Year of the Thot: Sides and the Mains Who Despise Them

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After spending all of college in a couple of long, monogamous relationships, I naively decided that being a newly-single, newly degreed, twenties-something in New York City afforded me the freedom to explore who I was and what I wanted outside of being somebody’s girlfriend.  That didn’t last very long. A few loveless, titleless situationships later, I would realize that the gray zones I imagined would bring me freedom often were disempowering; that they typically deprived me of the courage to ask questions and make demands; that their lack of clarity was confusing and agonizing; and that they did not spare me of the hard work, vulnerability, and pain that is inherent in any kind of relationship–temporary or permanent, formal or informal, with title or without. I quickly fatigued from having to ask, “what are we?” Plus I discovered I really enjoyed the intimacy the situationships I entered into were devoid of–I realized I liked being the guardian of secrets; the woman you call about job promotions and deaths in the family; and knowing my partner’s deepest fears, Chipotle order, and how he spent this past weekend. Some women genuinely find happiness and fulfillment in casual, short-term, or/and non-monogamous relationships. But for me, my situationships, which were supposed to be so fun, were actually a lot of work, a lot of drama, and a lot of pain for a marginal amount of pleasure.

 

But I didn’t know that then.

 

Nine months into one such situationship, I discovered that the person I was with had a girlfriend of at least a year and a half. Perhaps had I imagined myself in something serious, I would have paid more attention to the red flags and left him long before such news could devastate, but what makes situationships work is a willed refusal to contextualize a person, a vow to not ask questions, to maintain low expectations, and to keep all armour on. I respect relationships. I love relationships. I would never intentionally participate in something that would hurt another human being. And because I am bad at allowing people into my life without eventually caring about them (which may end up being more of a virtue than a fault) I found myself feeling betrayed and lied to by a man that was not even mine.

 

I was more easily able to recover from my feeling betrayed, however, than my feeling embarrassed. Although I was not to blame, I carried around his infidelity like a shameful secret. Even writing this feels like I am breaking some kind of unspoken code. Wanting to remain above the fray, I never exposed this man for his misconduct; I never took any time to tend to the feelings I should have known better than to have; and I never defended myself from what I knew were assumptions about who I was and what I must believed in to have ended up in such a stupid mess. I quietly, “lady-like”ly, walked away, no busted windows out his car,  praying for a relationship that was clearly in need of repair and diverting my energy towards myself and what I could do differently moving forward. I figured that the folks who mattered would understand who I was and what I stood for, and though for the most part I was right, it stung that those things were ever in question.

 

I share all of this to say: you can be thotted without your permission and independent of who you actually are as a person.The words we use to categorize women are poor stand-ins for who women are and what they are worth. I am a work in progress, but I also am a smart, thoughtful, passionate, loyal, funny, dynamic woman who deserves love and respect and will be a damned good partner to any man who is fortunate to earn my commitment, but this man’s decision to position me as his side reduced me to less (well, at least in his eyes; I’m humbly pretty sure I am the shit). Furthermore, I would argue that I deserve respect even if I were not all of those things by virtue of being alive, that you do not earn the latitude to act like a hurtful jackass because you have decided a woman is dumb, shallow, immoral, promiscuous, or a gold-digger, and that you should simply walk away from people you cannot summon the energy to treat well.

 

There is currently a lot of cultural imagination devoted to punishing and ridiculing women for not being girlfriends and wives, whether they are Olivia Pope, V. Stiviano, Bambi, or K.Camp’s easily cut off “bird,” but no corollary for men. Whether they are cheating or are boyfriend # 2, everyone understands that men are much more than who they are and the stupid decisions they make in relation to the people they are dating or sleeping with.

 

Men are not the only ones responsible for perpetuating the wifey-side divide. “Good women” are deeply invested in otherizing women they think are unworthy because they derive a false sense of safety and self-esteem from the belief that if they behave and play by the rules, they will be accorded the respect they crave. Here’s the rub: mains and sides have a whole lot in common; they are both spending a lot of time and energy on a man who does not love them back, or at least loves them in the emptiest, unhealthiest, most dishonest way he can. We women, as much as men, believe that if a “side” or a “thot” is manipulated, abused, or disrespected, she “knew what she was getting into” and deserves it. I assure you there is no boyfriend #2 in the universe who carries around such low expectations for himself and how he is treated, however sloppy, stupid, or immoral the romantic or sexual arrangement he signs up for is.

 

I also am fed up with people’s nostalgia for the good ole time when “sides” and “thots” knew their place. And their place, for clarity, is somewhere hidden and quiet. We culturally are very angry at women who dare to loudly and brazenly announce their status as other thans. We are angrier at them than the men who transgress. To be clear, I do not think there is anything joyful or free about being considered or treated unworthy, but my concern is not about women’s audacity to break rules. Those rules were not written by or for women and they are designed to make sure we lose in a game we do not particularly enjoy playing, even when we are “wifeys” and “mains”. So, no, Chris Brown, they ain’t loyal nor should they be: there is no winning by playing along with these stupid rules. What has Brown or other men offered in exchange for their ride-or-dieship, their silence, their good behavior, their loyalty? A “thot” who knows her place will still, in the eyes of the world and the man she is dealing with, be a “thot” and earn no compensation in the end for what Rico Love wants us to believe is some sort of honor–for “not talking like a lame bitch,” “keep[ing] it cool,” “staying patient,” and “play[ing] your post.” (Do y’all not see how insane this all is??)

 

Prime example. While some are truly concerned about Donald Sterling’s racism, there are a whole lot of folks at least in my newsfeed who are unconcerned that Staviano was subject to his misogynistic and racist abuse because afterall, she is a “side” and therefore has waived her right to common decency and respect. They are actually quite pissed that his “side” talked and that Sterling’s empire has potentially been toppled by “nothing but a thot.” See how “sides can ruin your life” if you don’t “keep them in check,” they muse. How sick is that? Your investment in sexism prevents you from holding the actual violator accountable and deprives you of your ability to see and call out racism for what it is. Not to mention the folks chiding “thots” for identifying with Maya Angelou’s homage to “phenomenal” women. I’m sorry, is there a moral litmus test for those who want Ms. Angelou’s poem and legacy to resonate? Ms. Angelou was an imperfect woman who adored imperfect women. Have the gatekeepers of Ms. Angelou’s art subjected themselves to their own test?

 

I am not arguing that we as a community of humans bear no responsibility for the relationships around us. Infidelity hurts and we should be held accountable for whatever role we play in it, but focusing so much energy on the “sides” distracts from calling out the people who are actually in  relationships, who made real promises of honesty and commitment, who everyday contend with the humanness of you and for whom you are more than a theoretical existence–the people who remember your birthdays and eat in your kitchen and hear the stories of your bad days–but still decide to violate agreed-upon terms, thereby injuring, betraying, and humiliating you. They, and the brokenness of your relationship, are as much if not more your concern than the “thots,” and cheating, those who cheat, and those who help cheat, are much more complicated than we want to believe.

 

I am somebody that will likely be considered somebody’s “wifey” or “main”, but I understand, as should we all, how empty that designation is in a world of false dichotomies. Men benefit from us believing that Good Girls get wifed and Bad Women get thotted. The whole system would fall apart tomorrow if we women believed that we, just like the men who sow their wild oats in college but still rightfully believe they will be somebody’s good husband when they are ready to be (all the while stupidly devoted to the hypocritical belief that “hoes can’t be turned into housewives”) were more than whatever category some man decided to put us in–and that their apathy, their violence, their disregard, their disrespect, their infidelity were reflections of their deficits and not our worthiness. Women, just like men, are more than who they sleep with or the title they choose or are casted; their sexual identity is a breathing, evolving thing and their sexual past need not be an ironclad predictor for their sexual future; and the language we use that reduce us to who we are in the context of men–”thot,” “side,” “main,” “wifey,”– benefit no one. Women don’t have to be well-behaved wifeys to be fabulous, dynamic, beautiful human beings deserving of respect and worth. Opting out of monogamy is not necessarily lack of self-respect, and even when women are actually  in unhealthy or lopsided relationships, we should offer them our advocacy, not our censure. There is no excuse to throw away our sisters–designate them as permanent, less than human “thots”–in a way we would never do our brothers.

 
I am over it. The whole thing. I unfortunately can’t change the fact that our world is obsessed with revoking women  from the country of Wifeyness to permanently exile her to the country of Thoticca without even due process, but I can decide whether or not to play by the dumb ass rules. The solution is not to force everyone into relationships. Some, unlike me, find happiness in situationships, gray zones, and whatever variation of a relationship that exists. The solution is to conceive of your duty to treat others civily as not contigent upon who others are but reflective of who you are. I am working hard to be the woman and human being I want to be and trying not to break any bones or hearts while I do so. Which means I might have to take off my cool, risk getting hurt, and hold myself accountable to other people’s feelings. Big ups to the other human beings on that same journey.

Slave to a Page in My Rhyme Book: Confessions of a Roosted Chickenhead

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I don’t often think of my father as free, but those moments in his car, with his music bumped up too loud, he was a falcon with wild velocity in his wings. There was the older cassette recordings of Ray Charles; the cherubic sounds of an early Michael Jackson; one particular James Ingram song I would misremember for a decade; a heavy dose of funk, and sometimes, no voice at all, but instrumentals that would light up his whole dashboard. I was in his car when, by the end of my parents’ marriage and of a whole lot of other parts of the life they had built together, his playlist dwindled down to this one gospel song that he played and replayed like a panicked ghost of a mantra.

In that car was where I first heard that Biggie Smalls had been slain, shot down, on the morning radio news.

And in a car, a different car, but still driven by my father, when we drove on a roadtrip for a last summer as a whole family, my mom found me a battered copy of The Bluest Eye at a roadside bookstand. A book which of course scared and delighted the shit out of 10-year-old  me: I was hijacked by the revelation that black people, black women, maybe even I, could talk, write, sing our lives and those stories could be beautiful.

