Christmas with Mrs. Mary Lee Bendolph!

005.480x480-75“Christmas always came to our house, but Santy Claus only showed up once in a while.”  I love this line.  It does so much in just 16 words.  “Santy Claus” is marked as Other both in how it is named and located as a secondary, um, clause.  It literally delivers Christmas from its consumerist saga and resets it within new sets of practices and values. The line comes from none other than the children’s book written by Patricia McKissack and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney: The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll.  These 16 words are the perfect opening to the historical  story that gets represented in this book.

allilleverwantchristmasdollIn the story, beautifully illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, three sisters receive one special gift: Baby Betty Doll. The sisters, once inseparable— called chickadees by their mother, because they were always chattering, twittering, and doing everything together— are now fighting amongst one another.  When Santy Claus actually does visit in one auspicious year with the beloved Baby Betty Doll, conflict arises since all three must share the one, coveted doll. Nella convinces her two sisters that Baby Betty was her idea and written request to Santy so she should receive the doll.  The other two sisters begrudgingly agree and go on to play outside without their sister.  Nella thinks she is going to have the best day of her life, only to find out it becomes the worst: playing with the doll, all alone, without her sister’s company, bores her to tears.  She apologizes to her two sisters and from there, they work out a plan so that the doll can belong to all three of them.  It the end, they learn that all they really want for Christmas is themselves, their creativity, togetherness, and family, not a store-bought item.

The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll is set in the Great Depression and works well as the sequel to Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters about a Virginia plantation in 1859, also by Patricia McKissack.  In Christmas in the Big House, McKissack offers a look into the ways that the resources, lifestyles, values, and traditions between the plantation vs. the quarters are stunningly different, with Christmas as one shining example.  Although the book has been criticized for not showing enough of the harshness of slavery, the critique of race and accumulation in the book is on point.  McKissack is, after all, saying something quite deliberate about the histories of values, Christmas, and black communities in this book with one striking scene: the slave master promises his young white daughter that she’ll be able to have her very own slave in 1865 when she will be old enough to know how to be a real master;  meanwhile, down in them slave quarters, a black slave mother tells a young black male that freedom is soon coming so they might postpone their escape.  Given what we know about how news of the Emancipation Proclamation, slave revolts, and icons like Nat Turner traveled amongst slaves, completely out of the sight and hearing of most whites, the striking differences in BOTH the conversations and practices that McKissack portrays is a historical accuracy, not a romantic overpass.

MLLike she does with Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters, McKissack uses historical research to write The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll also. This book is not a world of make believe or simply a story about learning to share.  I was surprised to see how many introductions and discussions of the book leave out the one, very important character who McKissack introduces at the very start in her “Note about the Story”: Mary Lee Bendolph. Once again, we see the white liberalist imperative of a false “universalism” wipe away black historical specificity. The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll  is the narrative of Mrs. Mary Lee Bendolph, called Miz Mary, a famous quilter and storyteller from Gee’s Bend, a legendary African American community of slave descendants who even turned the papering of walls to keep out drafts into an art form.  The three sisters in The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll even play as they wallpaper at their mother’s direction, a practice you can glimpse in the short documentary below:

McKissack’s story about a black family’s gift of one doll to a family of sisters is the story of Miz Mary and her own sisters.  McKissack attempted to create an image of a black family in the Great Depression based on the way that Miz Mary described her own all-black town and life there.  Here is Miz Mary talking about her quilting and how the mainstream apparatus had no way of seeing her work as art because “they didn’t know nuthin about no art”:

McKissack does a wonderful thing in this children’s book.  She goes from the traditions and spiritual values laid into the practices of quilting— sophisticated, century-old practices unseen and unimagined in the white world— to tell a story of what Christmas would have looked like for them.  I created the playlist below to go with McKissack’s children’s book.  The playlist starts with Miz Mary, looks at various events and stories related to the many women in Gee’s Bend, and ends with a historical look at African American women’s quilting as a spiritual/visual rhetoric and journey.

