The Power of BlackWomenTalk When Due Process Just Don’t Do (Misogyny & Academic Culture)

When I was a little girl, I loved listening to grown Black women talk to one another.  Now granted, I was not supposed to be in earshot but I learned early on that if you played very, very quietly close by, pretended to be asleep, or hid underneath or behind something (porch, sofa, cupboard), you could be blessed with all of the details.  It was absolutely fantastic. They would talk about ev’rything AND ev’rybody: white folk, men, recipes, white folk, men, school, white folk, men, jobs, white folk, men, health, white folk, men, government, and the list goes on.  At least, that’s what my ears heard. My favorite women were the ones who cussed every sentence.  If they were outside, that’s when it was worth it to even hide in the carriage of a nearby truck to hear that stuff.  I’m surprised I never got caught but I was determined. Today, I am a grown Black woman and I get to join the talkin.  Life is good.

Academics sometimes like to think of these kinds of exchanges as informal. I’m thinking of a Black male scholar who thinks that when he adds statistics and NYTimes references to a conversation that is already in progress that he is elevating the discourse to the level of the intellectual and sociological. In reality, he’s just a nuisance who wasn’t invited into the conversation in the first place and so everyone is just waiting for him to leave so we can get back to the real talkin again. Blackwomentalk is NOT informal, it is NOT gossip, and it is NOT trivial.  It is a life-skill and if you are not part of it, your world will be all the more difficult to navigate.  Not all Black women are active participants since some are more interested in finding a position for themselves within white supremacy rather than really challenging and speaking against it.  But most of us get our BlackWomenTalk in.

Blackwomentalk is especially on my mind right now in the context of the sexual violence that has been legislatively and socially approved within the terms of toxic white/wealthy male culture.  Last week, I watched Bill Cosby‘s crusty butt be walked off in handcuffs while white men were not.  I also had to listen to Black men express more anger at Cosby’s persecution than his sexual assaults of women, though BlackWomenTalk had spoken for DECADES about the FACT that Cosby was always a flagrant womanizer who was NEVER faithful to Faithful Camille (we just didn’t realize how much he liked his women drugged and non-consenting).  Yes, I agree that Black men’s hyper-crimininalization goes hand-in-hand with their hyper-sexualization.  You don’t need a Ph.D. in history to know that. But the (implicit) argument that if white men can sexually assault women with legal impunity (which they can), men of color should be able to do so as well ain’t the kind of equality or justice I’m looking for. I am still enraged that a white man in Anchorage who choked an Alaska Native woman and then masturbated over her unconscious body was given no jail time. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find very many white man at any time in the history of the United States forced to serve time for sexually assaulting an Indigenous woman… or a Black woman. Men of color don’t serve time for assaulting Indigenous and Black women either, only when they assault white women. Somehow, these racialized facts around sexual violence and white settlerism have escaped most men’s of color discussions right now.  I then watched Christine Blasey Ford have to relive and retell her story of sexual violence with a level of respect for words, truth, carefulness, ethics, evidence, detail, and composure that was never performed by or even expected of her perpetrator, Brett Kavanaugh. I feel like I am back in college watching everyone (including Black folk) denigrate Anita Hill in favor of Clarence Thomas, even though Thomas (emphasis on the TOM and the ASS parts) has never done anything for Black folk.  Meanwhile, Kavanaugh’s toxic white masculinity— which has run the gamut of multiple allegations of sexual assault at Yale University and Georgetown Preparatory School to the performance he gave in his unbelievable (and unhinged) testimony— was cultivated by none other than SCHOOLING. In the midst of all of this, I was wading my way through allegations of sexual assault and other criminal activities here in New York City where yet again, schooling has maintained white male culture at all costs.  And even with all of these allegations of sexual assault, the response that I hear most often from male-professor-colleagues is a critique of the writing quality of the articles which broke the news, as if that is the most pressing issue right now. I’m amazed at how much violence this fall semester has already witnessed.  Now I am left reflecting on the ways BlackWomenTalk helps me to process and survive times like this… because these incidents are not new and this shit ain’t over.