All of that may sound unrelated–like a string of stories linked only by the cars my father drove--but hear me out. When they ask me why I love hip-hop, how I could love it, particularly my mother and my aunt–women who had taught me fierceness, resistance and solitude in the kitchens and living rooms of my growing up, I tell them that: how the way I loved sound was almost a blood inheritance; how I love language, the way it can punch the stomach out of you, its violence, its seduction, its rhythm, the way it makes the real realer; and I’ll tell them that hip-hop was the natural evolution, not contradiction, of what got birthed in the passenger seats of cars.

 For me, hip hop was the first album I got–The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill–and the first album I bought–Warren G’s Return of the Regulator–mix tapes; summer hits; the classics but also what landed on nobody’s curated playlist. It was Missy in that trashbag suit folding under the pendulums; Busta, Luda, Outkast; the fire in a young T.I.’s eyes as he told the world he was serious; Trick, Old Dirty Bastard, Redman, Freeway; Trina’s queendom, beef between greats, miss fat booties, bored car rides when there’s nothing left in this country town for you; and leaning against the walls of dorm rooms that reek of wet perms and cheap liquor. Hip-hop is Jean Grae whispering your heart out of hiding like a modern Nina Simone, Cam’ron respinning the songs that float down the block from old folks’ barbeques, and if you didn’t already know who Common was  talking about, y’all, it was hip hop. I am nobody’s MC or scholar, but I know what gets in the sinews andunder my skin. For better or worse, intended or not, I am as much hip hop as hip hop is me. But let me also tell you this: my affair with hip hop is the most loveless one-way street I have ever traveled.

Because hip hop sure as hell does not love me.

Part of why it has been so hard for me and others to speak up is because for those who love the art, calling out the music can feel like like treason and trespass. It can feel futile, like telling folks the sun is warm and this country is unequal. And it can also feel incredibly corny.

I can’t explain it in any other way but this: there is an art to catching fireflies. You have to hold the jar just so, let them come to you, close the lid fast enough, tight enough. I still remember those hot-as-shit summer nights at my grandma’s, how the light would dart in and out of trees like old Christmas bulbs on a tangled cord, how our screams would fall all around us as we ran to catch as many of the bugs as we could before we were called in, and the way our shadows lengthened up and down her red dirt driveway. But of course the real lesson in all of this was what happened when we set our jars down: no matter how many holes we punched into the metal lid, we would wake up to what had become an airless tomb, feeble light bleeding down the rim and along the curved edges; however earnest our awe, however tender our care, a jar was no place for fireflies.

And that is what writing hip-hop feels like. I have been writing and rewriting my lovehate letter to the music for probably as long as I have known I could do so, and that letter has always felt incomplete, hollow, wrong, like the tourist map to the city, or some other version of not quite what I wanted. As it turns out, hip-hop cannot be written about like a moment or a movement or a thing you can feel around the edges of: you have to start the story with you, you have to hang your whole neck out on the line, you have to story it like a relationship, like dialogue, like a moving, breathing light that will die overnight in your jars.

The challenge, it seems, is singing the pain in an octave that can be heard over the din of others who are here to to injure the music, silence it, kill it. Critiquing hip-hop lands you in a room full of people you would not trust to tie your shoes and is the surest way of being misheard. The genre is rightfully defensive in a world more poised to blame black suffering on hip-hop than the poverty, racism, and state violence that inspires the music in the first place; and has, for better or worse, become the figurative barbershop for mostly brown and black men to just be when other institutions and spaces, including those guarded by the black intelligentsia, deny them entrance, let alone a position and voice at the table. I know, have witnessed, even lived what it is for a song on the radio to keep you afloat, for the music to find your letters and read each one out loud. All this gets to the real danger of being a black woman who wants to sit hip-hop down and tell it about itself: we are not extraterrestrials, but we come in peace and we’re gonna have to hurt the feelings of some folks we call family.

Radio hip-hop is not all that the music is and nuance is important here, but delicacy can also distract and silence the cultural interrogation the genre deserves. Honoring hip-hop’s turns and twists, its underground, and its wonderful exceptions should not rob me of language to talk about the way hip-hop as a whole has also been riddled with fantasies of killing, raping, trading women like collateral in ego wars, metaphorizing their vaginas as upholstered furniture, cars, and the bodies of slaves; and telling them they are ugly and worthless and nothing but the sum of unrealistically proportioned parts. I need the language to be able to point out the worst of the music, but also the subtle ways we women are told and have been told we ain’t shit in even the sweetest of love songs, by the most “conscious” of artists. Not to mention the industry’s staggering scarcity of mainstream video directors and MC’s and the steep price women who do brave it out must pay, whether they are hip-hop journalists, directors, video stars or rappers, or are listeners, fans or lovers. I’m tired of my back being the prop for some lazy or wack rapper with a semi-hot beat to rest his enfeebled manhood on. This is not just about my hurt feelings: I’m tired of folks feeling safety and solace in and disguising what is otherwise lack of talent in throw-away lines that shit on me. There is no courage or novelty about shitting on black women. To be a black girl in this world, to get out of bed with this crazy idea that we can love and be loved ,that there is beauty and worthiness in ourselves is a radical act of war, and if you are a poor, black girl, it is a Godless prayer. If any form of artistic expression were as committed to dismembering, disrespecting, and dismissing black men as hip hop is to black women, we would appropriately boycott and protest it into accountability. And black women would be front and center of such a movement.

I stand in full solidarity with the folks who have decided that the only way to wake up the hip hop industry is to boycott it. I also understand the folks who have decided that turning off the radio is the only way to heal. Some have met firewalls after decades of speaking out, against and for the music that once entranced and now holds them hostage.  But I’ll speak for myself when I say I’m not going anywhere. Hip-hop is mine and I want to be there to hold it to the fire. I want music that confronts the full range of who women are. I want it to stare us in our eyes, love and hate us the hard way, for it not to erect bruised egos from the ashes of the broken and the voiceless. I want courage, creativity, honesty. Another kind of song to shake my ass to. I want more. Misogyny in hip-hip is only partially about us not owning the labels and the stations; and only partially about an industry organized around satiating white suburbia’s appetite for black nihilism; this shit is also deeply about us: about our pathologies that keep us alive but broken in a racist, capitalist world and, more specifically, about us not loving our black girls enough. Which is metaphor for the other ways we don’t stand up for and defend our black girls; the way we don’t march for them or create institutes for them or statuses about them. If I hear another lazy recitation about how upwardly mobile black girls are outpacing black boys in college enrollment as a defense for why black women aren’t dying and in need of our own kind of saving, I will scream.

So I’m sticking with hip-hop but I am going to pledge to be the biggest pain in the ass I can find the energy to be and I’m asking all my other hip-hops heads, especially my brothers, to be the same. There should be commercial consequences, editorials, hot-seats, unbought albums, sunken chart spots–a culture of accountability– for these knuckleheads (even, perhaps especially, for the talented, deep knuckleheads) because power does not cede to thoughtful blog posts or polite black student union discussions. Nah, bruh, you cannot swipe a credit card down my ass, literally reduce me to a transaction, and offer up some bullshit excuse about the video starlettes being well-paid, consenting adults. Don’t joke about sneaking drugs in my drink; you ain’t beating my box up like Mike nor will I eat the cake; and you’re not putting a fist in me like a civil rights sign. Fuck. Out. Of. Here. What I’m asking for is hip-hop womanism to not only come in glossy, hard-covered books and not only from professors and right-wing politicians: the interventions have to be conversations but also failed business deals, pissed off Black Twitter, and cancelled concerts; and it has to happen in rooms full of nothing but men; studios, barbershops, concert halls, clubs, bedrooms, and during those long drives from one city to the next–if not to change an industry, then at least to change the signals we send our black girls about their beauty, their value, and how much their lives matter. I want people to feel more urgent about the existence of black women and girls–in our activism, in our love, and in our songs.              

If Nipsey Hussle can sell a $100 mixtape to rebel “against an industry that has tricked us all into making products that have no soul for fear of not being heard” and Beyonce can independently release a surprise album to bridge what “gets between the music, and the artists and the fans”–that is, if artists can stand up to the music industry in defense of their art–they can also stand up just as courageously for other things I care about–women, but also queer folks, anti-racism, freedom. This could be a good era for music, but only if we demand it.

An Ode to Women Who Are Difficult to Love


 

 

 

“…and you tried to change didn’t you?

closed your mouth more

tried to be softer

prettier

less volatile, less awake…

[but] you are terrifying

and strange and beautiful

something not everyone knows how to love…”

–Warsan Shire, “For Women Who Are Difficult to Love”

(for more of her beautiful poetry, check out her blog!)

If anything, I am an accidental lady and probably not even a lady at all. It took me years to forgive that about myself. And many more years to decide, with some relief, that in this world, where pearls and polite politics and the freak we keep out of the streets won’t save us, what we need more than ladies is women.

 

There are those scratches in every generational record (or whatever is the less anachronistic analogy) and for me, the collective reaction to Rihanna’s pummeled face one morning almost four years ago was all the glitch I needed to send my otherwise taken-for-granted politics spinning.

 

She must have done something to make him hit her, folks concluded. You know she’s crazy. People entangled themselves in intellectual gymnastics, ready to convict Rihanna of a crime no one, not even Chris Brown, had accused her of, or to diagnose her of a mental illness no one, not one specialist, had tested her for–all so they wouldn’t have to confront the one thing that could be said with certainty: Rihanna had been hurt that night.

 

Rihanna’s subsequent behavior not so unusual of many survivors of relationship violence or even just of the very young–her vacillating attraction to Chris Brown; her purported substance abuse; her loudly sexual expressionism–was taken to be all the evidence people needed to conclude that somehow Rihanna deserved what she got. See, they insisted, she’s one of those girls.

