This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

January 30, 2010

Justice Denied: Black Women and Reproductive (non)Choice

Sometimes justice can be so elusive, can’t it? Bad enough that often it is overdue. But then, when it finally seems within our reach, it sometimes slips away…or we’re only able to grab hold of a little piece of it… That’s how I opened this post when I first wrote it for my old blog years ago. I posted it during Black History Month and, as Black History Month is almost upon us, thought I’d re-post it here. I like to begin with something like this to remind myself that Black History Month, in 2010, should be as much about justice as it is about remembering and celebration.

(I am currently searching for updates to this story and will update this blog with any new information.)

*****

These days eyes tend to be directed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the future of the battle over abortion choice and access. In this social context, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that historically, for many women the central reproductive struggle has not involved abortion rights. Instead it has involved the right to conceive, bear, and provide for their children, as well as the right to maintain the authority to be parents of their children. From the buying and selling of the children of African-ancestry parents, to the forced placement into “boarding schools” of the children of Native American parents, to current day social service practices regarding the termination of parental rights that disproportionately affect parents of color—This country has a pretty shameful history when it comes to disallowing some people their rights to become and remain parents.

A particularly egregious example of this is the history of forced sterilizations in this country in the name of “genetic fitness”–otherwise known as eugenics.

The targets of these forced sterilizations were folks who evidenced various combinations of being Black, poor, uneducated, deemed to be “promiscuous” or potentially promiscuous, deemed to be “feeble-minded” or potentially so. These practices of sterilizing women and girls (and some men and boys) against their will and often without their knowledge sometimes went by the name “Mississippi appendectomies.” A particularly aggressive program, however, occurred in North Carolina. From an excellent multi-part program on the North Carolina efforts, “Against Their Will“:

They were wives and daughters. Sisters. Unwed mothers. Children. Even a 10-year-old boy. Some were blind or mentally retarded. Toward the end they were mostly black and poor. North Carolina sterilized them all, more than 7,600 people.

For more than 40 years North Carolina ran one of the nation’s largest and most aggressive sterilization programs. It expanded after World War II, even as most other states pulled back in light of the horrors of Hitler’s Germany.

Some of these folks are still alive, still seeking justice–which means, of course, that they have had to come forward and publicly share their stories:

In the file of Ernestine Moore, for instance, who was sterilized in 1965 in Pitt County at the age of 14, a social worker wrote that the people who lived near her were “of low incomes and low morals.” Moore was classified as feebleminded, even though she wasn’t.

In fact, the social worker wrote, “Ernestine has no appearance of retardation.” Upon reading what was written in her file, Ms. Moore, 54, told The Journal that North Carolina should “pay for the pain” and suffering she’s gone through since her sterilization.

In recent years, the state of North Carolina has agreed. But, as fate would have it, carrying out this justice has not gone smoothly. Issues abound, regarding such things as where to get medical records to prove forced sterilization, whether or not such records are still available or had ever been kept at all, and adequately staffing efforts to process claims.

All signs look like justice will be delayed. Again. And my cynical side is whispering that there’s a good chance justice may not come at all for these folks. Once again, they may have to make do with an official apology. For whatever (if anything) that is worth.

But. The hopeful side of me still has…hope. In the meantime, I will enjoy our State Fair this year much as I have every year since I began learning more about this country’s eugenics past: With the ghostly narration in my mind of contests aimed at promoting good human stock along with the best ears of corn or plumpest sows.

(Image ID: 14) Title: Kansas State Free Fair, Topeka, Fitter Families Contest examining staff and "sweepstakes" winning family; Archival Information: AES,Am3,575.06,55

From the excellent site Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement:

At most contests, competitors submitted an “Abridged Record of Family Traits,” and a team of medical doctors performed psychological and physical exams on family members. Each family member was given an overall letter grade of eugenic health, and the family with the highest grade average was awarded a silver trophy. Trophies were typically awarded in three family categories: small (1 child), medium (2-4 children), and large (5 or more children).

All contestants with a B+ or better received bronze medals bearing the inscription, “Yea, I have a goodly heritage.” Childless couples were eligible for prizes in contests held in some states. As expected, the Fitter Families Contest mirrored the eugenics movement itself; winners were invariably White with western and northern European heritage.

I’ve mentioned before about how important it is for me to keep such history in my mind as I continue with my interests in researching issues of families and genetics. Late summer, right before the start of another school year is as good a time as any to give myself a booster shot of memory. Memory for the “non-placers” in the clean genes fairground competitions. Memory for the folks who were denied the chance to bear children to take to fairs in the first place.

December 17, 2009

Should We Try a ‘Class’ for ‘Race’ Switcheroo?

I think the time has long passed for adding socioeconomic status to the categories of affirmative action, but it must not and cannot be viewed as a replacement for race. Poverty is not a proxy for race, and to pretend that it is would eradicate the initial rationale for affirmative action—to correct for society’s demonstrable biases against people of color regardless of their socioeconomic status.

The murder some years ago of Bill Cosby’s son by a white racist who later bragged about the shooting to his friends shows how feeble the Cosbys’s great wealth was in protecting their son against this ugly virus. The recent news that black graduates of prestigious colleges and universities feel they must “whiten” their résumés to hide their blackness demonstrates how little effect affirmative action in its original iteration has today, and how our current substitution of “diversity” for actual race-based affirmative action has rendered the latter almost useless. How many of our colleges count students from Africa and elsewhere toward their “affirmative action” goals?

