Remembering Maya Angelou: “Everybody Takes Their Chance By Taking a Chance On Us”

angelou-picEvery 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.

This semester was a bit of a switch with the video below that one student asked us to watch in my  class. This video features an interview with Maya Angelou after shock jock, Don Imus, authorized himself to call black women on the Rutgers Basketball team out of their names. In that interview, Angelou calls out black men who publicly call black women b**ches but who would never do such a thing with white women in power, giving the then president’s wife, Laura Bush, as an example. I found her most compelling when she responds to Russell Simmon’s comments (at 1:32):

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.

Liberated Response to Patriarchy

Imagine that you are a black woman who had a full-day, grueling job interview and then returned to your hotel room to speak to your partner until 1am in the morning, though you needed to return to the interview at 8am the next morning.  In the course of the day, you did not encounter any other black person so you know that taking this job will be more than a notion.  Your partner, a black man, is in distress via work-related issues (since his job looks similar) and so that is all that you talk about because, after all, this is what it means to truly support someone.  However, never once, not even in the weeks and months later, did he ask you what happened at that interview (and clearly a lot happened since the interview lasted for more than 15 hours).   As a black female professional/academic, this scenario is more common than not and approximates the kinds of conversations I routinely have with many girlfriends— married, dating, looking, AND single-by-design.  And while this example is certainly from a now bygone and regrettable past, it ain’t that past as to represent some kind of different century when women were supposed to just be barefoot and pregnant… and yet, you would think so.

After Tyler Perry dropped yet another movie about purposeless/pathetic/pathologized black women, I spent my last week talking to many black female students about their anxiety that their professional success will make them undesirable to black men, the message they receive everywhere around them (the weeks after a Tyler Perry movie are always a rollercoaster ride in my office with young black women who want to talk about relationships).  Even Tyrese, RayJay, and Keith Sweat give dumb, misogynistic advice in new relationship books targeting black women now. To quote Keith Sweat himself: sumthin sumthin just ain’t right. With Steve Harvey’s banal relationship books topping numerous bestseller lists (and considered one of the top 10 bestselling relationship books of all times) followed by his movie that grossed 28 million dollars in its first week, there is obviously some real big money in black men telling black women what to do. I usually ignore this stuff because it is just so simple and played-out but I end up chiming in, if only to shift the direction of the conversation when I am talking to young black women.

Now let’s imagine another scenario.  A black woman’s partner disappears for 6-8 weeks to focus on his own project but expects that she’ll be there waiting when he returns.   The culture of patriarchy nurtures men to live this way as stoic, individual prototypical Lone Rangers who keep to themselves, presumably able to move through the world all alone and on their own, so this scenario should not seem so strange.  On the rare occasion when the partner checks in (maybe between coffee stops and drinks at the bar), she is expected to listen and give support. Nevertheless, he never once gives any such support to her though her own project is just as critical during this 6-8 week period. Though there were some occasions when she was supported (like, maybe, in the very beginning), those occasions are not in the majority because, after all, as a black woman, she is regarded as someone made of Teflon. As such, her person isn’t seen as needing the same kind of care, attention, or defense as a non-black woman (or in more pessimistic terms, black women are simply not as valued as white women or other non-black/women of color so are not seen as deserving of care).  It’s not an understatement to say that many of us feel like we are supporting and holding up the world and never getting that back in return from anyone anywhere. Self-help books do get some of it right though: folk (family, friends, partners) will take and take and take and give almost nothing, but ONLY if you let them.  These texts, however, offer no critical social-help.   The kind of support that women need in these new work-worlds that look unlike what women have ever entered in such large numbers is simply not forthcoming from many male partners at home.   Unlike what you get in mainstream discourse, black women are not trippin’ because we make more money than black men, because there is no one to date, or because we have terminal degrees with extra letters behind our names now (see what I have to say about what it is like to be a black woman in graduate school and you will really understand that we do NOT experience ourselves as being on top of the world).  You have to wonder how and why white mainstream pundits and black male public figures so frequently talk this way about black women.  We can STOP talking now about how to “find a good man,” the mantra you hear ad nauseum.  This notion of “finding a good black man” sticks too closely to the good man/bad man binary under patriarchy (a good man is, after all, just a benevolent patriarch).  We need to instead START talking about building a partnership with a LIBERATED MAN (yes, they exist), which is what I think Jill Scott has in mind here:

These very public (and lucrative) discussions about cultivating black professional women to find black male partners is just a cover-up for the real issues: what will happen to partnering in a patriarchal system when the economic world no longer gives ANY man the sole capacity to be bread-winners (poor black men have always faced this)?  Will we re-script maleness or just blame this newest lack of breadwinning on women/feminism rather than on new modes of capitalism?  Will femaleness get re-scripted or will we go to work, come home, and then act as if we are still stay-at-home moms so that patriarchy can look in tact?

Old, patriarchal models won’t serve working women well who need the same emotional support that men have always been able to count on from women (see the above examples).  The crisis of patriarchy under new capitalism means white supremacy punishes black women the most by labeling us as most undesirable or irrational (or just such robust workers/cotton-pickers that we won’t need anyone or anything). These exaggerated levels of attention that get paid to professional black women who are “unable” to “find” “good, black men” COULD actually point us in the direction of a new rupture of patriarchy if we see that, at root, that is really what we are talking about. Black women’s discourses can lead the way here just as much as when black women became the first and only women to openly and publicly critique male physical and sexual abuse via the Blues— a historical fact that I see as the single-most important contribution of Angela Davis’s book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.  The fact of the matter is that the model of male breadwinner/patriarch and stay-at-home wife (or the almost stay-at-home wife with a man who earns twice as much and who, therefore, has the career/needs that take precedence) is no longer viable for anyone except a very small 5% of the wealthy, elite.  That was never viable for working-class black people anyway but now a more multi-hued middle class is getting to experience what po’ black folk have always faced, hence, all this attention.  And in true American fashion, the nation will work out its psychoses on black bodies.  Unless you are with a trust-fund baby or a Wall Street crook, you gon be workin in the 21st century.  Old notions of domesticity just won’t cut it, not even for white male patriarchs.  I suspect black women will be the ones to take on this charge of re-framing how we understand these old notions though we won’t be acknowledged as such… right now, that is certainly what my office hours are looking and sounding like.

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.