 

Then, Rihanna had the nerve to commit the most cardinal of sins. Though she wasn’t who called emergency responders the night of her attack, and perhaps would have bled on the side of an empty highway before she did so, Rihanna was the one who decided not to remain quiet about the assault later. She’s ruining his career, people complained as Rihanna finally decided to open up about a horror many others hide under wide-rimmed sunglasses and long-sleeved turtlenecks. Can’t she just take the quiet, moral high road? That is, can’t she be more of a lady?

 

I, as much if not more than the rest, believe in forgiveness and redemption and realize that healing should mostly occur between Rihanna and Chris Brown if it hasn’t already, but the public discourse around that attack, even many years later, worries me. The lessons I learned from Rihanna are these: only a certain kind of woman deserves the dignity of being described as victimized and when she is hurt, there is an expected code of conduct. At the heart of those rules are anxieties about presentation and performance. Don’t be hurt too loudly or too long at the embarrassment or inconvenience of those who have hurt you, particularly if you who are hurting are black women and those who are doing the hurting are black men.

 

Along different, but interrelated lines, I have always been frustrated by the critique of “video hoes” who have the audacity to air their sexual exploits. Men of the entertainment industry are rarely censured for the ways they openly expose the women they are sleeping with–no objection there to their loose-lipped braggadocio. The moment those women attempt to take part in and transform the narrative, we punish the Kat Stacks and Karrine Steffans for outing men with marriages and reputations to preserve. The same is true of the mistresses, escorts, and sex workers of other kinds of famous men.  I am not arguing those women provide a model example of empowerment or entrepreneurship, but I am curious about this how dare she talk objection. There is a one-sided code here that we pretend is about dignity and self-respect, about doing what is right.  Ladies never tell. Whether the sex is consensual or not, whether the story has already been revealed or not, women are only supposed to the victims of the telling, not the tellers themselves.

 

If you are a woman, your deservedness of empathy, defense, and safety is tied to your success at performing “ladylikeness” and is a luxury that is hard to earn and easy to lose. One unveiled nipple or one video featuring stylized body fluids and a whole legacy of beautiful, fearless, artful living hangs in the balance. Certainly, there are rules for being a “good man” and a “gentleman,” but they don’t offer nearly as punishing and fragile a membership nor are they as determinative of human worthiness. Breaking the rules of being a lady can not only be socially disadvantageous, but downright dangerous.

 

The unspoken contract of ladylikeness is not only unfair, but it also pacifies with false promises. The truth is bad fates are meted out to “ladies” and “good” women as much as to the “deviants”, the “sluts”, the “hoes”, the “bitches” and the “ratchets”.  Pretending that oppression is justified by the failings of the oppressed is easy distraction from the misconduct of the oppressor in the way other forms of respectability politics have never saved our black boys; even when our boys pull up their pants, stitch together the brokenness of their English, shape themselves around white phobia like tortured clay, they can still be shot in their own cars under the dim light of their own driveways. Similarly, your skirt could be the right length; your faith could be biblically obedient; you could suffer in silence and sacrifice with enthusiasm; your politics could be dainty; your orgasms could be collateral accidents of your polite sex; you could be quiet, light, small, poised, dignified, neat, clean, stoic–whatever it takes to be easy to regard and love–and still be visited upon with as much violence, betrayal, and disrespect as the next woman.

 

The cult of ladyhood is a fraudulent buy that can also strip women of their power, their resources, and their joy. The scandal is that not only has male sexism driven we “whores” into the dank corners of our Madonna-ness; but also the so called spaces erected to protect us from male sexism–sister circles; anti-violence support groups; our loving mothers, aunts, and sisters; and some feminism and womanism that insists upon a singular image of what empowerment must look like.

 

For most of us, there are so many iterations of a Rihanna in our daily lives. We all have encountered hundreds, if not thousands, of women on our college campuses, in our offices, and at our Bookclub Thursdays that are in grief or are in danger and spell out their vulnerabilities in the many languages ladies forbid themselves to hear or speak, whether it is publically toxic relationships or sexuality that screams, and so many of us–and in my biased sample set, particularly other women–are so fixated on policing the unladylike ways in which women hurt, that we find ourselves terrible advocates for those who need our courage the most.

 

The silence that ladylikeness commands has also seduced men and women, but again in my biased sample set, mostly women, to believe in the myths about female sexual desire. Recent science is calling into question the biological absolutism of tropes that have held us hostage to the ideas that women do not lust as much as men; that they are more inclined to monogamy; and that they must be coaxed, coddled, coerced into the sex they otherwise would not want. The women who crave, explore, and vocalize about sex find their distinct kind of punishment, but  women suffer generally whether they do or do not follow the rules. I imagine a world in which women and men are taught to tend to their desires absent the shame. I imagine a world in which together they rewrite the rules of their partnerships–rules that are moored onto their own tailored truths and wants instead of the fantasies of what they should believe and crave. I imagine a world in which their ability to demand and evolve in bed offer a fertile analogy for the ways a brave, confident self can also negotiate happiness in whatever workplaces, courtrooms,  sandwich assembly lines, and sidewalks they find themselves on or in.

 

As an antidote to what I guess is my disease of singleness, I have been told that my strong beliefs intimidate men and that I should keep some of my voice to myself. I have also been told that what makes me dynamic renders me an excellent candidate for love affairs that married men think fondly about, but a poor choice for marriage itself. I cannot imagine I am the only woman that has been told she must quiet, calm, and settle down–be more of a lady–before she is acceptable enough to be wifed. As if fierce, smart, opinionated, creative, vocal, ambitious women can’t be good partners and a happy, stable marriage must be reduced to a stale, joyless arrangement one sacrifices selfhood to have. How many times has pop culture settled love triangles by telling men to take home the “good woman” that bores him to tears ( Chris Rock’s “I Think I Love My Wife”) or have punished the women who dare to want men who excite them? There is something dangerous, volatile, and unmarriable, we seem to believe, about the women who aren’t quite ladies and who own up to not quite ladylike desires. And I can only imagine that some of the ghosts of hetero-love also haunt queer love. I would argue, or at least hope, that life is too long for all of that and that the most durable union is one between partners who will challenge each other and evolve together.

 

I, like many, admire the Michelle Obama and Claire Huxtable flow. But I’m hoping that what I love about Michelle is not only her structured coats and coifed hair. The woman is a BOSS on so many levels. I’m hoping what I love about Claire is this and this and this. I am hoping that those two women are paradigms not because they play well and behave, but because we recognize the full force of who they are. The reasons why we cannot always fetichize ladyness and encourage fierceness in our girls at the same time is that there will be moments in their lives in which they are called upon to be women in contradiction of the rules of being a lady and I at least hope that females feel no conflict in choosing to be the women they and the world need. We should trust that when we raise confident, empowered, fully themselves women, that what we covet about ladies–poise, tact, and style–can come from other, perhaps deeper, places than convention. Not all women find their liberation in announcing and pronouncing themselves and in fact find solace and authenticity in the spaces ladyness creates. That is fine. I love that. I’m not asking to refurbish the rooms we have. I want to create new ones. In addition to the women who earn our respect and adoration for their appropriate hemlines and perfect posture, we need women who will stand out and stand up. We need women with big hair and red lipstick and hoops. We need women of defiance. We need women who sometimes cuss and shit and uncross their legs and make love but also fuck–on their own terms, for their own pleasure, without apology. We need the Frida Kahlos, the Billie Hollidays, the Ella Bakers, “Ain’t I A Woman,” the baggy pants- and-eyepatch Aaliyahs, and the TLC that wears condoms like political statements and fashion accessories. Not only should those women exist–they always will!–but we need to further develop the imagination and the language to adore and respect them.  To you wild shrews, you “impossible highways” and “burning houses,” you women that are “so [damn] difficult to love,”–you too deserve safety, justice, partnerships and this is my ode to you.

 

Five Star Friday

Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf(pack)?: The Dangers of Racial Phobia

In 1996, criminologist John  Dilulio offered the country a grave prognosis: “superpredators,” a new brand of “hardened, remorseless juveniles,” who were mostly black and poor, would spring up from their “fatherless, Godless, and jobless” homes and besiege the nation with a wave of “impulsive violence.”

 

Less than five years later, Dillulio, armed with a change of heart and a refreshed look at his data, tried to redact his now-discredited theory, but the country was already transfixed. Bracing for the apocalypse that never materialized–juvenile crime in fact halved almost immediately in the years after Dillulio issued his warning–legislators raced to enact some of the most punitive laws against children, aimed at everything from dismantling the juvenile justice system to making young teens eligible for the death penalty. ”I couldn’t write fast enough to curb the reaction,” Dillulio lamented. There was no unringing a bell that sounded loudly over fact, reason, and basic compassion.

 

While we now rightly interpret the Superpredator Myth as indicting our vulnerability to the incestuous way science, politics, and the media often collude, we should also wrestle with how the Myth is located on a painfully extended chronology of other crime myths. Every generation, it seems, has its own lore about the rising danger of poor, black youth–lore that lacks, if not flouts, fact. Post-Reconstruction America proffered the noose as its solution to the “growing” menace of freed black men raping white women; in 1989, five young boys languished in prison for thirteen years after being wrongfully convicted of a brutal rape by an America reeling in hysterics over “wilding,” an NYPD-created term to describe roving gang activity; and today, legislators are pressing for a mandatory 25-year sentence for the alleged swarms of young, black boys engaged in the “knock-out game”.

 

Pretending that the patterned criminalization of black youth is merely historical misstep–part of the bumpy evolution of criminogenic science working to correct itself towards a more perfect truth–is to dance around questions that admittedly indemnify. We need to ask why these racial myths are so infectious and enduring–every time and in defiance of truth. We need to ask what anxieties they answer and assumptions they seem to confirm. And then we need to ask the hardest questions–what does it mean for a nation to be organized around racial phobia, to enact harsh laws, erect barbed-wired fences and arm its citizens in preparation for the looming danger of who we imagine black youth to be and what we imagine their capabilities are? And what are the collateral consequences for asking black boys and girls to shoulder the social tax for our illusions of safety? We must reckon with the idea that our discourse about crime and public safety is also a veiled conversation about racial fears and is as profoundly part of American storymaking as apple pie and the dream.