So bring on socioeconomic status. And while you’re at it, bring back race-based policies—you cannot get beyond race without going to race.

~Julian Bond, Chronicle of Higher Education,
Reactions: Is It Time for Class-Based Affirmative Action?

November 11, 2009

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Questionned

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"Ask What You Can Do For Your Country," Randy SOn of Robert, http://www.flickr.com/photos/randysonofrobert/2463004864/

Just in time for Veterans Day comes the question, are today’s military rank and file personnel resistant to serving with openly gay and lesbian colleagues?

A new study about the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy questions the assumption that allowing openly gay and lesbian military personnel to serve in the U.S. armed forces could harm military readiness.

The study surveyed military personnel who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and found that having a gay or lesbian colleagues in their unit had no significant impact on their unit’s cohesion or readiness. The study, by researchers from the RAND Corporation and the University of Florida, was published online by the journal Armed Forces and Society.

“Service members said the most important factors for unit cohesion and readiness were the quality of their officers, training and equipment,” said Laura Miller, study co-author and a sociologist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “Serving with another service member who was gay or lesbian was not a significant factor that affected unit cohesion or readiness to fight.”

Since the law prohibiting open service of gay and lesbian military personnel is based on the premise that open integration would harm cohesion and readiness, the findings suggest that the U.S. military should revisit the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” [DADT] policy, said Miller and study co-author Bonnie Moradi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida.

The study found that just 40 percent of the military members surveyed expressed support for the policy, while 28 percent opposed it and 33 percent were neutral—less support than seen in previous surveys.

About 20 percent of those polled said they were aware of a gay or lesbian member in their unit, and about half of those said their presence was well known. In addition, three-quarters of those surveyed said they felt comfortable or very comfortable in the presence of gays or lesbians, according to the study.

The study, “Attitudes of Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans Toward Gay and Lesbian Service Members,” will appear later in the print edition of Armed Forces and Society. The study was commissioned by the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Although RAND has done other research on this topic, this study was the product of a contract directly with the researchers and not through RAND…. [Source]

One caution I have, however: Data like this are important in showing the growing irrelevancy of DADT, and in chipping away at the reasons for it that are often given. But policy change of this nature should not be tied solely to popular opinion. Leadership must lead the way.

Which leads to my second question: did you know that women generally, and Black women in particular, are especially impacted by DADT?

African Americans are overrepresented in the U.S. military, especially in the Army. The percentage of African Americans in the military still exceeds that of the general population: around 17 percent in the military, versus 12.8 percent in the U.S. population.

We also know from the 2000 census data that an estimated 65,000 men and women in uniform are gay or lesbian and are serving on active duty and in the National Guard and Reserves, while there are at least one million gay veterans in the U.S.

Too often we think of these figures as mutually exclusive: to paraphrase Gloria Hull, “all the gays are white, all the blacks are straight, and where does that leave the brave?”

According to U.S. Census data, black women with same-sex partners serve in the military at 11 times the rate of women overall. And new pentagon data shows that while women make up approximately fifteen percent of the armed forces, they account for nearly half of all “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) discharges from the Army and Air Force. Pentagon data show that African American women are discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at three times the rate that they serve in the military….[Source]

The recent tragedy at Ft. Hood brings up another important question for me: If a soldier sees an Army psychologist or psychiatrist regarding mental health concerns related to her or him being lesbian or gay, or otherwise through treatment discloses this orientation, will the service member receive confidential treatment? A recent article in the American Psychological Association’s magazine for graduate students addresses this dilemma as part of a discussion on the pros and cons of a military career:

Another tension raised by students is potential conflicts between military orders and psychological ethics, says Lt. Nicholas Guzman, who is completing an internship at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. After a presentation he made to students, several wanted to know if, as an officer, he’d be required to report a disclosure of homosexuality made by a patient. Guzman says psychology’s ethical code compels him to keep such disclosures confidential. Yeaw emphasizes that military psychologists adhere to their state’s licensing regulations and regularly consult with APA’s Ethics Office on questions of confidentiality and privacy.

“As a psychologist, you’re not put in a position where you have to break someone’s confidentiality because of orientation,” he says.

Finally in an only marginally related matter, my daughter gave a phenomenal performance as the narrator in the elementary school’s Veterans’ Day play. Her main fear prior to her performance was that she would pronounce Corps like the rotting thing that rises from the dead on Halloween instead of like the group of Marine troops. She successfully did the latter. Could her mother be prouder?

November 9, 2009

Wanted: Voices of Black Mommies

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One of my favorite pieces from writer Deesha Philyaw is re-posted over on Love Isn’t Enough (formerly Anti-Racist Parent), “Ain’t I a Mommy?”:

The absence of black mommy memoirs mirrors the relative absence of black women’s voices in mainstream U.S. media discourse about motherhood in general. In particular, this discourse is concerned with how women balance the demands of family and careers, and with the decision by some college-educated women to opt out of the labor force altogether and remain at home with their children. When this discourse ceased to be polite, the explosion was dubbed “the mommy wars.”

…The abundance of ink and airtime devoted to a vocal minority of women promotes the idea that this minority’s experience is somehow universal. Low-income and working-class women, black women, and other women of color don’t see their mothering experiences and concerns reflected in the mommy media machine, and we get the cultural message loud and clear: Affluent white women are the only mothers who really matter. Further, media overexposure of these women bolsters the perception of them as self-absorbed brewers of tempests in teapots.