Before I even knew this book was based on Mary Lee Bendolph, I knew McKissack would create The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll to match a real black family’s life.  She always reminds us that we have alternate stories to tell.  We have alternate stories to live by.


It Ends How It Starts…

isley_brothers-choosey_lover-choosey_lover_instrumental-1It ended the same way it started… that’s another one of those expressions that I grew up hearing.  There was no way that my mother, aunties, and older cousins would ever let any woman get away with saying, for instance, that a relationship ended because a man changed from the first moment you met.  There is no True Side or Dark Side that emerges in the later stages of a relationship.   Just so that it’s clear that I don’t associate doggishness with men only, I’ll offer advice based on a personal observation instigated by a woman.  If you are the aggressively-pursued mister/mistress to a married woman, maintain “contact” while she is married, and then get back with her years later when she is still legally married but newly separated (but still creepin with her not-yet-ex-spouse and many others while her school-age son is in full tow), you can’t get mad when she brings all kinda lovers into your home and hearth.  When the Isley Brothers crooned “Choosey Lover,” they didn’t have your lil honey EVER in mind and that evidence was always right there.  I ain’t knocking the woman (no, this story ain’t about a sista— we wouldn’t get away with this and still keep our job/title/status as college professors) since men don’t lose dignity or respect for such lifestyles, I am just saying that you can’t ever expect monogamy in such an open system.  The problems at the end were the same problems at the very beginning.

41z0dk6KxjL._AA160_For my own part, I have been in the early stages of a relationship where Partner-Potentials (PPs) hurry me off the phone in order to go for breakfast, drinks, coffee, or conversation with “friends,” without nary a worry about whether or not I was receiving the support, attention, or nurture that I needed.  That PP is, plain and simple, a playa, so I treat them accordingly.  If a PP like that cheats on you later, you most certainly cannot be surprised.  That’s just what playas do so you can’t expect otherwise.  Let’s not make it so extreme and let’s say this isn’t really a playa, just a smooth operator, so there is nothing “sexual” or flirtatious between your PP and all of these “friends,” present and past, who are obviously more valuable than you since you got hurried off.  If you actually believe in such “innocence,” it still ain’t gon work.  When hanging at lounges, bars, coffee shops, etc— all these bourgeois-chic performances— is the priority then financial stability, actual completion of a goal, and the ability to be dedicated to something real or to a relationship will not be soon forthcoming.  I’m not saying that I don’t like to go out, because I really do, but, as a grown woman, I just do not know exes, shops, or new “friends” that are so interesting that I would compromise my priorities for them. None of that happens overnight or all-of-a-sudden… evidence is always there. And once you witness one dumb decision, you can rest assured that many more will follow: dumb decisions never act alone.  You don’t need to stick around to wait and see how this will end; your answers are already there.

There ain’t never no surprises.  Every lie, trifling-ness, infidelity, dumb decision, and unethical act left its trace very early on. As my mother and othermothers always insisted: my job is to keep my eyes wide open and read everything that happens in the very beginning.  Professionally, I just can’t think of better advice.

wpa-logo-gray2In professional settings, I may not be able to necessarily get up and leave right away like I have with PPs, but I benefit from the clear reading of my environment early on.  It’s one thing to understand institutional racism while reading it in a book; it is quite another to be able to read it in your everyday environment. That’s a whole other kind of reading. In a previous administrative experience, I started preparing and planning for workshops, the semester calendar, orientation, and a host of other things as soon as July 1 dropped.  My first paycheck, however, did not drop until September 15.  I knew right away that my job was largely bureaucratic, anti-intellectual, apolitical tedium, and I saw that months before my name was even registered on payroll.  It was also clear in that instance that no one would protect me or care about my time and research requirements as someone without tenure.  In retrospect, I would tell all other black faculty to refuse such summer work.  So many of our people need us in various community centers and initiatives so if you want to do some charity work, do it with people that look like you rather than for institutions that exploit you.  Like I said, it ends how it starts: I was alone and on my own from day one and that never changed.  I walked out without needing to say good-bye, but fully embracing the GOOD in good-bye.