 

After George Zimmerman was acquitted for his killing of young Trayvon Martin, the part of me that editorializes was broken–I literally decided I was “sick”–so I did more listening than talking. What I heard was at least two Americas. With important exceptions, Black America heard the verdict and obsessed about broken promises. As a trick of survival, we raise our black children to master the art of allaying white fears. Learning to talk, walk, smile, move slowly, succeed humbly, brave insult and violence in silence so that white people are comfortable, or not learning those things and suffering the consequences, is how we black children learn we will or will not graduate, get jobs, buy houses, be of worth, survive (blogger Tressie McMillion Cottom calls this “whistling Vivaldi”). When Trayvon Martin, a “good” kid, died like a “bad” kid–he was shot for being an intruder in a neighborhood he belonged in; his body sat in a morgue for two days like a John Doe criminal; his legacy was riddled with accusations of being a thug for what is otherwise typical adolescent behavior; and then his killing was treated with state indifference by everyone from the coroner to police to prosecutors to a jury–black Americans either concluded there was nothing in its power to keep its children safe or that the rules of survival had to be adjusted for a new racial landscape.  The white Americans that were not as heartbroken about the verdict fell into two camps. Some trusted that the legal process worked and there was nothing left to protest; while others imagined George Zimmerman as a beleaguered anti-hero, a man who finally stood up to the black violence that political correctness forbids them to talk about. The post-trial conversations that traveled across the boundaries of those two foreign Americas only whispered what each of them was shouting privately about on their own turf: this case was about the fear of black children.

 

Rarely does legal doctrine offer a productive way of thinking and talking about justice, but for the reasons above, I thought it was perfect that the Zimmerman verdict boiled down to the question of reasonable fear. That the jury had to mull over the question of whether fear was reasonable doomed the state’s case from the start: when, as cultural tradition, we are seized by a fear of black children that is as old as the country is new, it would be hard for people to imagine that Trayvon, a boy this country is more used to fearing than allowing the luxury of feeling fear, was afraid that night; that he was walking alone in the dark, felt cornered, and fought for his life. The jury was much more poised to imagine Zimmerman’s fear: Trayvon looked like every child-turned-monster it has feared before. I know this kid, they must have thought. I know what this type is about. Trayvon was every man they had seen on the news; heard failing statistics about; and crossed streets for. The reasonable standard in fact invites bias: it presupposes that everyone has access to norm-setting mechanisms–we do not–and that norms are arrived at through consensus and common sense–they are not. Fear of black children is only “reasonable” because it is pervasive, not because it is rational or right.

 

Since the Zimmerman trial, other black youth have died from racial phobia and the need to talk about fear has become that much more urgent. Jonathan Farrell survived a terrible car accident, sought help for his injuries, and was shot by a police officer who saw a criminal instead of a victim. Similarly, Renisha McBride walked away from a car crash, headed towards an affluent neighborhood for assistance, and had her face blown away by a man who presumed the worst of her intentions. Fear is the first instinct meted out to the black and young; and the victimized are then burdened with having to undo those suspicions, which can so quickly become fatal.

 

Stereotyping sounds too hallow here, too innocent, too universal an impulse–like assuming blonds are dumb and poets can’t do physics. But what is happening is so much more pernicious. It is also deadly when carried out to its logical extreme and deadening in even in its smallest, most everyday form.

 

One night many years ago in a neighborhood I have sinced moved out of, my roommate returned to our apartment trembling. While walking home, he sullenly announced, cop cars had surrounded him from all sides. Officers lept out of their cars, inched towards him, and yelled orders, all while pointing their drawn guns. He froze knowing that one wrist twitch could mean his death.

 

My roommate had only been doing a load of clothes at the nearby laundromat.

 

Apparently, he resembled a profile of someone who had committed a nearby robbery. I have wondered since that night what that profile could have been aside from young, black, and male and how many others those officers harassed before they found their true suspect.

 

For the most part, I have packed that memory away as the basic indignity of living in an overpoliced neighborhood, but it has floated back to relevance now more than ever and joined the many other stories I have either lived or heard about black children butting against a fear that hurts them, cuts them down to size, humiliates them, makes them feel powerless.

 

That’s what missing from whatever few conversations the nation is openly having about racial fear–we are constantly interrogating what it means to be the one accused of fearing. No one asks the variant of the W.E.B. Dubuis question: ‘how does it feel to be a problem’? In our case, how does it feel to be so feared, to have your blackness already work towards a case of your suspiciousness, to have your body be calculated as an automatic weapon worth countering with bullets? Although former Mayor Bloomberg has described stop and frisk of the innocent black and brown as a mere inconvenience, the law has decided that unintentional discrimination is unworthy of litigation, and we have accepted as a way of life the cab that doesn’t stop, the store clerk that follows, and the woman that crosses the street at night, we truly do not know the cumulative effects of all those microaggressions: the psychological toll of constantly being suspected and feared has not been studied nearly enough.

 

Well-intentioned folks with quiet bias have found comfort in Reverend Jesse Jackson’s confession that he too feels afraid of being robbed when he hears black men following him on the street; it should horrify us–not in a way that condemns Jackson, but in a way that gives us pause about just how crazy this all is. The message that black youth are scary, dangerous, and criminal has so successfully wooed us all, even folks of color who have access to daily counterexamples find themselves believing it. I ache to think that we have generations of black children so convinced of their own deviance, they not only fear the hunter, but the big bad wolves in themselves; that they coil into themselves in Oedipal fear of becoming just who they have been told they are.

 

Clearly, I am prioritizing the instances in which fear is wrong. In this country, black males over-represent as the perpetrators and the victims of violent crimes; violence in America is real, harrowing, and devastating; and fearing feels like the common-sense, probability-sanctioned response in a world that can often feel like a horrible, dangerous place to stake an existence in. Being told that we may need to unarm ourselves of fear may sound like being asked to box without gloves. Even if racial fear is outsized, many argue, even if it holds us captive to myths, and even if some neighborhoods must feel terrorized and some children must die, that is the social tax that keeps us and our families safe.

 

I am asking that we question the logic and the justice of that contract between safety and freedom at every step.

 

In this world and in particular this country, bombs can drop; buildings can fall; and the hallways of of our elementary schools can ricochet with bullets from any of the many sick, angry, and hopeless amongst us. Despite of all that, we are challenged to live lives of meaning–to change tires, find love, and seek promotions in days that with high probability could be our last. We are in fact well accustomed to live in the face of danger. When our safety measures only fall on the backs of a select subset, however, when the few are asked to suffer greatly for the slight comfort of the many, and that subset is in other ways less powerful and more voiceless, we will never be held accountable. We will never have to recallibrate or question the balances we have struck to avert danger. And this argument only assumes that when we are talking about public safety, we are talking about public safety.

 

The extent to which people are so consumed with a racial fear that stands the test of time and truth also means that we are holding onto our right to fear like we hold on to blankies or our belief in Santa Clause–except the variety that maims and kills: they do us no good and we don’t deserve them and it’s killing our children to keep them.

 

Our racial phobia is not only unduly burdensome to this country’s second class citizens; and not only the fantasy that is too expensive to keep; it also erects a world unworthy of living in. When I decide to start a family of my own, I don’t want to raise soldiers for a war no one ever wins. I want them to find pleasure in who they are and who they can be. I want my child to be afforded the right to life, but also to die with as much humanity we can muster.

 

Fear may be our birthright; but courage will have to be our destiny.  

When Bad Things Happen to Beautiful Minds

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For lack of a better reference, the moment felt like Lauryn Hill circa 2000: Kanye West spitting his characteristically impulsive but nod-worthy truths–my favorite that night was his deft critique of “rap beef” –riddled by the painfully familiar feeling that what we were also witnessing was a beautiful mind unraveling.

Some who watched the Kanye West-Jimmy Kimmel interview this past Thursday, who had been keeping close watch of the many other interviews, tweets, paparazzi attacks, and fashion statements that brought Kanye to Kimmel’s desk that night, and who were perhaps also nostalgic for the pre-kilt, pre-Kim, College Dropout Kanye that used to croon about family dinners and the graveshift of dead-end jobs, observed in Kanye a dangerously heightened mix of mania and megalomania; heard a wired, rambling incoherence; and chronicled those twenty plus minutes as exhibit Z that Kanye West is indeed battling some sort of mental health crises.

Others picked up on a mouth racing to keep up with a mind in constant overdrive; they tuned into Kanye’s fearless, biting critique; and cheered along the self-proclaimed Genius-Underdog sparring with the lovable Everyman type that always seems to win these kinds of debates.

Both interpretations of that night–that Kanye was emitting his last fumes before meltdown or that he is deep beyond reproach–are freighted with their own particular dangers. On one hand, we risk participating in a rich tradition of silencing and managing rightfully angry people of color who dare to speak up by calling them crazy. On the other hand, fawning hero-worship can doom us to pulling up a chair and whipping out the popcorn to shit shows that could very well be prevented; Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston hang heavy in my mind as the parables for how fatal that kind of spectatorship can truly be.

Positioning oneself in the gray is often indicia of cowardice, but here I am in this whack limboland of hedge and no answers: neither hypotheses fully work for me.