When you can’t count on any institution to protect you, believe you, or even grant you full humanity, you have to work amongst yourselves. The very foundation of Black women’s labor in the United States— as in slave labor— is founded upon sexual violence as ENDEMIC to laboring.  It is no coincidence or historical accident that (sexual) assault against Black women is still illegible today to the very institutions that classified them solely as property with no rights to their own bodies.  This is why BlackWomenTalk is so important. We warn one another of impending danger because due process will rarely work in our favor.  The warnings that we give one another are rooted in an embodied, historical understanding that no one will rescue you.  This means, in REAL terms here, that I have never worked at an institution and NOT known which men were sleeping with their female students AND pushing up on the women faculty.  Never.  I even know who got caught in their offices with their pants down (I mean this literally) and which older white men have a penchant for the young women of color on campus.  I know white men who “coincidentally” publish DETAILED erotica about doppelgänger white male professors who sleep with undergraduate students (who look “coincidentally” just like our students). I have known Black women graduate students who were appalled at the way their male peers in graduate school took sexual advantage of the undergraduate first year women of color in their classes; no one— not even other women of color faculty— cared when those undergraduate women fell apart.  I can name the schools, the programs, and the admin because all still look and act the same today. That’s BlackWomenTalk. We know who to watch out for.  This won’t 100% protect you from predators, nothing can, but your story will always be told and HEARD. I also know who has sexual harassment complaints against them, pending & old, women & men, young & old, white & of color. I know which departments have holiday parties, free alcohol flowing freely, where undergraduates and masters’ students are invited to partake in the festivities and where the most “accommodating” of these young people get adjunct positions later. I can name those schools, those programs, and those admin TOO.  I can tell you about male faculty who bring their dates— sex workers— to campus with them for various events (I ain’t knocking the sex workers here and even suggest that they charge TRIPLE for the likes of these male faculty). I know the male faculty who regularly hook up with, stalk, and/or marry their female graduate students, sometimes before their deceased wives are even cold in the grave.  I can name the faculty and administrators who co-signed  these kinds of violences— which oftentimes includes women looking to rise up in the ranks; in all of these instances, many people knew what was going on, never did a thing, never said a word (in public), and actually propelled these perpetrators into higher positions of power. I could go on with this listing FOREVER.  These are just the regular routines of academic culture.  Only BlackWomenTalk has taught me that these things are not normal, not acceptable, not ethical… and that I don’t have to co-sign ANY OF IT!

I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I have been dismissed, mostly by male scholars, for addressing the issues that I listed in the previous paragraph with that same ol, tired argument about these being private, non-intellectual matters.  The argument usually goes something like this: who you sleep with has nothing to do with the politics and quality of your intellectual work.  It’s a lie. None of these men offer us anti-misogynist, anti-misogynoirist, anti-sexist, anti-patriarchal theory and scholarship.  NONE!   But if you are complicit in maintaining and ignoring misogyny, misogynoir, sexism, and western heteropatriarchy, then you won’t see anything wrong with scholarship that does the same.

While none of my stories here are “admissible” in “legal proceedings,” they are the only things that tell me how to protect myself and from whom.  As Audre Lorde reminded us years ago:

Women of Color in America have grown up within a symphony of anger at being silenced at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of a world that takes for granted our lack of humanness, and which hates our very existence outside of its service. And I say symphony rather than cacophony because we have had to learn to orchestrate those furies so that they do not tear us apart. We have had to learn to move through them and use them for strength and force and insight within our daily lives. Those of us who did not learn this difficult lesson did not survive.

BlackWomenTalk teaches me about the institutions that employ and surround me.  And now that I am grown, I am a full participant and I STAY on my job when it comes to talkin this BlackWomenTalk.  Due process may never bring us our due… but we have never been silent or complacent about the everyday realities of misogyny and sexual violence in our lives.

For Tiana & Black Children: AfroVisual/AfroDigital Love

8C8880633-tdy-130906-TianaParker2-tease.blocks_desktop_teaseLike most black women who I know, I was really upset this weekend when I saw the news coverage of beautiful, 7-year old Tiana Parker, a straight A student, as she shed tears when her school officials castigated her hair/locs!!  If you ever thought black hair could be politically neutral in our social world, then you may never truly understand these kinds of tears. After being continually harassed, Tiana’s father was forced to enroll her in a new school because her charter school banned all dreadlocks as inappropriate, calling Tiana’s locs a distraction from learning/thinking.