Before classes began, on the day when I met all of the faculty who I would be working with, one newly-minted white male Ph.D. (and stunningly sub mediocre teacher and researcher) asked me to meet with him after the meeting.  In our meeting, he proceeded to tell me all of the things that I needed to do.  It should go without saying that my credentials— then, now, and forever— trumped his many times over but that surely didn’t stop the higher-ranking white male administrator from telling him that he should request this meeting with me and direct me.  Like I said, classes hadn’t even started. I didn’t even have the chance to unpack a single box and get settled in my office yet.   The singular authority of white males, the host of surveillance and messenger tactics, and the decoupling of rigor and research with teaching, were right there in the beginning.  It never got worse from that… it didn’t need to.  The vulgarity was consistent and there from jump.

I am thinking a lot about my mother and the women in my family and their constant warnings to always read the very beginnings. When incompetent white men below your pay grade have been explicitly authorized by other white men to have authority over you, you need to be real clear about the kind of place you are in and you need to get real clear about that real fast. I am thankful that my mother and othermothers always highlighted the importance of such clarity.

Sleeping… Never Too Much!

The McGhee Sextuplets (born 2010)

The McGhee Sextuplets (born 2010)

As a college teacher who gets summers “off,” I can assure you that summer has rarely felt like a vacation on my trek to tenure.  I am usually so wiped out by the time Memorial Day weekend rolls around, all I want to do is sleep and then sleep some more.

For the most part, my summers are spent writing, reading, researching, and preparing new courses.  I am too exhausted from the schoolyear to jump right into that and too working-class-ethical to just sit around, do nothing, and nap all day.  So to kick-off my days of refusing to think but desperately needing to feel productive, I wash the front of my house, all the windows and the sidewalks… with a superduper powerwasher which provides some of the most fun water-sport activities imaginable.  I also fertilize my flowerbeds/container garden and I spray like a fiend for mosquitos (yes, it is an awful practice but I cannot tolerate them sucking up my blood the way that they do.) I must confess: I am not a very good powerwasher but I see no reason for that to stop me.  I warn my neighbors beforehand because, as NYC rowhouse dwellers, I end up washing their houses too, though not by design.  Like I said, I am not a very good powerwasher.  As my neighborhood, along with all neighborhoods in Brooklyn, have become more and more gentrified, I have noticed many more expensive cars on my block.  I have also noticed that these folk tend to move their cars away as soon as I come out with my 100 feet of hose (we park on the street in my neighborhood; there are no garages).  I don’t intentionally wash the expensive cars on the street because, hey, that would just be rude, but, wellllll, they do get a little wet and I do not feel bad about that.  It is public space and I am very public with the powerwasher.  I put on my big, rubber, rain boots that come to my knees and just get to it.   If my mother is being particularly challenging with too many directives and advice about my process since she lives with me now and so gets all of her windows washed too, I will put on a big, bright rain parka with a hood (and goggles if I have some).  I look so ridiculous that my mother refuses to be seen standing next to me with all the car traffic that passes by.  My peace and quiet are then quickly restored. By the time I am done with all that powerwashing and then putting all of the tools and costume away again, I am tired as hell.  This physical labor allows me to justify the one thing that kicks off my summer: sleeping like a baby.  I have always loved the photo above of the McGhee sextuplets— Rozonno Jr., Isaac, Josiah, Elijah, Madison and Olivia— who are so deep asleep that it is nothing short of inspiring (thank you to the Ohio couple and proud Mom and Dad, Mia and Rozonno McGhee, for truly loving and showing us these glorious babies.)  The baby sleeping on the father’s head most closely approximates what my summer sleep looks like right now.

After my powerwashing, I wake up the next day and, of course, need a new justification to tire myself out again so that I can go back to sleep…. it will be THE BACKYARD!!  There will come a time when I can no longer escape the work that I need to do this summer.  But in the interim, I am avoiding it… with the cleanest, superwashed house imaginable! I wish deep rest and relaxation to every teacher who can relate to what I am saying here.

Take Care of Home…

The adinkra symbol for the "Power of Love."