The “mommy wars” as it has been framed is part of a topic known in academic circles as “work-family” (or, the more general “work-life”). In my field, the topic of “work-family” balance is very hot, with at least two of my academic mentors actively pursuing work on the subject. Because of our relationship, these researchers have been very open to listening to my objections about and concerns with how much of this work is conceptualized and carried out. Chief among my beefs are the very issues that Deesha brings up. I will be attending a conference of my professional organization soon. It will be interesting to see how much of current research on work-family issues addresses the diversity of parenting experiences.

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Migrant Cotton Picker and Her Baby..." US National Archives, http://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/3678688183/

By the way, I have to say that since first reading Deesha’s article, I have a new twist to my own reaction. For many years I resisted moving back to the city where the majority of my family resides. But in the past year of living here I can say that I was very wrong on so many counts—and a big part of where I miscalculated has to do with work-family issues. There is nothing like being able to call a grandmother or a cousin or a teenage brother to help with child-related needs when work issues conflict with other areas of my life. Nothing like it.

In addition to the day-to-day help, however, is the sense of connection my children are now getting just by virtue of being near their family members on a regular basis. This year several people have asked me what my daughters want for the holidays. My answer has always been “nothing; they are in no need for more material things.” But this year I am adding a request. A request to come by the house and cook a special family recipe with them. A request to bring by some photo albums to share with them. A request to write them a letter that they can keep forever.

Of course I am continuing to “build family” with non-related families. When we lived away from home this was more challenging, but I did it as a matter of necessity. Now I do this as a matter of choice. These relationships and connections, too, have been incredibly valuable to me as a mother and to my daughters.

Since making this move, the “mommy wars” are even more foreign to me than they were before. It seems that this kind of angst is intensified in situations where mothers are living in isolation from the kinds of extended kin that can make childrearing less lonely—whether the mother works outside the home or not. At the heart of the (fake) wars is probably a sense of feeling unsupported, of feeling that one’s work (broadly defined) is not recognized or valued.

Yet another casualty of the American middle class focus on the nuclear family.

Yet there are other tensions that I now have, being a Black mommy raising kids around family. What happens, for instance, when my values for my children conflict with my extended kinfolks’ values? I have had to explain and justify all manner of decisions from why my children do not have a kiddie perm to why we do not regularly attend church; from why I let them read some of the books they do (e.g., the Harry Potter series) to why I believe anti-homophobic parenting needs to be as big a part of their upbringing as anti-racist parenting; from why we do not feed them many processed foods to why they do not get an allowance.

Of course, none of this parenting disagreement has reached a level of “warfare.” Nor is it ever likely to. But as a Black mommy, I wish more of the conversation could be around these issues rather than the ones the media (and academia) seem content to focus on.

November 3, 2009

What am I missing?

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**UPDATED: As of 11/4/09 the body count is now up to 10: “A judge denied bond Wednesday for a convicted rapist accused in multiple killings, saying the latest allegations are ‘gruesome’ and the ‘most serious’ he has heard during his time on the bench.” [Source] These latest developments have resulted in the case garnering front page exposure on the Nancy Grace Blog (stories here and here).

Frustrating: The story below reports that latest news on the investigation into the discovery of remains from six Black women at a convicted rapist’s home was to be aired yesterday on Nancy Grace’s CNN show. However, when I looked for further information about the story and aired report on the Nancy Grace blog, there is not an entry for it. (There is only a link back to the news story I excerpted from below. There are, predictably, several stories on Elizabeth Olten and Somer Thompson that appear on the first page of the site.)

So what am I missing? Did Grace cover the story or not? How many murdered Black women does it take to warrant a series of posts about them? (Apparently, more than six….)

…Local authorities also are attempting to trace 50-year-old Anthony Sowell’s residential history since his June 2005 prison release to learn whether there are additional victims, according to Lt. Thomas Stacho of the Cleveland Police Department.

Police arrested Sowell on Saturday, two days after discovering the decomposing bodies of five females inside his home. Another female body was discovered outside the house.

Authorities found the first two bodies while trying to serve an arrest and search warrant on Sowell related to a sexual assault investigation. Sowell was not home at the time; officers found him after a tipster told them of his whereabouts.

The decomposing bodies of the women, all of whom were African-American, could have been lying where they were found for “weeks, if not months or years,” a coroner said Saturday….[Source]

The Nancy Grace blog does have a post appearing on the front page about this case. See more commentary about this Cleveland case at From My Brown Eyed View and at Black and Missing But Not Forgotten.

October 29, 2009

The Obamas and The (Re)Discovery of Blackness

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The past few months have seen a constant string by the mainstream media of discoveries about Black people. I use the word “discoveries” in the same sense of Christopher Columbus and his discovery of what we now call the United States of America. Of course the land mass already existed. Of course other people were already living on it. And indeed, others from other places had previously “discovered” it.

We Black people—like the land mass and folks living there—did not become that interesting, that open for analysis, that ripe for exploration (and exploitation) until others discovered us.

There have been other times when attention has been focused on Black people and all things Black. But the most recent interest is the direct result of Barack H. Obama and his family.

I am sure someone has the data:

The number of news stories on interracial marriages and multiracial people pre- and post-Barack Obama (e.g., “Should we call Obama ‘black’ or ‘biracial’?” NY Times).