I talk/write/think a lot about the white violence and terror that black girls face in school and this example rocks me to my core.  I find myself remembering what E.M. Monroe wrote about her son’s (Miles) first day of kindergarten this fall in the post, “Models Monday: Black Boys, Trayvon Martin, and the Politics of Comfort.”  In the post, Monroe talks about the humanity of Ms. Malcolm, a teacher who can see Miles’s humanity:

I tell you, it was a damn good surprise to have someone who sees your black child as having a life worth preserving temporarily responsible for their keeping. She’s a model for how a person might demonstrate their liberal views: You want to prove to me that you aren’t racist, well then how about you showing me that you Always choose to be an Aide and not an Assassin.

Monroe captures brilliantly the kind of teacher and school that I think black children like Tiana so rarely experience.  It is clear to me that the adults at Tiana’s school belong to a kind of violent trajectory that Monroe discusses in this post that she relates to the murder of Trayvon Martin.  Make no mistake about it: this demonization of Tiana’s hair— a part of black bodies— belongs to the same ideology that demonized Trayvon Martin’s black body.

Like what Ms. Malcolm offered Miles, Dr. Yaba Blay offered Tiana and black women a similar kind of witnessing.  Dr. Blay’s response has been the most brilliant with her focus on Tiana’s spirit.   She created what she calls A care package of sorts. A digital book of photos and messages from 111 women and girls from all over the country and all over the world, all of whom wear their hair in locs, all of whom want Tiana to know that she and her hair are PERFECT.” The result is simply stunning (followed by a new facebook community).  Click on the digital booklet below that Dr. Blay left open for embedding and sharing across multiple platforms:

It’s an important reminder about the political power of healing and loving black children and the role of always offering them visual images for staking out who we are.  This digital care package also offers black communities a way to inhabit digital spaces outside of the white norms of collecting images and videos to showcase family consumption and bourgeois achievements— after all, that is the same kind of whiteness that left Tiana in tears.  E.M. Monroe and Dr. Blay offer us real images and processes of what it looks like to show and love black children in a digital age.  These are the only kinds of AfroVisual/AfroDigital spaces that can recognize our humanity.

“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.

No, You Can’t Touch My Hair: For Karina

Early this morning, I talked with one of my former students, Karina Ozuna, who was deeply disturbed.  She is trying to make sense of the current public art exhibit going on in Union Square in New York City called “You Can Touch My Hair.”

colonialdiscourse3As you can probably tell, places like twitter are all abuzz.  Like Karina, I understand the desire for a much needed dialogue about black hair but acting like these dialogues can just happen any ol’ where and any ol’ how and outside of discussions of particular sociohistorical experiences and political realities is problematic.  Those of us in NYC know that Union Square gets marked as a hip spot given the characters the park attracts, its radical history, the statue of Gandhi, and the close proximity to places like the New School and New York University.  However, you gotta also know that the rents in that area run at about $2500.00 per month for a small studio.  Yes, I said a studio apartment: one small bathroom, one small closet, and an open space (maybe 15X30 feet) that will include your kitchen.  What might it mean to be a black woman, standing in THAT space, holding a sign asking for folk to come feel on you?  While folk take pictures. This sounds like the neo-racial (usually misnamed post-racial) version of an auction block during slavery… mixed with the infamously racist exhibits at the 1893 World Fair (which celebrated Colored People’s Day by giving all African Americans a free watermelon)… mixed with the 19th century exhibits of and experiments on Sarah Baartman, otherwise known as Venus Hottentot (as depicted in the drawing above).  You really can’t deny the similarities here. Even the designer of the public art exhibit references her inspiration from a white female friend who likened her desire and curiosity to touch black hair with wanting to touch snake skin and rabbit fur.  I love Karina’s response to all of this:

I am assuming that she probably wants to start a dialogue on black hair, and it is usually the job of the oppressed or the objectified to educate the oppressor (paraphrasing Audre Lorde), but why should I have to educate people on my hair, or let people touch it at that? Why must my hair be viewed as “the other” or not the norm?  Why is it so hard to understand that our hair does not grow straight? It is curly, kinky and nappy. My hair grows up, not down, and that is not weird, odd, or abnormal; it is nature, it is an act of God.  This exhibit feels too much like a petting zoo for me, and I’m tired of us getting treated like animals.

