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.

October 29, 2009

The Obamas and The (Re)Discovery of Blackness

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — pprscribe @ 4:09 pm

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 21, 2009

LOLObama

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — pprscribe @ 12:27 pm

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

June 14, 2009

Working With Black Women, Epilogue: The Next Generation

***Part 1 here; Part 2 here***

So, as the blog says: What about our daughters?

Will they be destined to travel our same paths, stumble over the same exposed roots and boulders we did? Will they be able to be all their selves with each other? Will they decide to identify as feminists, womanists, multi-ists, or nary-ists? Will they be more than their hair, their skin tone, their names? Can they be yoked romantically to men, other women—to no one in particular—without being defined solely in terms of these connections or lack of them?

…The Family Reunion is an ideal natural environment to gain insight into these questions. The aluminum foil is peeled back from the homemade mac and cheese and the pork ribs. The card decks and dominoes are slapping table tops. Frankie Beverly and Maze is echoing across the green grass of the public park, and the living is easy.

"We all gonna get a chance to stir", PPR_Scribe

"We all gonna get a chance to stir", PPR_Scribe

Hugs and greetings of long-losts have been exchanged and now the sub-groupings have been formed. Loosely based on age and gender, but not completely.

A group of Girl Cousins, from 3 to 10 years old, has coalesced around a shared love of babies and homemade ice cream and a cooler full of juice in pouches. At some point I take them across the field to the portable potty. In-depth discussion: toilet paper and hand sanitizer, who is doing number one versus number two, the merits of High School Musical underpants versus plain white or pink, the odd looking “cookie” in the urinal (“where men go pee-pee; see, their penises fit inside there”) beside the toilet. After all this—and of helping with lining the dirty seat with paper and fastening snaps and belt buckles and buttons—I am ready to head back to the picnic site.

But the Girl Cousins are not.

They have found a sewer drain, full of water from three straight days of rain. The sewer drain is actually a pot of stew, and a discarded stick has become a wooden spoon. Beans are required from amongst the pebbles of the adjacent baseball diamond. Leafy greens are needed from the dandelion plants and grass. Seasoning in the form of sand from the pitcher’s mound gives it extra flavoring.

"We need more beans for the stew", PPR_Scribe

"We need more beans for the stew", PPR_Scribe

Braids and twists and puffs top the heads. Inside the heads minds work to create a state-of-the-art kitchen. The conversation is focused and intense. No, that’s a little too much salt. Yeah, great idea—Get the brown beans up under the lighter ones. Please let her add her greens next. Look at what I found—we can use it for a measuring cup! OK, OK, we all gonna get a chance to stir! Mmm, it’s almost done; Y’all wanna taste?

The Girl Cousins are from the inner city and the suburbs. They participate in vacation bible school and swim practice and drill team. They sing all the words to Kidz Bop and Beyonce and Keke Palmer and Alicia Keys and Hanna Montanna. Their parents are married, never married…their siblings are theirs by biology and social agreement.

"No, it needs to cook a bit longer" PPR_Scribe

"No, it needs to cook a bit longer" PPR_Scribe

They are a diverse bunch.

After the stew is made, the oldest calls for everyone to join hands and bow heads for a prayer. Her words give thanks for this food and the hands, Lord, who has prepared it. She asks for the continued safety of our family, Lord, and the love that we share for each other today and all days. The other Girl Cousins nod, their eyes tightly closed in reverence.

At the end of the prayer they all say amen and begin to eat their meal.

Eventually we head back to the picnic area. The Girl Cousins run ahead, leaving me to snap a few more photographs.

I pray that if there is a God, she or he listens to and answers the prayers of little children over make believe stew.

"And now may we please bow our heads", PPR_Scribe

"And now may we please bow our heads", PPR_Scribe

June 11, 2009

Working With Black Women, Part 2: The Movie

Filed under: Working With Black Women — Tags: , , , , — pprscribe @ 11:22 am

***Part One here***

In the movie version on this scene from my life I am being played by…Raven-Symone. The professor seated at a desk a few feet from me is played by Sigourney Weaver. “Who’s coming in this weekend for your graduation?” “Everybody,” I/Raven say/s, looking up for a moment from the stack of papers I/she am/is grading. “My sister and her son, my mother and grandmother, father and stepmother.” “That is wonderful,” Professor ____/Sigourney says, a wistful look in her eyes. “I know exactly how you feel. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, too.”

In real life, I wasn’t thrown until that “too.” The shared fact of first generation college was supposed to be, I guess, the bond that united the two of us women across age and race. The only problem was that I was not the first person in my family to go to/graduate from college. In fact, of the folks coming to see me graduate, everyone except for my grandmother and baby nephew had all graduated from college. Three of the adults, in fact, had advanced post graduate degrees. Before this interaction I had never said anything to the professor who made this comment about my or my family’s history and our college-going experiences. So why had the woman assumed I was The First in my family to graduate from college?

You can, I am sure, guess the reason why.

I am Black.

If I am Black, I must be a first generation college-goer. Or so was the assumption of this very liberal, White female college professor.