The amount of discussion about Black people’s (men, women and children) hair pre- and post-Barack (e.g., re: his barber), -Michelle (e.g., “Why Michelle’s Hair Matters,” Time Magazine), and -Malia (e.g., re: her hair style during a trip to Russia).

The level of fascination about Black women’s bodies pre- and post-Michelle (e.g., “First Lady Got Back“).

We have even been exposed to the shocking!yes,shocking! news that the First Lady has Whiteblood!yes,whiteblood! in her genetic ancestry.

Now comes the latest (for the moment) oddity of the Obamas: their marriage. Of course, married presidents are not something new. But according to the writer of this New York Times Magazine cover story, “the Obamas mix politics and romance in a way that no first couple quite have before.”

The entire article is worth a read. And in fairness, I cannot blame the media for being somewhat fascinated by, or at least interested in, the Obamas. What’s there not to be interested in?

But I suspect that with this NY Times Magazine story may follow a rush of articles trying to figure out What is going on with marriages between Black professional men and Black professional women? … to uncover the truths about What forces are challenging these unions in the 21st Century? …to declare that the Health and Future of The Black Family is dependent upon these Black Marriages! …to headline all manner of other questions, and problems, and observations about a demographic that—I am sure it will seem—sprung up out of nowhere. I would like to supply some perspectives from one woman involved in such a fascinating Black Marriage, so as to save some writers some research effort when it comes time to produce these news pieces.

* I have been half of a Black Marriage for almost as long as Michelle and Barack. (They’ve got us beat by almost exactly 1 year.) Our circle of friends include other Black couples who have been married as long or longer than the First Couple.

* “The centrality of the Obama marriage to the president’s political brand opens a new chapter in the debate that has run through, even helped define, their union….” Though my spouse’s and my marriage is not a capital-P political one, that we are both Black and married (to each other) seems to be very political in some people’s eyes. For example, my spouse has had Black women in his workplace act warm and friendly toward him after previously being cold and aloof once they find out that his wife is Black. Part of our “brand” very much seems to be that we are individually successful, individually well-educated, and yoked to each other. Like the Obamas, we have learned to deal with and even embrace this.

* We’ve dealt with those imbalances that come from managing continuing educations/training, jobs, a marriage, and two children. Like the First Lady, I have usually been the one who has had to put something on hold, take up some slack, slide something to the back burner, make some extra adjustments. Many women of many different races deal with this. However, the racial component makes things that much more interesting for me. For example, I once had a fellow mother at a private school where our daughters attended express surprise when she found out that (a) I had an advanced degree and (b) my husband was a physician. (I suppose, when she heard that we both worked, that she assumed we were what was euphemistically called a “scholarship family.”) She—a stay-at-home-mother—asked me why I didn’t just stay home, as she had done. Further, she couldn’t understand why I did not hire a nanny to help me with my twins when they were younger as she had with her twins. That was not a very pleasant conversation after that, and as a result, this woman avoided me for the next two years.

* Black married couples have all sorts of married models they are drawing on for inspiration. I know part of the fascination with Michelle is that, unlike her spouse, she grew up in an “intact” family. Both my own spouse and I spent our childhoods in such homes. And in my case, both my parents had advanced degrees. There was nothing necessarily “unique” about this upbringing. Once during the run of “The Cosby Show” a White colleague on a college campus expressed how “unrealistic” the family was. I probed her to explain to me what made the family such an inauthentic portrayal of Black life. (You can probably guess where the conversation went from there.) I certainly knew of Black single mothers, or men who had second (or third) simultaneous families. But I also had “traditional” couples to draw from, and those are the ones that have informed my own relationship ideas. (Not to mention my relationship models that were “non-traditional” same-sex couples…a different story for a different day.)

When she interviewed for a job at the University of Chicago Medical Center, her baby sitter canceled at the last moment, and so Michelle strapped a newborn Sasha into a stroller, and the two rolled off together to meet the hospital president. “She was in a lot of ways a single mom, and that was not her plan,” recalls Susan Sher, who became her boss at the hospital and is now her chief of staff….

* I can relate. Because of my spouse’s schedule at one time, I was the one rolling around a stroller, alone, with two little babies strapped in. But this comment by Mrs. Obama’s old boss reminds me of an additional element to all this that I never quite got used to:  Frequently people assumed, just by the sight of me, that I was a single mother. Once, a colleague I had known for just a few weeks told me that if there was anything she could do—anything at all—to help me out, to just give her a call. This, because she had “so much respect for what it must be like for a single Mom.” Another time, a woman pushing her child-filled stroller on the sidewalk in the opposite direction from me stopped to comment. “Are they twins? My hat is off to you! You are one strong sister to be able to raise two by yourself.” (The first woman was White; the second was Black.)

* I cannot relate to complaints from some of my married friends (of any race) about their husband’s lack of help around the house. In addition to working full time my spouse also cleans and cooks. He even does little girls’ hair so long as what is required is a basic symmetrical afro. I once had a woman at an academic conference tell me that this was because we were a Black couple and Black couples are a lot more egalitarian than White couples and White men had a lot to learn from Black men. (You might be able to imagine where that conversation went from there.) Once again, the way that we have organized our lives, our parenting, and our household has become political. Yet our arrangements are really just what work for us. We do not join each other in a round of “I (She) Am (Is) Woman, Hear Me (Her) Roar” following a joint clothes-folding session or after tucking our children in bed at night. Things do not always go smoothly. There are “bumps,” as Michelle Obama said about her own marriage, and yes they are pretty continuous. But in general, things are good.