I’m with Karina on this one.  I’m not interested in honoring white curiosity and I wonder about the black women who are: the all-consuming fascination with and desire for white attention and approval. I am certainly up for the challenge to interrogate white curiosity of my body but I’m not talking about the kind of interrogation where I trick myself out.  I think this exhibit might confuse too many folk into thinking they can just run up on black folk and cop a feel because, let me tell you this: if someone touches my hair who isn’t my partner, cousin/family, or sista-hairdresser, their fingers gon be mine! To her credit, I think the creator of the exhibit, Antonia Opiah at unruly.com, is willing to welcome such discussions, despite her totally ahistorical and apolitical dismissal of black people who consider the public spectacle of white people running their fingers through black hair an issue of an assumed ownership of black bodies (her response to that interpretation is that such an interpretation is: “extreme and likely written out of the anger and shock of their encounters.”)  What inspires me so much about Karina and her peers is that they do not seem to be missing the 200 years of history that situates this new World Fair happening in Union Square.

I am reminded again of Karla Holloway’s work.  Holloway keeps warning us that there can be no expectation of privacy for black female bodies in our current moment.  We are witnessing an almost automated public spectacle-making of black bodies with media cartels that offer us daily consumption of the likes of Flava Flav, Real Housewives, or Tyler Perry’s newest television shows.  It makes me very nervous when black women choose to forego noticing this reality Holloway describes and, instead, work to promote it. To Karina and all of her sisters and brothers in spirit: keep holding up that righteous indignation.  I am feelin’ you.

Impact of “Love is Blind”: “You Need to Elevate and Find”

Popular meme brilliantly critiqued by Deborah Cooper as a tactic used to control and entitlement to black women's bodies.

Popular meme brilliantly critiqued by Deborrah Cooper: even “good men” use this language when thinking they are entitled to black women’s bodies.

True to her promise, Deborrah Cooper promised to bring the rain even harder on her website after black men kept dismissing her comments about male sexist behavior.  For those who don’t know, Cooper’s videos, books, and blog are dedicated to black women and relationships with the kind of vibe where I feel like I am talking to that auntie, mother, cousin, grandmother, or godmother with the special knack to insert well-placed cusswords in an unrelenting reading of black men, misogyny, and relationships. If you know the kinds of women I am taking about, even when you don’t agree with Cooper, you will feel like you are on the frontporch on a hot summer day listening to womenfolk as they shake their heads at all of the foolishness they see. Recently, Cooper shared the story of one of her followers who was walking home from a grocery store in Brooklyn.  Cooper’s fan reports that she saw a black man arguing with a black woman and their two daughters with the daughters, little girls, fighting the dad off.  The man grew angrier and more violent so the sista watching called the police.  As she called the police, the black men on the block just stood there, watched, and laughed, with one pair of young men enjoying the show so much that they sat and ate a candy bar, fully engrossed.  Suddenly, about 15+ black girls, maybe in high shool, came along, saw what was happening, and poised themselves to give this man an old-fashioned beatdown.  If the police hadn’t come when they had, he would have gotten it even worse.  I find this image of black men looking on and laughing at a black woman being physically, publicly abused, along with her small daughters, deeply haunting and depressing.  A brother and comrade told me recently that he sees strong correlations between the rise of black male diatribes (i.e., all over youtube), the increase in violence against black women, and the onset of new numbers of white supremacist/KKK-offshoot groups since 2008 (before Obama became president, there were a little more than a 100 white hate groups and yet, after 2008, there were more than 1000.)  In an era of newfound white supremacy, violence against black women will inevitably steepen and increase, that’s the kind of history and world we live in.  And if bourgeois/capitalist culture incorporates black men, even if as coons (think Lil Wayne or Flava Flav’s television show), then it is inevitable that violence against black women will be the price of the ticket for that.  All women are objects under capitalism and black women will fare worst in those equations. This image of the 15 young black women ready for revolution is very striking and haunting, but perhaps, it was always a reality already in the making.