 

That night I saw a man who was wounded. Who never expected his naked struggle for legitimacy would become fodder for late-night mockery or that it would hurt that much–that he, as an adult man with serious indictments against an industry that made and now mangles him, would be infantalized into a whiny, ranting child. I saw a man deeply frustrated by an industry that has smugly siloed bright black and brown men into the white noise of hip-hop so that it can exoticize, imitate, appropriate, and snub them safely from afar. I saw a man who was lonely and misunderstood, who had had been stripped of his support system and now floats about unmoored. I saw a man who thought his creativity and hard word would somehow immunize him from the garden variety isms that topple heroes and unmentionables alike. I saw a man who, like many talented men of color, whether they hide out in Ivy League institutions or behind mics, has never been held accountable for the gaps in his logic and the tangles in his heart strings–for the materialism, misogyny and violence that hobbles his otherwise brave and sophisticated wisdom about race and class in this country. (But that goes for Common, Nas, Tupac and Kendrick Lamar too). I saw a man who wears his vanity like a XXL T-shirt as armor for the much smaller, more vulnerable man underneath. I saw a man who is so transfixed by needing affirmation from White America, so obsessed with his worthiness and seriousness as an artist, an intellectual and a man that he can’t quite calibrate, stake out terms for himself, laugh at the jokes that will surely come, or brave the insults that will never end. And I saw a man who can’t help but still be, many albums and awards later, the creative boy in the back of classrooms, saving up for Gucci loafers, standing up against gangster bullies and inventing those self-survival myths and mechanisms that get you out but never quite set you free.

 

Black America is mad at Kanye because he didn’t properly learn the lesson that every person of color must learn to remain sane in an insanely racist world–how not to offer your neck to the guillotine. Quite frankly, we’re confused: did Kanye think his art, his name, his stuff, his women-as-props would exempt him from blackness? Did he think his laying out of dreams, the unbridled honesty and that faux Little Engine That Could confidence could be the brave preemptive moves that would keep him safe? Further, we’re exhausted by his lack of groundedness . Kanye cannot seem to locate himself in a long history of great people doing great things while hearing as many–if not more and more serious–no’s than he. Lack of perspective is a male privilege and also the white privilege Kanye will never have and should never fight for.

Terrifyingly, Kanye’s sins for White America are much simpler: he dared to call himself great without their permission. For that, he is an asshole.  For that, he is dangerous. For that, he is crazy.

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Deciding what Kanye is–”crazy”, genius, or troubled–is important because this is, of course, much bigger than Kanye. He stands next to Lauryn Hill, Dave Chapelle, and others with beautiful minds and broken spirits. I do not think it is coincidence that all three–Kanye, Lauryn, Dave and we can even throw Michael Jackson in–have been accused of “craziness” at the height of critiquing the ugliness and the isms of the industries and audiences that have propelled them to fame. I think we should understand that “crazy” is the Atomic Bomb of the English language, that it’s a no-return obliteration of personhood and credibility. And we should also remember that “crazy” has been a way of managing female sexual desirequeer eroticism and political ideology; yesterday’s history is today’s wet paint. As Dave once said, “the worst thing to call somebody is crazy. It’s dismissive. ‘I don’t understand this person. So they’re crazy.’ That’s bullshit.”

I believe in considering Dave’s follow up to that thought: “These people are not crazy. They’re strong people. Maybe their environment is a little sick.”drwdx-pw5_ru-deyv-shapell-aktery-dave-chappelle[1]

And that–the sick environment–is the one thing that never, ever gets enough play: if, as we speculate, all these beautiful, beautiful minds are breaking, undoing themselves, unfurling like tightly wound string, we owe it to ourselves to at least ask if something drives them to it. Certainly, mental illness is complex and at times turns on with no external switch, but we have testimony from artists we respect and admire, that something is rotten in Hollywood.

As Lauryn said after her hiatus from music, “When artists experience danger and crises…everyone easily accepts that there was something either dysfunctional or defective with the artist, rather than look at, and fully examine, the system and its means and its policies of exploiting/’doing business’.”

Over the course of a short decade, so many celebrities have fallen apart before my eyes: shaving their heads, ripping apart cameras, tearing off clothes, eating themselves into bloated existence or not eating themselves into invisible non-existence, drinking and drugging fast lives and slow deaths, basically begging us to listen in the most literal, primal languages possible, and we still keep diagnosing symptoms instead of curing the disease and the whole thing seems wild to me.

If mental illness is a dialectic between the person and the space,  then its source is not wholly the artist nor Hollywood, but I know that what Kanye and so many others deserve is the clean slate and the fighting chance Kanye kept quoting Richard Pryor to talk about.

 LaurynHill[1]If this past Thursday was only an open-aired breakdown of mental health, then we need better language. Because though we complain mental health in this country and for black folks in particular isn’t talked about, that’s not entirely true: we talk about it all the time; we just talk about it poorly. If finding oneself on the edge deserves a life-sentence of being called “crazy,” of being dismissed, written off, and laughed at, of not being heard, then no wonder the shame and the silence. Particularly for artists, whose whole careers and identities are based on being experienced, interpreted, listened to and gazed upon: mattering.  Truth is, there are those who are dying from, but more curiously living with, mental illness in our midst; they are flying our planes, shaking our hands, watching our kids, loving us, and staring back at us from mirrors. And some of the great minds we most admire produced art, theories, and inventions despite and because of battles with mental illness. Furthermore, achieving mental health is often a lifetime of strenuously and intentionally maintaining the balance; there is not one discrete day you are sick and one discrete day you are well. Given the enormity, pervasiveness, and constantly looming threat of mental illness, we have to figure out a way for people to matter even if they have not sought or successfully phased out of treatment. We can’t just keep calling people “crazy” as the lever we pull to extradite them into irrelevance. The balance is hard but important: how to hear folks when they need help, how to hear folks even if they need help, how to empower them to seek help, how to be the help they seek, and how to know when we can’t be.

If this Thursday was also about something bad happening to a beautiful mind and that something bad is, as Lauryn puts it, “a machine that overlook[s] the need to to take care of the people who produce the sounds that have a lot to do with the health and well-being of society,” then we still need transformation.  We not only need to imagine and create a celebrity culture that does not drive the talented, the strong, and the brave into hiding but we also need to collectively figure out how to survive that heartless, breathless machine in the meantime. For Kanye, the machine is the fashion and the music industries, but for any one of us, it could be the university or the office or the political regime. If we become as angry as we deserve to be, then the isms we fight will rob us of our life joy. We have to somehow figure out how to resist and dissent without allowing that enterprise to swallow us whole and turn us stale and I have faith we can win this war without quotable tweets or serving as the one-person congregation of the Church of our own self-proclaimed Godliness. Kanye once said that he, like Dave Chapelle, has to laugh to keep from crying and I suggest that he works harder on that laugh–not for the Kimmels but for Kanye.

Olivia Pope, Bougie Politics and the Crimes of Black-on-Black Film

Confession of a black, semi-professional, 20s-something cliche: I love Scandal.

 

I love Olivia’s fierce, I know my shit retorts; her self-assured walk that is more strut and stomp than stroll; I love the permission Olivia doesn’t ask for to writhe in self-destructive anger, lavish in on-the-desk-in-the-closet-I-can’t-tell-my-girls-about-this sex, and spend some incredibly lonely Friday nights in bed; the way she thinks five steps ahead of crises; and the wordless language her lips alone command: quivering pout; the sneer; the tight, angry line; and the occasional, breakout smile.

 

Not to mention her coats. I had to give the idea of them its own paragraph because they are indeed that fly.

 

Because, listen: I have needs. I need different stories about who black women are; I need stories that have texture and complexity, that do not ossify black women into symbol, metaphor, and prop. Sometimes we want to be more than angry, funny, or nurturing and we want our purpose to transcend what we can do for the children or the men in our lives. Sometimes, we need to be the point, and to see women that we actually want to be. And Olivia Pope alone isn’t that, but she’s enough of a start to keep me captivated Thursday nights; So I need Scandal in a somewhat shallow and pathological, but mostly intrigued and relieved kind of way.

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With that said, I have also been in enough sanctimonious “Tyler Perry movies are the Root of All Evil and Scandal is What Will Save Our Black Girls” conversations to know a more insidious reason why I and so many other women of color cultishly like Olivia Pope from Scandal, Mary Jane Paul from Being Mary Jane, Joan from Girlfriends and even Claire from the Cosby Show: aside from the other qualities that seduce us into watching, they answer our class aspirations. Much of their “goodness”, their “positive image-ness”, their “role model worthiness” that folks always evoke in these debates about what makes black film authentic or good draw less from the arc of those women’s moral lives and more from their power suits and palatial apartments. I think we owe it to the conversation to be honest about that.

 

I am not of the camp that insists entertainment is above critique, that it somewhat is desecrated by reading deeply into it, and that we should just mindlessly consume what makes us laugh or feel good. What entertains us is as much an essential signifier as our politics and our ethical codes.But I am also not of the camp that believes the habit of critique should strip the vitality and the joy out of life expression. I have no interest in unraveling and shredding every line, every symbol, every political implication of my favorite TV shows until I am left with the bone and gristle of what art means rather than how it moves. And because I am in the middle, because I can simultaneously watch Scandal and Diary of a Mad Black Woman while still appreciating the way both can be problematic, I believe in the kinds of conversations I end up in, which are usually about how to demand black filmic expression that feels honest, powerful and unriddled by lazy, racist tropes.

 

What bothers me about those conversations, however, is that they usually turn into a moral crusade, an insistence upon a singular narrative, and a defense of respectability politics disguised as anti-racist, pro-art activism.

 

As someone who used to love Tyler Perry’s work when it was just bootlegged DVDs of live-performance plays, now continue to watch his Hollywood productions begrudgingly, and can fully understand what got lost in translation when Perry transformed niche theater into blockbuster hits, I concede there is much for us to talk about. Perry’s baroque storylines, stilted, one-dimensional characters, and unnuanced sermonizing are distracting, and at times even horrifying, on screen; and you can’t quite understand just how magical and stomp-down funny gun-toting Madea, ashy-kneed Mr. Brown, and electric-voiced Cora used to be when they were on stage, when they were improvising, call-and-responding, singing, crying, sometimes laughing at their own jokes. It is worth questioning why white Hollywood is so amused by Perry’s work, why he and not other black filmmakers got catapulted into stardom, and whether producers are in fact reassured by the ways his work sometimes confirms their racist stereotypes. But rarely do the conversations I find myself in ever get that deep.