I often find it strange that I sometimes feel disloyal or embarrassed for saying so.

* “…Parenting in the White House is more complicated….” Actually, Parenting-While-Black is complicated enough already. The biggest challenges my husband and I face as a couple have less to do with us as individuals or a couple, and more to do with our roles as parents. As my battle conversation with my children’s school personnel over their decision regarding the President’s back-to-school speech illustrates, raising Black children in the USA can, indeed, be life on a battlefield. There are some negative things my children have faced that I thought were over with. There are new negative things they’ve faced that have completely bewildered me. They have also, however, been fortunate to be exposed to a similar diversity as I was in my parents’ 70s college-era environment. (Alas, not so much now as when we were in the Twin Cities.) Life as a Black couple parenting Black children is challenging—but not all gloom and doom.

As the great experiment of the presidency rolls on, the Obamas may finally learn definitive answers to the issues they have been debating over the course of their partnership. The questions they have long asked each other in private will likely be answered on the largest possible stage. They will discern whether politics can bring about the kind of change they have longed for and promised to others, or whether the compromises and defeats are too great. They will learn whether they were too ambitious or not ambitious enough. And even if they share the answer with no one else, the two will know better if everything does in fact become political — if their marriage can both embrace politics and also at some level stay free of it.

Then, in three or seven years, the president’s political career will end. There will be no more offices to win or hold, and the Obamas will most likely renegotiate their compact once more — this time, perhaps more on Michelle Obama’s terms.

The equality of any partnership “is measured over the scope of the marriage. It’s not just four years or eight years or two,” the first lady said. “We’re going to be married for a very long time.”

* In the end, that is what it is about with my own Black marriage, too. A belief in the long-range. A faith in the this-too-shall-pass. That to some my spouse and I are considered an anomaly, an outlier far beyond the normal data points—none of that matters. It should not make me feel more special than anyone else, or less “authentic” than anyone else.

There is no Black Marriage. There are Black Marriages. And mine is just one of them.

October 25, 2009

Sometimes the smallest things make your day

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Wandering around the small convenience store on campus. Finally decide on an overpriced bottled water and an overpriced variety pack of Now ‘r Laters. Get to the 20-something Black male cashier. He rings me up, says—pointing to his pal who had just ducked into a door behind the counter—

“My partner there says you look like Claire Huxtable. That’s a compliment.”

It surely is, young man. It surely is.

October 21, 2009

LOLObama

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As this blog is not even a year old yet, it may be too soon to do a re-post. But I think this post is an appropriate one to re-examine given my little piece of fiction from yesterday on the subject of humor. (And for anyone who read Part 1, Part 2 is on the way. I know you just were on the edge of your seats waiting to find out about the lady with the clown make-up!)

I first posted this February 19th, just weeks after Barack Obama’s historic innauguration. Considering all that has gone on since, it seems like a lifetime ago. It also seems like there has been a lot less political humor, and a lot more incivility and anger—on all sides of the political spectrum—than I hoped for or think is healthy. What do you think—of these two examples of political humor specifically and the state of political homor in the “Obama Age” generally?

(Also possibly of interest, the follow-up post, “Ur, hoa evr, doin it rong…“)

Humor in Post-Post-Racial USA: Ur doin it rite, akshully

Nation’s Blacks Creeped Out By All The People Smiling At Them:

WASHINGTON—A majority of African-Americans surveyed in a nationwide poll this week reported feeling “deeply disturbed” and “more than a little weirded out” by all the white people now smiling at them.

First witnessed shortly after President Obama’s historic victory, the open and cheerful smiling has only continued in recent months, leaving members of the black community completely unnerved.

…According to the poll, more than 92 percent of African-Americans have noticed a dramatic increase in the number of beaming Caucasians in their vicinity, as well as a marked rise in the instances of white people making direct eye contact with them on the bus, engaging them in pleasant conversation, and warmly gazing in their general direction with a mix of wonder, pride, and profound contentment. All respondents reported being “petrified” by the change.

“Yesterday, I’m pretty sure the cashier at the Giant Eagle winked at me,” said Eddie Wilkes, a Pittsburgh resident who described himself as “not a politics person.” “Then she said something about what a happy day it was and tried to bump fists. The whole thing gave me the willies”…

Discussion here before about the complexities and challenges of joke-making in this so-called Age of Obama. Joke-tellers everywhere may find themselves walking a thin line between forging new paths in comedic observation and retreading old paths of racist humor. Joke-listeners everywhere may find themselves challenged with their reactions to such jokes. When is offense and indignation justified? When do we allow ourselves to lighten up?

The above Onion satire is, in my opinion, a good example of a hopeful direction in this comedy and is well worth a full read.

Why it works: Like many Onion pieces, this one has an air of borderline (at least) plausibility. Polls like this are taken, names of people and organizations are real and familiar, and the behavior described is not wholly unbelievable. The joke can stand as an observation of the (perhaps temporary) goodwill and brother-/sisterhood towards humans that seemed to sweep many quarters of the country in the time leading up to election night right through inauguration day. Viewed deeper it also subtly pokes fun at the notion of a “post-racial America”: Blacks and Whites still have different views of the same phenomenon, some Whites are still clueless as to their impact on people of other races. The simple regard for Blacks’ humanity is shown simultaneously as previously missing from much interracial contact and likely just a blip in such interactions.