What I am suggesting here is that when I hear so many young black women in my classes still gravitate to and know the context, history, and lyrics of Eve’s 1999 “Love is Blind,” their discourse and memories are about more than just one song.  This is why I include “Love is Blind” in what I am calling the Political-Intellectual Canon of Young Black Women.  These lyrics feel like they are triggering a kind of lineage of blackwomenspeak and blackwomenthink about violence in our communities that students are building on:

This song, “Love is Blind,” is always voluntarily discussed by a black woman in my class whenever Hip Hop gets mentioned… without fail.  Every time. Interestingly though, I have not had students who particularly talk about Eve as a Femcee, only this song.  It’s all about the lyrics here:

Hey, yo I don’t even know you and I hate you
See all I know is that my girlfriend used to date you
How would you feel if she held you down and raped you?
Tried and tried, but she never could escape you
She was in love and I’d ask her how? I mean why?
What kind of love from a nigga would black your eye?
What kind of love from a nigga every night make you cry?
What kind of love from a nigga make you wish he would die?
I mean shit he bought you things and gave you diamond rings
But them things wasn’t worth none of the pain that he brings
And you stayed, what made you fall for him?
That nigga had the power to make you crawl for him
I thought you was a doctor be on call for him
Smacked you down cause he said you was too tall for him, huh?
That wasn’t love, babygirl you was dreamin’
I could have killed you when you said your seed was growin from his semen

Love is blind, and it will take over your mind
What you think is love, is truly not
You need to elevate and find…

I don’t even know you and I’d kill you myself
You played with her like a doll and put her back on the shelf
Wouldn’t let her go to school and better herself
She had a baby by your ass and you ain’t giving no help
Uh-huh big time hustler, snake motherfucker
One’s born everyday and everyday she was your sucker
How could you beat the mother of your kids?
How could you tell her that you love her?
Don’t give a fuck if she lives
She told me she would leave you, I admit it she did
But came back, made up a lie about you missing your kids
Sweet kisses, baby ain’t even know she was your mistress
Had to deal with fist fights and phone calls from your bitches
Floss like you possess her, tellin’ me to mind my business
Said that it was her life and stay the fuck out of it
I tried and said just for him I’ll keep a ready clip…

I don’t even know you and I want you dead
Don’t know the facts but I saw the blood pour from her head
See I laid down beside her in the hospital bed
And about two hours later, doctors said she was dead
Had the nerve to show up at her mother’s house the next day
To come and pay your respects and help the family pray
Even knelt down on one knee and let a tear drop
And before you had a chance to get up
You heard my gun cock
Prayin to me now, I ain’t God but I’ll pretend
I ain’t start your life but nigga I’mma bring it to an end
And I did, clear shots and no regrets, never
Cops comin’ lock me under the jail
Nigga whatever my bitch, fuck it my sister
You could never figure out even if I let you live
What our love was all about
I considered her my blood and it don’t come no thicker

1-soundwave-remix-finalI suspect the weight of this song rather than Eve’s person will become even more pronounced in the future since Eve has eclipsed any awareness of racism now that she is a celebrity …AND pregnant by her white millionaire British boyfriend— the race car driver, Maximillion Cooper.  See Denene Millner at My Brown Baby for a brilliant critique of Eve’s newfound colorblindness as the racial politics for raising her biracial child.  I am pretty confident that Eve’s song will continue to circulate in the annals of young black women’s memory and consciousness though Eve’s own politics and life story may not.

When I hear my students talk about “Love is Blind”– and when I think of the story from Cooper’s follower, the young women fighting back an abusive man on a Brooklyn street, and Cooper’s re-telling of violence against black women on her blog— I see a community of black women speaking into and against violence against them.  In a criminal (in)justice system where the men who rape and beat black women are treated SIGNIFICANTLY less harshly than when raping or abusing any and every other racial or ethnic group of women, it will be up to black women to (re)define justice and safety for their own bodies.  Certainly, no one else can or will do that for us.  When young black women know and discuss Eve’s song in my classes at no prodding of my own, this is the larger epistemological system that I know they are speaking into.