The adinkra symbol for the “Power of Love.”

In a previous post, I decided to look up the Adkinra symbol of love called the “power of love.”  When I found the symbol, I also found the expression/proverb that comes with it— ODO NNYEW FIE KWAN, “love never loses its way home.”   This is one of the reasons I have always valued and learned from Adinkra symbols (including the symbol, Sankofa, which is probably the most popular): there is a moral and lesson that goes with it.  As soon as I saw the corresponding expression for “the power of love,” I remembered an expression I heard in my family and from older African Americans as a child: “take care of home.”  As I have been thinking more about it, that expression is even bigger than what I have realized.  What I am suggesting here is that these “idioms” can be theorized, on their own terms, and located in and as unique philosophies that have sustained and represented black communities.

Women pounding rice on Sapelo Island, Georgia, around 1915

Women pounding rice on Sapelo Island, Georgia, around 1915

I have heard both men and women use this expression: “take care of home.”  It has nothing at all to do with homemaking in the domestic sense.  In fact, when I remember hearing it used in relation to one’s actual physical home, interestingly, it was mostly in the context of gardening and planting.  There was always something esoteric to me about the way people talked about taking care of their collards in the back or planting flowers in the front. There is, of course, the practice and symbolism of letting things take root in the context of what was arguably the second Great Migration when my family moved from Alabama to the midwest in the 1970s to work in Northern factories.  Putting down roots would be no insignificant issue and so this was something you took pride in and this was something you took seriously.

This practice of putting down roots as a cultural system was something that began to intrigue me when I first read Judith Carney’s Black Rice.  Carney’s book blew me away when I first read it in the way she demolishes the legacy of rice in the United Sates as the face of Uncle Ben on a box at the grocery store. Instead, she establishes rice cultivation as a cultural system that traveled the Middle Passage, blossomed from enslaved Africans’ knowledge (and, obviously, labor), and became the first food commodity traded successfully across the Atlantic Ocean on a large scale.  Rice was, thus, a food whose cultivation in the South was invented and maintained solely by black people and especially black women.  Before I read Carney, I had, quite embarrassingly, not fully considered that the very systems of planting and foodways were created and sustained by slaves’ crop experimentation.  What especially impacted me in Carney’s book, what I am saying makes the notion of “taking care of home” an alternative epistemological system, has to do with the provision gardens that slaves maintained. During the Revolutionary War, provision gardens were allotted to slaves to discourage them from fighting on the British side; these provision gardens dwindled after the War but there is still evidence that many slaves negotiated to acquire them afterward too.  Carney’s research shows people who, after working for 12 hours, then went to their own small plots and cultivated their piece of earth also.  Through their crop experimentation and informal, clandestine networks for acquiring seeds and other staples from Africa, these black people in slavery gave the United States its first peanuts, okra, greens, millet, sorghum, pigeon peas, and black-eye peas.  The Royal Society, Columbia Exchange, scientific societies, and plantation owners’ farming techniques had nothing to do with the planting and cultivation that slaves sustained for the United States. Sarney shows that these provision gardens also functioned amongst slaves in Brazil and the French Caribbean.   There is obviously more going on here than mere planting, gardening, and food production; what we see are a people maintaining a cultural identity, way of living/eating, and hands-on networking with other black communities.  That a people would choose to plant their own cultural foods, after working all day in white slaveowners’ fields, astounds me.  It was, it seems to me, a way to go back home AND make a home, despite the world that told them they did not have such “rights,” a practice and process also very profound for my own black family as recent migrants to the North in the 1970s.


