Cyber Monday 2013 & the Inanity of Whiteness

I did a lot of babysitting as soon as I hit my teens.  From early October to December 24, I exploited the fiction of Santa Claus as much as possible.  While I understand many people’s animosity and hesitation with this concept, it made my babysitting days so much easier.  You can really work that fiction to get kids to behave.  A recent lecture by Dr. Nteri Nelson filmed by Paul Gibson, however, has helped me to reach deeper understandings of the ancestral connections that have drawn black folk to Christianity, celebrations of Christmas, and Santa Claus and other holiday emblems.

Given the African American draw to Christmas and our Black Buying Power, it seems like the endless Christmas animations, the Hallmark movies with their messages about love/family/rebirth, the window displays, the Santa Claus images and look-alikes, the flying angels everywhere, the traditional children’s stories, and all this Christmas paraphernalia wouldn’t all be so damn white.  Last year, on Black Friday and Cyber Monday alone, African Americans spent more time browsing online for toys than any other group.  It seems like a good capitalist would capitalize on all that and do a full-blown black-up of all children’s marketing.  But capitalism is not logical and it is never just about making money.

ST_PERFECT12I recently watched the movie, The Perfect Holiday, where Morris Chestnut was a shopping mall Santa who enchanted three little kids and their mother (played by Gabrielle Union; the added bonus as Terrence Howard as a rat, evil dwarf, etc).  Morris Chestnut is one Santa no one would need to make me believe in!  Clearly, capitalists don’t care about black people’s dollars; otherwise we’d see family movies like this everywhere. Instead, this year’s blockbuster will be a black man dressing up as a black woman who then dresses up as Santa (i.e., Madea) for a 2013 Christmas Coon Extravaganza.  The images that we see and don’t see of black people during these holidays are not motivated by the economics of neoliberalism alone; these economics are nested quite snugly with maintaining a white lens and a white world, a reality 100s of years in the making given the history Dr. Nelson provides us.  Like I said, if it was all about money, BLACK WOMEN would be the center of all marketing campaigns since we are the ones with the most buying power.   You know something deep is going on when NO ONE tells you this.  I am not suggesting that buying power and wealth are the same thing and that black women and communities have wealth in the United States.  It just seems telling to me that American consumerism functions according to a logic that deliberately omits black faces but exploits their cultures and dollars.

Outside of home, friends, and family, the many white intellectuals, scholars, teachers, and so-called “educated” people who I work with still won’t get— don’t want to get— why black folk focus so much time and energy on constructing positive images of ourselves and releasing all the negative.  Truth is, we don’t have time to worry about these people who don’t want to understand this.  They just aren’t worth it. This December, however, I am doing what I often do when I am looking for images and concepts that DON’T destroy black children and families when a dominant white image/mindset completely saturates every turn you make: I turn to African American children’s literature.  Beginning with this year’s Cyber Monday, this black woman is spending her ancestral time/energy and her Black Buying Power looking for African American children’s literature that offers real and soul-sustaining Black lenses and belief systems about this time of year.  I’ll share my favorites in the coming days and weeks.

Consumed & Not Consumed: Memories of Holiday Spendings

macysThis year, my mother (who moved in with me after she lost her job in the recession) wanted to experience Black Friday in New York.  In particular, she wanted to take advantage of a foolish sale at JCPenney.  In New York City, this means going down to 34th Street across from Macy’s.  It was an A.W.F.U.L. experience.  I am not being bah-humbug here: there are times when the holiday windows and decorations in NYC simply inspire me. This year’s Macy’s display bored me to tears though.  The tech wizardry of animated, interactive snow falls was underwhelming.  So I did what was only right: I shared my misery with everyone around me, talking VERY loudly about how stupid and boring the Macy’s windows were.  In truth, this is a deliberate tactic because my mother will get so embarrassed, she will want to leave— this is exactly my purpose.  I did even MORE loud-talking at JCPenney.   The worst part of these outings is the inevitable visit you will need to make to a public restroom but I will admit that I had fun irritating my mother here too. I simply yelled out: it staaaank up in here… damn, girl, what you eat for Thanksgiving?  This bathroom is on FIYAH! 