 

The conversation is usually monopolized by an anxiety about role models–who should be allowed to represent “the black experience”, what the “‘true black experience” should be; and what a positive image of blackness should look like. Should, should, should.Truth be told, we’re embarrassed, just like we’re embarrassed by Antoine Dodson and Trinidad James. How dare Tyler Perry. We’re deeply deeply embarrassed by what we imagine white America must be thinking when they watch his movies. And then Scandal–Olivia Pope in particular–is usually offered up as the antidote.

But I did not sign up for that. I officially resign from the moral police force that every black person with a degree apparently gets pledged into–you know, that oath to critique into obsoletion every movie, song, tv show and news appearance that isn’t about the coifed, upwardly mobile, black professional?

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Olivia isn’t even a role model. The only critique I ever hear is about that moment she dropped that Sally Hemmings line, but I’m more concerned about what Scandal and other shows tell us about the interior lives of “successful” black women: when the coat comes off and the phones stop ringing and it’s just Olivia in her silk pajamas with that perennial glass of red wine, Olivia strikes me as terribly alone. She does not seem to have friends, family or a love life that isn’t dysfunctional and self-destructive; she does not even seem to have a relationship with herself; and she demands a dependent, sycophantic loyalty from those who work with her.  We don’t love Olivia because she’s perfect or even particularly good; we love her complicated shards, we love what we recognize about ourselves in her, whether it be some version of FItz or how exhausting and exhilarating it is to be a fixer; and we love well-written, well-acted nuance.

 

Maybe when we outgrow the agenda to leverage black film for that unending moral campaign to prove to white folks that we can be something other than poor or loud, when we relieve black film of the impossible burden of managing stereotypes, asserting respectability, educating, moralizing and on top of that, entertaining, and we then expend that energy figuring out what about Tyler Perry’s films resonate, then we can begin to have a productive and honest conversation. There are some that need Madea like I need Olivia–she is a reminder of women in their lives that are fiercely loving; there are some that need their Christian values echoed back to them; who need to see their dilemmas, their crises told; there are some who need to laugh at themselves and their neighbors, who need to hear that high-pitched gospel chord and that message that they are loved. And Olivia Pope will never be their remedy. Once we admit that, we can begin to demand that someone tell their stories with bravery and humor and complication, even if it won’t be Tyler Perry. I personally think that was the imperfect genius of a Boyz in the Hood or a Martin.

 

I don’t think we should be asking for role models from black film. I don’t think we should ask black film to “show us in the best light.” I don’t think we should ignore class when we pretend there can be a singular black story or not own up to the fact that part of wanting to see suited blacks on screen is self-interested. I don’t think obsessing over respectable images of Black Middle Class is the way of making black film “positive”. I believe these things because the enterprise of policing black art tends to backfire and silence the already silenced.

 

I love Scandal, enjoyed Being Mary Jane, and was a diehard Girlfriends fan, but don’t we need other stories told, too? Maybe what we should be asking for is a show about working class living that isn’t The Wire–that isn’t political commentary, expose, satire or crime-busting; that is simply well-written, complicated, funny, and has its imperfect heroes and sheroes; maybe what we should be asking for is black, queer love that isn’t voyeuristic sex; maybe we should be asking for more Diasporic black folks; maybe we shouldn’t even ask for particular identity representations or plotlines and maybe we should just demand good writing, good vision, good acting, and let the cards fall as they may.

I’m an 80s baby, so I’m spoiled and therefore naively optimistic- I mean, I spent a whole childhood on the diet of Love Jones, the Cosby Show, Crooklyn, A Different World, Family Matters, and the Wood, for goodness’s sake–but I think those cards can’t fall anywhere but up.

 

Scandal’s season 3 premiere will be aired  THIS THURSDAY OCT 3 10|9c on ABC.

In Case You Haven’t Checked Them Out: 

  1. Anything Black and Sexy TV, the Unwritten Rules, No Strings Please, Smoke and Mirrors
  2. Frutivale Station, I Will Follow
  3. This blog about black film

 

 

The Lessons We Won’t Learn From Trayvon as We Grieve for Jonathan Ferrell

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re: jonathan ferrell (http://bit.ly/18gLEOf)

i don’t want to talk about brothers killing brothers; how that’s really what’s killing our children; and how racism is a stale joke liberals keep reviving.

i don’t want to talk about how the officer was a good guy, a family man, why sometimes tough calls lead to tough luck and how life has been so hard since the news broke–a digital lynching, if you will! (i won’t.). i certainly don’t want to go through every tweet, toxicology report, and yearbook superlative for clues as to why jonathan was that kind of boy that deserves to die.

i don’t want to offer up all of jonathan’s degrees, family ties, and church affiliations to the altar of your skeptical mind so you can be convinced that jonathan deserves to be cared about.

i don’t want to compose a 12-step plan that black boys should follow so they won’t be shot for moving too quickly or too slowly or not at all.

i don’t want to march the streets and black out my profile for the empathy and justice that should just come with being born. and i don’t want to gather all the black leaders in one room to talk about what’s so wrong with the black community that its boys keep falling and failing instead of being pushed and failed.

i don’t want to list off the names of unarmed, black boys that have been killed just in my lifetime because there are people who carry around paranoia in their back pocket, waiting for that unlit match to snag solid surface. i don’t want you to interrupt with a list of your own about black boys dying in other ways and i don’t want you to talk about that neighbor’s cousin who got robbed in a back alley by–don’t pause and admit you regret to say–some black boy and why you deserve to hold onto your stereotypes like limbs or 2nd amendments.

don’t ask me why i’m mad–ask yourself what is so broken and stilted about your heart that you aren’t more mad; and stop silencing truths by calling them “rants” and “interesting emotional asides” to the “real facts at hand”.

i want the nation to screech, to pause, to rally around itself, and in the silence of the heartbroken too fatigued to keep talking itself into worthiness, i want you to talk about fear, and why a whole country should be organized around it; why black boys tip toeing around it should be the price for living, why black boys dying should be the tax for keeping it, and why it’s the napalm to the atomic bomb only you are allowed to police now that you’ve been brave or afraid enough to use it.

Strange Big Apple and My Pilgrimage Back South

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“We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. “–MLK Jr., 1963

The questions they asked at first were fair.

I mean, how in the hell would I, southern-bred, college-bound, still-in-chrysalis-form me, make it? Out there? In that city?

There are many New Yorks within New York, I used to explain feebly those first few months, meaning only that I had managed to find my own version of peace in that swollen metropolis; that I had survived a whole semester of  my freshman year stubbornly holding onto my Reebox Classics, a Baby Phat puff coat, and an overplayed  Trick Daddy, Jacki-O and Lil Boosie playlist; and that somehow, I had found my way–with or without the grid–intact, partially rattled but fully me.

Seven years and many shitty apartments later, I still say that–I still concede the vast multitudes of New Yorks–but with more sincerity than I ever could have had those first few months.  new york1

In part because I’m soon chucking up the deuces after I convince a couple of institutions to finally grant me my degrees and, as the tradition goes,  every New York expatriate must sing the city a few love songs good bye, but mostly because of the upcoming mayoral elections, I’ve got New York heavily, lovingly, wrenchingly on my brain. As Bill deBlasio and Joe Lhota duke it out to be the custodian of Gothic City, I can’t help but think that this moment is one of reckoning for New York and even the nation: we must decide what to make of Bloomberg’s 12-year reign; we should cautiously imagine what a Brownsville, an East Harlem, or a Jamaica, Queens can look like without Stop-and-Frisk; and we now are obliged to contend with the racism that we fabled ourselves into believing was a Mason-Dixon line disease.

Back to what they now ask me when I tell them I’m returning South to possibly become a public defender: How will you make it? is still a question, but now, sprinkled with the empathetic : you are so brave.  where the real work is.

Where the real work is.

Unlike the rest of the world, and especially unlike New Yorkers, I cannot afford to think of this city as some refuge from the real work because I am deeply, deeply haunted.   

There is of course Ramarley Graham, the unarmed 18-year old boy who was followed by the NYPD from a bodega to his home across the street, who was ambushed and then shot in his chest as he stood over a toilet. There is Ramarley and Sean Bell, Abner Louima and Amaduo Diallo-all guilty of the existential crimes of being, victimized for resembling the nightmares conjured up by white paranoia.

There is Islan Nettles, the trans woman beaten to her death and Mark Carson, the man shot in the head to the chant of “faggot,” and Jose and Romel Sucuzhanay, the two brothers stomped and kicked into comas because they happened to be walking with interlinked arms. Not to mention the Christopher Street piers, where homeless LGBTQ youth roam at night as living testimonies against the New York that does not embrace them.

There is Asad “Ace” Dandia, one of the many betrayed New Yorkers whose city turned its roving eye against him–criminalized his prayer, his study, his charity.

And also what is much more subtle: the many black, brown, asian and middle eastern men and women who have mustered courage for over a decade to tell their survivor stories of Stop-and-Frisk, how they have been prodded and pushed about and made to feel helpless and powerless on the streets, stoops, and corners that should too belong to them; the subway car as metaphor, which symbolizes diversity the way Southern plantations symbolize interracial harmony–how that analogy only makes sense if you think that the gathering of folks from “all walks of life” can only mean superficial goings and comings in one of the most segregated cities in the nation; and of course gentrification, described as natural to social progress as gravity or the movement of the sun, but that actually pulls the city’s poor in and out, near and far like unanchored buoys.