Who might find it especially funny: Some Blacks who have experienced these kinds of reactions might be especially inclined to laugh uproariously at this piece, similar to how I reacted the first time I explored the Rent-a-Negro and Black People Love Us websites. Others who are fighting the feel-good idea/myth/wishful thinking of a post-racial world might also find the piece humorous, regardless of their race and ethnicity.

Who might have problems with it: Some people may take offense at how the butt of the joke is mainly White people and, perhaps more specifically, the largest segment of White people who supported Barack Obama during the campaign (urban, well educated, young). Obama-age humor will be particularly prone to having a “strange bedfellows” quality to it. In this case, both some Black people—both who did and did not supported Obama—and some White conservatives and others who did not vote for Obama may be laughing. But for different reasons.

Let’s try another one. This one is from the popular user-generated Pundit Kitchen site. It depicts a loving moment between the Obamas. Michelle is saying, “Let’s play Naughty Nurse meets the President again.” Barack responds, “Okay, but this time I get to be the President.”

//punditkitchen.com/2008/12/05/political-pictures-obamas-naughty-nurse/

Why it works: Classic comedic reversal of expectations. Because Barack is, in fact, the President—and, is male—the initial assumption from the first line is that when the two play this game Michelle is the “Naughty Nurse” and Barack is “the President.” Of course, the second line throws this expectation on its head.

Who might find it especially funny: Someone who feels that Barack Obama is too “soft” and Michelle Obama too “manly.” So, this might be funny to some detractors of the Obamas. But also, the joke might be funny to someone who believes in the empowerment of women, the positivity of sexual expression, gender egalitarianism, or other such notions. Particularly the empowerment of Black women, the positivity of sexual expression in Black couples, etc. Again, different segments of people will be laughing for different reasons.

Who might have problems with it: Someone who is troubled by what they see as the sexual fetishism that seems to be directed toward this particular President and First Lady, and the racial overtones involved in it. Black women as sexually loose and emasculating, Black men as sexual studs, etc. Also, some feel that this type of joke-making about the leader of our nation is inappropriate no matter who is in office. The presidency should be held in high esteem, according to this view, so this kind of focus on the President’s sex life is disrespectful and inappropriate.

Me? I find both of these examples extremely funny. Hard times are here, with harder times to follow. We’ll all get through them a lot easier if we are able to laugh at ourselves, each other, and our leaders.

September 28, 2009

“I blame it on (F)eminism…”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 7:25 am

…The entire episode reminds me of one of the more insightful things my mother told me (and regardless of the current state of our relationship, my mother has told me MANY insightful things): “We read them, but really, they do not read us.”

Meaning, of course, that many white women of privilege and access think what they write is new because they don’t really bother to read the work of women (and men) outside of their race and/or class. And yet we think nothing of reading theirs and weighing their contributions as part of our process of informing ourselves as we begin to do our own work.

~Rebecca Walker

September 16, 2009

At the Intersection: Some of the People Some of the Time Interlude

Filed under: "Black Hipster Expressionism" — Tags: , , , , — pprscribe @ 11:17 pm
Two-ness, Four-ness, Six-ness, Eight...

"Two-ness, Four-ness, Six-ness, Eight..." PPR_Scribe

One thing this whole thing is about is multiple, intersecting identities. Not a new idea, granted. But I think that any time any group of people begin to take note of how their identities may be morphing, some interesting conversations may follow. So how about this as a first question—for all you Black hipsters or otherwise:

Is there a “Black middle class culture” that is distinct from other intersecting cultures—namely White middle class and Black “underclass”?

Note that I am not talking about the “Black elite”—the “old money” Black upperclass. What do you think?

September 14, 2009

Some of the People Some of the Time: Prologue to a Discussion of “Black Hipster Expression”

Filed under: "Black Hipster Expressionism" — Tags: , , , , , — pprscribe @ 12:46 am
Untitled

"None of the People, None of the Time." PPR_Scribe

I’ve been saying for some time that I was going to revisit  issues from the post, “Til your tongue turns doo-doo brown”: 2 Live Crew and Hipster Expression, and the conversation that followed. I want to deliver on that promise starting with this post.

Re-cap

In the original post, I was responding to one of the lesser-discussed aspects of the Henry Louis Gates arrest case. Acts of Faith and Love and What About Our Daughters did a wonderful job of reminding us of Dr. Gates’ defense of the rap group 2 Live Crew during their obscenity trial. I came clean in my post about my own brief affair with the music of 2 Live Crew.

I coined a term—hipster expression—to characterize consumption of racially/sexually problematic creative output:

We could consume problematic Black cultural artifacts in an ironic, intellectual, distant manner. We could even reclaim it from Whites as legitimately “ours.” Perhaps people were portrayed in hurtful ways. But those people were not us.

…Any Black person who writes professionally about hip hop…anyone who teaches a college level course about it…anyone who dons their PhD credentials and testifies in court about it…anyone who blogs about it on a shiny silver Mac… Any one of these Black people is potentially demonstrating a hipster expressionism.