As a high school student, I had a very distinct relationship to “Black Friday.”  I don’t remember ever using the term, “Black Friday,” though.  I just knew it was the day after Thanksgiving and I could make extra money, even if I wasn’t the legal age to work.  There were two jobs I held throughout high school after Thanksgiving: 1) wrapping gifts at the mall; 2) designing chalkboards and glass windows for shops and stores.  That was the money that bought my or my mother’s coat that year or our Christmas dinner.  At 16 and 17, it was the most I could do to help out my mother whose pittance of a salary barely kept the lights on (and many times, didn’t keep the lights on… winters in Ohio with no electricity is NO JOKE!) If I had internet way back when and could have easily accessed photos of Macy’s windows, I would have pimped myself out for every willing store owner/manager to transform their space to replicate Macy’s displays.  Them rich fools woulda let me too.

2Every gift that I was I ever paid to wrap, which came with very nice tips, came from a wealthy white customer. There was a stock set of designs that customers could choose, but if you added some flair, then you had a steady stream of tips and folk willing to pay.  All I had to do was practice on newspaper at home and then roll out some funky color combos at the store.  On weekends, I could count on taking home the $40 the manager gave me along with another $30-$50 in tips, depending on the number of customers. My family would have a fit if I didn’t wrap our gifts as beautifully as I had for them rich white folk.  Needless to say, I got good at it and still have a reflexive habit to look at a gift’s wrapping and figure out the design.  If you ever get a gift from my mother with a nice bow, it is one that she has saved from a gift-wrapping I did for her— she recycles.  I doubt that the people who paid for my wrapping ever saved it the way my family does though.  My family enjoys the wrapping as much as any gift, especially if it matches their favorite colors, outfit, or home decor.

chalkboardThe store owners and managers who hired me to do their windows and chalkboards were also white.  I got good with those chalkboards too.  For small signs, I could do a sketch at home and then knock that out in half an hour.  That gave me $20.  For larger signs, I wrapped the edges of the chalkboard with an intricate design and left a heavy, easy-to-touch-up border; that way, there was plenty of room in the middle of the board to write daily specials and wash the board without having to re-do the design.   That gave me $40. Different customers got different genres: snow scenes were for non-religious settings; bows, gold, silver, and all kindsa razzle/dazzle was for the wanna-be sophisticates; variations of a St. Nick’s toy factory were for the Christmas die-hards. I could even do mangers and angels if you wanted to make people remember church.  Words-only jobs were the best though: super-easy and really fast!

“Black Friday” signaled WORK for me; consumption was for OTHERS— something that I associated with rich, white people.  Consumption was, for me, whiteness and squandered wealth.  And white folk were the only people who I ever saw with that one thing that gave you big purchasing power back then: credit cards.  I am convinced today that credit is the reason we see so much more shopping than when I was a child— and credit debt today is an equal opportunity deployer (I actually put a coat in layaway a week ago, wanting to catch the sale on the item.  I was the only person on line. I was shocked to even see a store with layaway, the way that I remember my family buying things long ago.)

Needless to say, I had never gone “shopping” on a “Black Friday” til this week (I didn’t make any actual purchase).  Everyone looked like they drank the kool-aid!  In contrast, everyone that I knew in my youth had to work the day after Thanksgiving. I don’t recall anyone waking up at 3am to go to the mall before their jobs.  While I certainly don’t ever wish to return to the economic poverty that characterized my youth, I find immense value in having never understood myself or Christmas in terms of conspicuous consumption.  We would do well to remember that we have not always been or ever needed to be neoliberal subjects and hyper-consumers.  We seem to have forgotten the wealth in spirit and mind of a people who never hesitated to remind a young girl that her creativity and talent were worth more than dollars, that you and the holidays are always about so much more than the people who can buy you. 

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.