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I am haunted, forced to remember those names, tender those stories, honor those hurts, because they too–as much as yellow cabs, booze brunches, sky scrapers, and poetic angst –are New York. There is violence  in excising them from the narrative.  There are many New Yorks in New York and we deserve to know theirs–to know that the city that is often recounted as a sleepless playground for the rich, the young and/or the educated can rise up in all its ugliness and prove a fatal place for people who share only tenuous citizenship to the land by virtue of being who they are; to know that there is no justice in handing the mic to Manhattan to speak for the boroughs and no justice in only allowing star-bound waiters; sexed, single 30-somethings; rich three-term mayors; and southern-transplant college girls with a Baby Phat coat in her closet to tell you what this city is. New York, too, bears strange fruit, and there is blood. Blood on the sidewalks, blood on the train cars, blood on every citified nook and cranny, and we better develop a language to know and share that there is real work to be done in this and other Northern cities too. The isms are geographically democratic in that way.

That is what this mayoral election is about. At the sunset of his mayorship, when Bloomberg, looking about at the carnage of his leadership, can announce in all earnest, “I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little,” or, looking ahead, can denounce the reveal of deBlasio’s race-mottled family as “class-warfare and racist,” just know that what he’s really lamenting is hopefully an eroding monopoly on how New York can be storied, and without doubt, the false monopoly on racism that the South never had.

As all my friends begin to trickle out of the city towards practical jobs and bigger apartments, and I too feel that itch, I’m leaving New York and heading back South in the hopes that I can remember New York for what it is right now and for what it is truly– a beautiful, tortured place that loved me through my twenties.

I am returning South because I have been reading the obituary section of my town newspaper for  the past ten years in terrified search of the man who first was handed my heart and eventually broke it. He used to predict  that he would not make it past age twenty one, and now that he has, I know he is biding his time. After he lost his basketball scholarship in college, he has been drifting–in and out of prison; in and out of hearts and legs. And there are thousands of brown and black boys like him–flailing, suffocating in small towns like this, with nothing left for them, and they are listlessly spinning their wheels.

I am returning South because watching Texas being being sued into restoring voting rights feels like catching a bad rerun of a 1965 black-and-white film I never bothered to see the first time around; because North Carolina is fighting the War On The Middle East from their courtrooms; and because a Florida jury decided that the kind of fantasy fear that mutates a long-limbed, unarmed child into a menace worth stalking and killing is reasonable.

But if my pilgrimage home is about a summoning, it is also about a longing.

I am returning South because a part of me–a grand, whopping majority of me–is wrapped up in the road trips we used to take from Florida  to South Carolina to see my grandparents. Our blue Camry would sag under the weight of us and, to the tune of several Body & Soul albums–the Commodores, Patti Labelle, and the Spinners, to name the obvious ones–we’d be out on open road, whipping past roadside stands of watermelons, peaches, and spicy, boiled peanuts; there were diner counters slumped under hanging lamps and homemade signs of pecan brittle; gas stations that were still full-service and would always be; and then, miles and miles of  land that were first swamp, then field,  first horses, then cows. I am returning South because after a while, the bend in the road would become familiar as church hymns, and out from around that corner would be a red dirt driveway that slimed when it rained; a parked green pickup truck and a White Cadillac; tall, stiff sunflowers, and if the weather was right, my grandma waiting for us on the porch surrounded by her many rescued cats. Behind her rose that square, white house that held my childhood smells; a small tomato garden; a well so deep it frothed over in the urban legend of disobedient children who fell in trying to peer down; and sky. Sky so clean and blue, I could taste and swallow it. There were nights of catching fireflies and mornings of  a train that would careen down the rusted tracks right past the house and wail at my Baby Sis and I, who had woken up just to wave at it. I am returning South because Sunday mornings, there would always be someone starching a shirt in the kitchen with grits on the stove; there was a small sitting room in the back with a fireplace; and we all knew my grandma was sick–really, really sick–that Thanksgiving she forgot to put sugar in her unreplicable sweet potato pie.

That–all of that–is who I mostly am, and one day, my children should know that.

 

This Is What You’re Missing: An American Love Story

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This is a story in search of a genre. Let’s be clear: I chose to write about sisters because that’s the only story that is mine, that I have any right to tell. But whether this slips into memoir, political essay, or eulogy, here’s what to know: this is, and has always been, a love story–cracked around the edges, too black, too queer, too short, more hospital room than beach at sunset, but fuck it. Love.

 

A story about a gay, black girl who wears fitteds, locks and J’s in a country that could not love that combo-special any less, is political from title to genre to The End–even without permission: girls like my sister get presidential speeches and sermons; but aside from the occasional “Pariah,” no love story or love song to hang their (snap-back) hats on. For sure, how they love is shaped in all directions by what this country is and is not, but that they loved–that this a story about two beautiful women who fought and loved hard for five years until the day someone literally pulled the plug–is not politics. This is in honor of my Baby Sis and Danielle**, the girl she loved, and what those two taught and continue to teach me and us about what it means to love someone.

 

On the morning my mother called me out of sleep, I had been holding my breath. Being Big Sister is a lifetime of holding your breath for terrible phone calls. When she was a toddler–even back then, so clearly and devastatingly bright and charming and daring–I thought the calls would only be about what my sister did to the world. As my sister got older,  my fears evolved into how the world would tend to her.  Even with a Master’s, a beautiful face, and an arresting personality–this girl would run the universe one day if we let her–I knew the world would only see the sag of her pants and act on its desire to manage or crush what terrified it about my sister.

 

Those calls had come before.

 

My sister has been followed by police who refused to call her by the proper pronoun; taunted by men on the street; assaulted by a landlord that yelled, “if you walk like a man and talk like a man, I’ll beat you like a man” [he lost that fight, by the way]. Those calls were never about needing my rescue. My sister could and did handle her own. But as a Big Sister, her hurts were also acutely mine and every phone call terrified me.

 

Though I have spent over two decades bracing myself for what could happen to or by my sister, I was not prepared for that morning’s phone call.

 

“Danielle is sick.” My mother sounded panicked, wired on the phone. “Very sick. I don’t know if she will make it.”

 

That–losing Danielle–is the worst thing that could possibly ever happen to my sister. Let me explain.

 

For a whole summer, the summer of 2008, we lost my sister. There was a new girl on the scene–a thin, beautiful, brown-skinned half-Cuban girl with shiny eyes,  impeccable fashion, and bonafied Bronx-girl attitude–and the Romeo-and-Juliet struggle to keep the two apart was destined to fail.  Danielle’s mother couldn’t, wouldn’t understand the relationship; and my mother and I fretted that the relationship was too obsessive; and so for months, Danielle and Baby Sis drifted from couch to couch until they finally found a home they could share together (that is, after a long hunt to discover landlords  willing to rent to People Like Them). Baby Sis later described that hellish, homeless summer as the “best era of her life.”

 

The two fought like hell, but there were only a few days in their five year relationship that they ever breathed different air. Together, they crashed sister brunches and family Christmases; together they pursued degrees and mapped out dreams–Danielle would run an animal shelter, my sister a youth center; together they shared a cat, Major, and I hate that cat with all the heart God gave me though they dressed him up and called him their child so technically I am the unwitting aunt; together, they would watch bootleg movies and memorize the lines of R&B radio hit love songs; together they would plan elaborate dates and send each other the corniest text messages known to Humanity; together they would pray and find churches that embraced them; and together they fought each other and for each other: the day the landlord assaulted my sister–Danielle jumped his back and scratched while my sister threw the defensive punches; the morning my sister was jolted up from her sleep having an unexplainable seizure that left her frothing–Danielle shoved her fingers in my sister’s mouth so she wouldn’t bite her tongue and Danielle made that first 911 call and Danielle was there at the hospital as she had been all night, when,  several hours later, my mother called to summon me out of my sleep to go “see about your sister.”  They were annoyingly each other’s profile pictures, cover photos, “likes” and comments on each other’s walls. They were each other’s village.

 

Look, I’m black so I have painfully  learned my lesson that you can’t teach the oppressor to love the oppressed and humanizing the oppressed won’t curb oppression: but goddamn, if you were there long enough to see all this, if you stuck around close enough to know them and see their love in action, the naive philanthrope in me begs: could you have any doubt that this was real? That this was bonafied, 100% natural, God-sanctified, not-a-phase-or-a-sin-or-an-aberration/punch line/presidential tactic, heart wrenching, literal fist-thrashing, bullet to the heart kind of love your adolescence always dreamed about?

 

So my mother’s phone call was another one of those phone calls that destroyed my sister, and by extension,  me.

 

What we knew then  is that Danielle was getting ready for a family party, got a massive headache, and decided to sleep it off. What we know now is that as she slept, a vessel in her brain gathered and bunched, then burst; the blood bloomed like wild cyclamen to the left and to the right; a wave of mini-strokes danced up and down her cranium; and she sunk into deep, unshakable sleep. A decade ago , she would have just died instantly from this kind of injury, the doctors marveled. But she didn’t.

 

My mother flew in from Florida and I from Charlotte to be with Danielle and  Baby Sis. Our older sister trekked from Brooklyn to be with us afternoons on the weekend and nights after work. Danielle’s family was there, too. So were pastors and family friends and the “Bros”: a tight collective of studs, fems, and supportive straight people who also were my sister and Danielle’s village. Together, we were the strangely -gathered  family who took over a waiting room of Presbytarian and together we put our lives on hold in the hopes we could put Danielle’s broken life back together.  Suspended by the puppet strings of at least ten blinking machines, Danielle stayed alive for over two weeks while we nursed half-baked hopes for miracles. At first: she’ll wake up, the doctors assured, with a few minor impairments but her personality still intact. Then: there was brain damage, she won’t understand math and science, but she’ll talk. Meanwhile, the Danielle we knew shut down one dimly-lit window at a time like an office building after five.