Like its mirror image, hipster racism, Black hipster expressionism is usually exploitative, is an exercise in privilege (though class, not race, privilege), and mostly serves to reinforce instead of tearing down harmful stereotypes. (I would also venture to say it is “inauthentic” but I am always hesitant to label anyone’s experience as real or not.)

Call…and Response

I usually do not get a lot of comments here at This So-Called PPR Life, so when I do get more than 0 or 1 0r 2, I know I’ve hit upon something that folks want to talk about. I deeply enjoyed the conversation in the comment thread following this post. Some excerpts:

I think black academics, perhaps all academics, spend too much time projecting their intellect onto others to the point where they refuse to call a spade a spade. I’ve slid into that mode analyzing literature. You see it happen in art, people pushing all this scholarship into evaluating and abstract painting only to discover someone dipped a cat’s boot clad paws in paint and got the animal to run around on a canvas. If you think hard you assume other people think hard too.

~Nordette Adams, Whose shoes are these anyway?

I, too, have my own experience with this kind of moral dilemma – for my HBCU classmates and me it was Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” and we played it all day long (still have a special place in my heart for that album). I couldn’t agree more with the idea that we create a kind of intellectual distance from these hurtful, potentially damaging words in order to laugh or enjoy the music (and not listen to the insulting lyrics).

~Claudia, The Bottom of Heaven

The mistake is for people to get sidetracked into thinking groups like 2 Live Crew were using artistic expression. It was hate speech. Specifically targeting black women and there was one final attempt by some common sense having whites via the courts and C. Delores Tucker standing by her lonesome trying to stave off the tidal wave of depravity that followed.

~Acts of Faith in Love and Life

“Perform your obligatory duty, because action is indeed better than inaction.” Bhagavad Gita

This is pretty much my entire take on life. And I think if we started adopting these principles as black people, we would see some change in our communities. We see what inaction has done. I don’t even mean going out and volunteering in the traditional sense, but simply being indifferent to the reality of what is going on is, to me, almost as damaging as partaking.

~Seattle Slim, Happy Nappy Head

That Reminds Me...

I was reminded that I still had not followed up on this issue when I read a post over at Racialicious about a new ad campaign for a gym featuring a Blaxploitation-era-looking scantily clad Black woman. As broken down by Andrea (AJ) Plaid:

David Barton Gym is definitely selling Black women’s bodies–or, rather, using the “hip 70s supermama” image (the perfectly spherical ‘fro, the make-up, the hooker shorts) with the copy and pose riffing on the centuries-old Black-women’s-sexuality-is-for-the-lowest-bidder stereotypes–to get more bodies into their gyms.

In response I said:

I am conflicted. I hear everyone about the problematic nature of the context, the text, etc. But these ads bring to mind my uncle’s basement “club room” in the 70s–with the Ohio Players album covers and the velvet, blacklight-lit posters of nude and strategically-nude Black women much like these.

I used to look at these women and marvel at their beauty and power and confidence. They were absolutely stunning. As is the woman in this ad.

…This is one of those things that I, as a womanist, know I should feel outraged about. But instead I feel a kind of warm, positive nostalgia.

One thing I do know is that reactions to this ad may show how novel it still is to see women of color depicted in any ads, thus the few that are depicted carry that much more rhetorical weight. I think the default is to assume that these kinds of ads must be racist/misogynistic/both/otherwise problematic and to spend our critical thinking on deconstructing how that might be so. We are less likely to deconstruct the positive reactions we–or, at least some of us–may have.

There are a number of ways to take my response, among them:

  1. I am just wrong. I am not aware, as a Black woman, of my own oppression and am revealing, through my “opinion,” a “false consciousness”;
  2. I am just being contrary, looking to start some on-line mess;
  3. I have a legitimate difference of opinion, based on differences in my own experiences vs. the poster/commenters;
  4. I have an unusually high tolerance for ambiguity and gray areas—a condition possibly brought on by an inordinate time spent in graduate school;
  5. I am engaging in Black hipster expressionism.

As I write this there are no responses to my response yet at Racialicious. Perhaps there will be none. If there are responses I do not expect that many will echo my viewpoints.

But I know there will be readers who feel similarly.

Just as I know that there are progressive, highly intelligent, worldly, middle class Black folks who re not church-goers, but who are also closet fans of Tyler Perry’s movies. And that there are Black PhDs at elite universities who teach audre lourde and whose car stereos only blare Joan Armatrading, but whose CD collections at home also feature Snoop Dogg and Kanye West. I know I am not the only Black person who recognizes a tendency to sometimes engage in this kind of hipsterism.

This time, the prompt to my thinking about this issue of hipster expression was an ad campaign. But there have been (and will be) other topics and events that are applicable. There will be times when my reaction will cause some to exclaim “Why are you not more outraged at this ad/song/movie/cartoon?” while at the same time others—sometimes about the same prompt and my same reaction—will say, “It’s just an ad/a song/a movie/a cartoon; Why are you getting so outraged?” Guess it is true what they say: You cannot please all of the people all of the time, or even most of the people most of the time…er, or something like that.

Anyway. Over the next several weeks I will be posting from time to time exploring this subject. If you have any insights, or would like to offer your own guest post as part of this series, please drop me a line in the comments or via email.

September 7, 2009

Our Daughters, Our Selves

In another part of the country, a mother buries her Black daughter. This mother probably thought this daughter, killed steps from a college library, would be safe. She probably aches from the thought that she could not have protected her better. All over the country, mothers of Black daughters in her age group (15-24) ache for their dead daughters—dead from “unintentional injuries” (#1 cause of death) and homicide (#2 cause of death).