il_570xN.117698057I am still combing my memories for how this expression circulated and will probably remember more as time goes on.  I do strongly recollect that people used this expression, “take care of home,” in relation to fidelity in relationships, particularly men’s (though women obviously step out on their partners too.)  The expression is about more than sexual faithfulness though.  This might be the reason I liked the song by Dave Hollister, actually called “Take Care of Home,” when it came out in 2000.  Beside the fact that Hollister’s Gerald-Levert-esque vibe and that general Midwest-Kuntry aesthetic are just a part of me, given where and how I grew up, I like Hollister’s mobilization of take care of home” because he is not talking about fidelity either but about noticing the partner you are with and experiencing their joy as your own joy.  I think “take care of home” gets at something still deeper: something about sustenance of self in relation to others and one’s own purpose.  I am often perplexed by peers who I see with multiple partners or with one significant partner and many other “friends.”  I just don’t get how you have the time for all that.   It’s real basic to me too, it ain’t a moral or ethical issue at all.  There is no way I could finish all of the final editing I needed to do on my first book, start my new research project, fulfill my work/administrative duties, read and prepare for my new class, teach, be there for my friends and family, support and love a partner… and then have the time, energy, or spirit left to then be going out for coffee, drinks, breakfast, lunch, dinner/be text-messaging, emailing, tweeting, FBing, or calling some other dude who I barely know.  The only way I COULD even approximate all that is if I abandoned either my friends, students, family, work/scholarship, or partner.  Why would I discard one of those entities for someone I just met at the coffee shop or bookstore/library (the biggest dating cliches imaginable)?  I am just not the kind of fool to hurt and jeopardize the things I love that way.  It’s not like I am lonely with a lot of free time (or MONEY!!) so what would account for such immature, poor decision-making?  Perhaps, the sentiments I express represent a woman’s stance, not a man’s given male ego/misogyny, but, still, there have got to be men out there who are not this stupid!  Amongst many of my girlfriends and family, I have proclaimed that I barely have the time and patience for one man– so now what the hell would I do with two or more? Now there are some things that I do like in multiples: shoes, the curls of my natural hair, earrings, bracelets, peanut M&Ms(!!!), purses, books, slices of red velvet cake, songs on my “TooGrown&TooSexy” playlist, doritos… but men?  Hell. Naw.  That does not sound appealing at all.  Now in cases where such a level of commitment has been too much pressure, seriousness, maturity, or responsibility for a man, I simply assume that I need a new man, not a new disposition— something that might come as a surprise given the way the media likes to depict a single black professional woman like me as unaware, desperate, and/or without many choices. Don’t believe the hype. You need healthy boundaries in relationships to live such a life where “you take care of home,” ones that, once established, mean you are not just picking up random people off the street, abandoning the purposes/relationships most important to you, inviting any-ol’-body or any uninformed idea into your space, forging superficial closeness with people you do not know, and offering “mad love” for people and things that lack integrity.  This expression is about living your life on purpose and with purpose, even when it comes to love. And I must dutifully notice that black people, perhaps the most unloved people in the making of the modern world, have forged these highest ideals of love.  


Adinkra Symbol for "Wisdom Knot"

Adinkra Symbol for “Wisdom Knot”

My family also always told me two things: that a new fool wakes up each morning… and that they didn’t raise no fool when they raised me.  With these two expressions coupled together, you can see that there is an expectation that mainstream culture and values will make you stupid, reckless, undefined, and unthinking so there is a consciousness about raising a child against all that.  There is an embrace of wisdom here and a simultaneous distancing from the foolishness and non-sustainability that a socially unconscious system thrives on. nyansapoI am reminded here of the Akan Wisdom Knot, called Nyansa po, and its proverb which is roughly translated as: “The knot tied by a wise-woman cannot be undone by a fool.”  It seems worth noting that this symbol is so highly revered since it depicts someone who carries the ability to learn from her world and her experiences, a wisdom no one can undo.  I would like to think of myself as my family’s AND my history’s high-achieving student… one who is always learning and ready to apply the lessons.

There is a philosophical disposition that gets captured in an expression like “take care of home” in the two seeming opposite contexts I have described. It captures for me a kind of theoretical framework where I see black people deliberately countering consumerism, narcissistic self-indulgence, immaturity, the discarding of human bodies/labor/value, wealth as commodification, the acquisition of too much stuff (including people)— whether it is food, planting, family, or relationships.  What I see, hear, and feel in this expression is a black cultural view about purpose in one’s life AND an alternative definition for where and what love/sustenance is.