoticed.  You just can’t make this stuff up.  Like I said, if you are a black woman, you would be stupid to think you can ignore this because non-black folk dismiss you as paranoid… while, of course, they never hire anyone who looks like you.  Don’t you be THAT kind of fool.

Eunique Johnson's “I am Trayvon Martin” Photo Campaign

Eunique Jones’s “I am Trayvon Martin” Photo Campaign

About ten years ago, I taught an intensive summer, 3-hour college writing course in the evenings and we had class on July 3.  All of my students in that course were of African descent; most expected me to cancel class since the 4th was the next day.   They kept asking over and over: but what will we do in class on that day? to which I answered: the same damn thing our ancestors had to do— WORK and FIGHT BACK!  You ain’t free.  Now, some of my students thought that was hilarious and appropriate; others were mad as hell at me and either way, I didn’t give a damn.  We had class and we spent the time reading and discussing “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” by Frederick Douglass alongside current events of the moment.  If I were teaching that same class today, I would do the same thing.  And I would add to that assignment the footage from the current trial proceedings related to George Zimmerman’s vicious murder of Trayvon Martin.  And I would add to that  William Lamar IV’s piece at the Huffington Post on why he will reflect on the 4th of July, but not celebrate.

I am reminded every day of the ways that I am not free, even in the seemingly mundane ways that other women not-of-Afrikan-descent are so casually emboldened to do things that I could just never get away with and maintain a positive social reputation, job, and respect.  I don’t mean to be the grim reaper for my students and disempower them with stories of racism.  But empowerment comes from seeing the world as it is so that you can intervene in it, not from creating fantasies, delusions, and false belief systems. The good thing about all that is there is a tradition for the 4th of July, going all the way back to Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, leading the way.