"Peace, Love and Freedom Hair." PPR_Scribe

"Peace, Love and Freedom Hair." PPR_Scribe

No one else seems to ache for their daughters. There does not, for example, seem to be a national feminist organization, or a national Black civil rights organization, whose mission it is to ache—and advocate for—these Black daughters.

So we mothers of Black daughters must advocate for our daughters, for our selves.

INVISIBLE_TEXT

Sometimes I am cynical about what my daughters’ world will be. I look around and see signs that do not fill me with hope. I look around and see who we cry for, who we call into radio programs to show support for, who we march in the streets for, who we file amicus curiae briefs for, who we garner our righteous indignation for. And those whos do not, in most cases, seem to be  Black daughters.

The First Lady must advocate for her First (and Only) Daughters. As must we all. Our nation’s First (Black) Daughters are our symbols. They are our symbols for what it will be to be a Black daughter in this still-new century. Will it be more of the same? Or a New Day? Will the new day be a good new day, or will it surprise us with the creativity and inventiveness of its new-found horrible-ness?

INVISIBLE_TEXT
"Sunlit Babes." PPR_Scribe

"Sunlit Babes." PPR_Scribe

My Black daughters came to me in a pair. And people tend to think of them as a pair. Venus-and-Serena. Sasha-and-Malia.

Yes, my daughters are individuals, not an interchangeable unit. Yet I like their paired-ness. Hopefully the dashes sandwiching the and between their names will remind them that they will have to advocate for each other. To be their own best friends.

Their own most ardent defenders.

INVISIBLE_TEXT

I stand in solidarity with other mothers of Black daughters. Many of these mothers are Black daughters themselves. But some are not. Some are White daughters, or identify racially as other than black or white. Some mothers are “actually” grandmothers, or aunts, or older cousins. Some are not even female, but they “mother” their Black daughters just the same. Black daughters are yoked to their mothers by biology and by adoption and by social contract. By necessity and by convenience and by happenstance.

"Maybe He's Not Thirsty." PPR_Scribe

"Maybe He's Not Thirsty." PPR_Scribe

These varied Black daughters might struggle to see themselves in other Black daughters. And we as their mothers must release ourselves from whatever bulky and heavy bags we still tote around, filled with random items of wrinkled shit of our own histories with other Black daughters.

It ain’t gonna be easy.

But it is for our daughters, so we will find a way.

INVISIBLE_TEXT

I feel a special concern for other Black mothers of Black daughters. There is a saying in Black communities: We love our sons and raise our daughters. I often do see evidence of this. With all respect, some of us need to do more forcing our sons to grow up, and ensuring our daughters do not grow up too soon. I have seen the consequences of some Black mothers’ “loving” of their Black sons.

And it is not a pretty sight.

Mothers of Black daughters: Love your daughters. Fiercely and completely. Love them as much as you do—or should—love yourselves.

"Daddies Are for Fames of Tag." PPR_Scribe

"Daddies Are for Games of Tag." PPR_Scribe

INVISIBLE_TEXT

One of the greatest gifts I have given my Black daughters is a man in their life—in this case, their biological father—who loves and cherishes them beyond any other. Even beyond me.

It sounds retro, old fashioned to say it. Maybe “conservative” and “anti-progressive.” Certainly anti-feminist. But.

My Black daughters need at least one man in their life who feels this way about them. All Black daughters do. Black daughters who do not have such a man in their lives as children may struggle as grown women. Many of these grown Black women—straight or lesbian or bisexual or otherwise—will waste years of their lives trying  to find a glimmer of themselves as wonderful beings in the eyes of men, never knowing what it is in those eyes that they should be looking for. They may mistake possessiveness for protection. Violence for passion. Sex for love.

"First Day at the New School." PPR_Scribe

"First Day at the New School." PPR_Scribe

Thinking back, I was probably not the Black daughter at adolescence that my own mother hoped for. How can one young woman (i.e., me) be so arrogant and contrary about everything—from spirituality to my bedroom decor, from music to academics, from my treatment of my little sister to the meaning of life?

"African Princess." PPR_Scribe

"African Princess." PPR_Scribe

I try to remember my own saltiness as I enter new relationship phases with my own mother, and as my daughters move from little girls to pre-teens. I try to remember—as my mother’s words flow from my mouth, and my daughters hear these words with my former ears—that this is just a stage, just one way station on a long path.

But it is a journey that must be navigated with sensitivity if I want to arrive at the next stage with daughters who respect me.

And who will not cringe when, one day, they hear my own words come out of their mouths.

"Real Princesses Build Their Own Castles." PPR_Scribe

"Real Princesses Build Their Own Castles." PPR_Scribe

INVISIBLE_TEXT

…Sometimes I am cynical about what my daughters’ world will be. I look around and see signs that do not fill me with hope….

Then other times, I think otherwise. I may be standing in a hot shower, five minutes past my alarm clock siren and 30 minutes before my first sip of coffee, and my mind chains together several links of good—or at least, not-so-bad—Signs; and in a moment of clarity I realize how much power I have to ensure that my daughters’ world will be a gift and not a curse.

It is important to hold onto those moments, even in times of hopelessness and cynicism.

Especially in times of hopelessness and cynicism.

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