 

At the height of it all, my sister woke up violently in the middle of the night dreaming that Danielle had exploded. And another night, she dreamed she was just wandering down a dark hallway screaming Danielle’s name. “I couldn’t find her,” she panted, “I kept calling and looking but I couldn’t find her.”

 

By the end of three weeks, one week after I found myself leaning against a dusted window of a Megabus back to Boston thinking we could buy more time, this ended as quickly as it all had begun: the doctor pronounced her brain dead.

 

Here’s the hard part. What’s next. Five years is a long time to lay down the bombs–every bus stop, every street corner, every movie theater, restaurant, bodega threatens to detonate with enough memory to break my sister’s heart in three and so the city she had grown to call a home of her homes is now also one vast waiting room–pursed, uncertain, airless. My sister will have to return to her shared apartment and contend with the sheer stuff of Danielle: heeled shoes lined up in the closet; perfume bottles on the dresser; Major, who coils in the closet sobbing for the co-mother he intuits he has lost. And there are holes for us too. My mother is grieving as if she lost a daughter because she has and I have certainly lost the sister I begrudgingly inherited: I love-hated that girl like Big Sister’s are supposed to and there was definitely more love than hate. One day at the hospital, “Easy Like Sunday Morning” came onto the speakers, and my mother sobbed into a muffin and I had a similar moment just today: it is incomprehensible to us that the sassy girl who had filled our lives without us knowing would be gone, permanently gone. I still refuse to believe it.

 

“I feel like a scared child fearful of their first day of school,” my sister texted today as the doctors made moves to remove all of the machines that had kept Danielle alive. “Screaming and crying and pulling on their mother’s legs begging her not to go.” Baby sister, we are all students and we are all learning what it will take in the future to make this okay. My mother’s phone call three weeks ago was like every other phone call I had been breathless for in the past: In my terror, I cannot make this right; it will be up to my sister to handle her own; and we will learn from her.

 

I’ll end with this: right before Danielle got sick, my sister had been plotting to trick her. She had made a ring out of gold-fringed pipe-cleaners and was planning on fake proposing. She has, despite all of this, a strength to find humor even though the partial joke there is  that two queer brown girls marrying sounds, even today, laughable. After Danielle fell into her coma, Baby Sis asked me to walk back with her to the hospital room so that she could tell Danielle the joke.

Maybe I’m overemphasizing what I’m doing here–I am, afterall, just one big sister in a world of big sisters and this ain’t nothing but a beat up love story–but as I stood there watching my baby sister tilt towards the bed with that ring in her hand, saying whatever it is you say to the person you love when she’s gauzed and tubed and as still as a broken clock, I didn’t know whether to hug her, save her or to weep, so I decided to just stand there, a tortured witness, because I think I’m supposed to tell you this, you other straight people: it has been an honor to have this Baby Sister and My Fake Baby Sister  in my life; it has been an honor to learn love from them and you are you missing this. And that’s your loss.

 

**The name has been changed

Finding Mr. Right: How the Single Black Woman Narrative is Ruining My Dating Life

We’ll call him Bad Date and every moment up until this one Epic Fail.

“Put me next to any man,” Bad Date was announcing to me and all within hearing range, “and I’ll come up on top. I got two degrees, one from [insert fancy school], the other from [insert another fancy school]. Nobody is on my level.”

Blank stare. Babbling monologue continues.
“And that’s the problem with black women. Y’all need to learn how to treat black men like kings.”
At this point I felt the need to intervene with some futile rant about partnership and mutual respect and why we deserve no cookie for our degrees, but Bad Date promptly interrupted. “Do you even like men?”
For granted, there was plenty about Epic Fail that was not sociology at all. [Among Bad Date's most egregious transgressions was his decision to pregame our "let's grab a drink" plans and his perhaps related need to then later grab a heft of my curls and sputter, "did you know you were going on a date before deciding to wear your hair like this?"] But as much as the disasters of our table talk was about Bad Date’s own lack of act right, there was also something familiar and generalized about his tirade. It reminded me of the time an I-Banker strolled over to me at a club and wordlessly handed me his business card as if his credentials could supplant a conversation. Or that smug, self-assured textual reminder from a man in my life that good women came in abundance (“you’d be surprised,” he goaded) but that good men were hard to find. Or even the nubian-flavored version of “nice guys finish last”, that tired trope about Thugs v. Good Black Men, exhibit A:
There are smart, kind, respectful, dynamic men that, if anybody does, deserve to be called “good men;” but distinct from them and even amongst them, there are also men who feel incredibly entitled, like being loved can be owed and deserved into being. Who feel like degrees and material accomplishments have designated them as “good” and have therefore earned them the luxury to act a complete donkey when it comes to matters of the heart with very little censure and much less censure than their lesser degreed peers: this post is about them. I blame a consortium of forces–classed, gendered, and racialized notions of who “good” and “real” black men are, and the construct of male bravado that is culturally rewarded in the dating process, for examples; but I feel great need to also point my figurative finger at the Single Black Woman (SBW) narrative, the story that tells degreed black women that they are part of a massive, hopeless swath of unchosen ones with little right to be selective and that implies to men of color who escape the grim statistics destining them to incarceration, crippling poverty, or worse that they belong to an oligarchy of the elite, unimpeachable few. The SBW creates a power dynamic for hetorosexual black men and black women who date each other  that is distinct from that in other kinds of partnerships. The SBW narrative is what distinguishes the problem of entitled black men from the equally troubling problem of entitled black women. There is likely a whole generation of young, unbooed sisters who have also convinced themselves that their long resumes of degrees, professional accomplishments and civic society connections entitle them to the love they pursue like a salaried second job–and that is lame–but the numbers game (real or fantasy) tilts the power game.    And the SBW narrative not only betrays a hodgepodge of weak class politics, but also undermines black women’s courage to negotiate who they love and how they love under healthy terms; black men’s ability to define “goodness” and “success” in ways that do not reinforce false and crassly effed up comparisons against peers that may be suffering; and the collective conversation about partnership that transcends the desperation of crises.
  • I hate that the SBW narrative positions black female singleness as the critical, if not sole, tragedy of black male poverty and incarceration.
  • I hate that it decries the apparently shrunken dating pool for black, professional women without attempting to broker an honest conversation about the likelihood and implications of cross-class partnership.
  • I hate that it sounds like a disguised version of a story so old I have memorized it line-for-line: once upon a time, the black professional class blamed _________ on black lower-class’ failures [insert: crime, stereotypes,now its lackluster Friday nights].
  • I hate the ways in which it silences the stories of working and lower class blacks’ quest for romantic partnership–not to mention queer love.
  • And I hate that it seizes upon every racist fantasy about the undesirability of black women and the inherent pathology of black men–which may partially explain why it gained more traction than more urgent, lesser told stories the media could have championed. For an industry that says it suffers a nation’s short attention span and saturated airwaves–that complains it cannot tell every story that matters because of pressures that are not its own–America’s media machinery seemed well poised to tell the story of unwanted black women and unwantable black men….long, hard, and loudly.
But selfishly, pettily, and to the point of this post–I hate what the SBW has done to my already struggling dating life.
I am just not ready to nationalize a story that I have privately in the beauty salons, text messages, and booze brunches of my young adulthood. Dating is dang hard for everybody and perhaps especially for black women. It’s true I know a collective of fabulous, beautiful, dynamic women of color who are all chronically and involuntarily single in a way no other similarly positioned people I know are. And in part, that is due to all the policy, legal, and cultural forces that complicate life for brown and black folks, in dating but in other things too. But as much as my dating struggles are sociological phenomenon, they are also peculiarly Candace phenomenon–which cities and parties I wander through; the particular list of fantasy qualities I have been looking for in a partner; and my many deficits that make me a (hopefully lovably) work in progress.
Furthermore, while there is value in  truth-telling and the naming of experiences, none of those articles, talk shows or books that were intent upon diagnosing my singleness like a tragic disease are going to find me a partner; the SBW narrative  does me no favors; it does not make me feel more empowered or hopeful or good about myself and so I politely have decided that it can kick rocks, even if just to help me preserve some damn self-esteem.
While we may not be able to control who is in our dating pools, take the raggedy advice of someone who is so single she is utterly unqualified to say one word about relationships: we can for damn sure take hold of how we swim, float, and sink in those pools. Women: willfully resisting the urge to succumb to the numbers game, insisting upon our own power in who we chose and how we stay–even if it seems a luxury we cannot afford–is vital to our well-being: bad partnerships can ravage our bank accounts, our emotional and physical health, our legal status, our friendships, our sense of self and our pleasure much worse than singlehood could ever do. There is nothing wrong with walking away from the man who meets the hypothetical checklist but doesn’t make you laugh or the picture-perfect relationship that is toxic behind doors, off the books, and out of sight–even if you are told that you are lucky to have found that someone or something good; despite what your mother, the lady at church, and your male bestie says, you are building a partnership, and that entitles you to a little reasonable selectiveness. “Good” men are not an extinct species and even allowing for constant introspection and self-improvement, we bring a unique set of virtues and qualities that make us special potential partners. Men: fly is what’s on your bookshelf; the way you love your niece; the moral code you follow; your relationship with God or Allah; your ability to talk shit and talk sweet; your favorite jeans; and the swagger of your fresh haircut. Fly is NOT calculating your value against the failures and absences of other black men. Fly is NOT the sheer ability to say you have a degree, but it may be using it, sharing its power, developing dope politics around what it can do and what it should and should not mean.
Ultimately, what I’m hoping for, insisting upon, culling into fruition–and what the SBW forbids– is a world the in which empowered, whole people come together for the business of loving and not because folks are despairing in an atrophied pool of eligible black men and not because “good black man” is a low-bar designation crowned to any man who is mildly polite with job prospects. Despite what CNN says about the .00001 odds of me finding boo-ship and what Essence Magazine may speculate are my failings, I, as should so many others looking for partnership, have faith that in the tangle of great people I meet on a daily basis, there will be a great person just for me.