I could tell that I lost some of my realness in her mind that day. I understood that day for the first time that a large part of why she liked me, why she felt a bond with me, why she treated me more like a colleague (or at least a graduate student) than like an undergrad, was because she assumed that I was a certain kind of Black woman. A real Black woman. And then she found out that I was not.

…The Authenticity Game. Are you Real or are you Memorex? Draw a card and take your chances. If it’s a Real Black Card, proceed to go and collect your money. If it’s a Fake Black Card, go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200….

I get annoyed when I have to play this game with White people. It is 10 times more annoying when I have to play it with other Black folks, especially other Black women.

~~~

If this scene from my life were a movie, I would be played by Sanaa Lathan. The Black woman from work/school/the gym/the PTA meeting I am meeting for the first time is played by Angela Bassett/Victoria Rowell/Vanessa Williams/Jada Pinkett Smith. “So,” says Angela/Victoria/Vanessa/Jada, “where’d you do your undergrad?” Me/Sanaa: “___ College.” “Oh, ___ College?” “No. I went to ___ College. It’s a small woman-only liberal arts college in New England.” “Hmmm.” Angela/Victoria/Vanessa/Jada now looks a little concerned, but then brightens. “So, what’d you pledge?” “I didn’t pledge anything,” I/Sanaa mumble/s.

[I/Sanaa draw/s the Fake Black Card from the top of the deck...]

A conversation I have had numerous times. (And, one that my husband has had with new Black female colleagues about me as they are trying to figure out if I am Black or White. Another story.) I usually let the interaction stand. The relationship between me and whatever Black woman will either progress past and despite my initial failure in Blackness, or it will not. In the former case, we will likely eventually discuss our initial assumptions about each other and share a laugh. In the latter case there will likely be no relationship, or at least not one that is positive. But I have largely decided that there are too few breaths allotted to me to waste them trying to authenticate myself for others.

Yeah, right. I wish I were so baddass.

The truth is that I do care—at least with other Black women—how I fare in the Authenticity Game. I keep playing even though I know the rules are stacked against me. No. I did not attend an HBI. No. I did not pledge a Black (or any) sorority. No. I do not have “natural” hair. No. I did not grow up in the ghetto or with a single parent. Yes. White folks seem to get along with me, like me. Yes. I fit in easily and fairly effortlessly in majority White environments and this comfort level shows in my achievement. Yes. I am often perceived as a “safe” Black person by the White and other non-Black people I work with.

How do I win against those odds? How did I get to this point—all these years after my diverse experience in my 60-40 high school—where the space for Real Black Womanhood has grown so constricted?

~~~

…In this movie scene I am played by Tracee Ellis Ross. My new boss is played by Denise Nicholas. She is appraising me, my new employee file folder open on the desk before her. “So, your husband is an officer?” “Yes,” I/Tracee say/s. “Hmmm, the Army paid for his ____ school, I bet.” She laughs and looks back down to my file. Tracee tries to decode the laugh as good-natured or derisive. “And you have a Masters degree from ___.” “…Yes…” “You know, I’ve had many spousal hires like you come through here,” my boss/Denise says, whipping the glasses off of her face and looking me/Tracee in the eyes. “Never worked for DOA a day in their lives, fancy degrees from White schools. But anybody can buy a degree. What matters is experience. Knowing the Army culture. That you can’t buy. Well, don’t expect some sort of ‘training program.’ You’ll get what I got when I started as a GS-09 administrator like you: a book of regs and a key to my office. If your Masters program was as good as it looks on paper, you should be able to figure it out for yourself. I did.”

[I/Tracee back/s out of the office, cradling office keys and a huge three-ring binder filled with papers in one hand and my/her Fake Black Card in the other.]

My first job with a Black female boss. How hard I worked in that job. Not only did I have to prove myself as a “real” Black woman, but as a “real” Army community member. I was there at every meeting, served on every base committee. I updated every SOP and regulation. I instituted a newsletter. I developed relationships with the MPs, the base CO, the JAG office, and the base fire marshal. I ordered new supplies—the first time anyone had bothered to do so in years. I learned to recognize rank insignias and laugh at military jokes. I adapted myself to the pace of our weekly meetings with the other two Child Care Services administrators—also, both Black women. I took my ribbing as a “college girl” in stride. I walked the tightrope between fit-for-duty and not-showing-out.

But then I received a special commendation and prestigious coin from the base commander—something that was rare, apparently, for civilian employees on this base. My coin says, “PRESENTED FOR EXCELLENCE.” My framed certificate says, “Your professionalism and dedication reflect great credit upon you, the ____ Base Support Battalion, and the United States Army.” Back in Denise’s my boss’s office following the awarding of this honor my first Black female boss said, “Well, looks like this new commander just gives those coins away. Our last commander only gave them out for special circumstances.”

~~~

If this scene from my life were a movie, all three of us would be dressed fabulously…we’d be walking side by side in slow motion…a funky soundtrack would be playing loudly in time with our steps. The heads of the White colleagues we pass in the halls would literally turn as we glide by. (Well, actually that would not be artistic license, as in real life the heads really did turn; conversations really were halted. But back to the movie version.) I’d be played by Gabrielle Union. To my right would be Queen Latifah and to my left would be Halle Berry. Though previously suspicious of each other—each for our own reasons, based on our own backgrounds—we are now, after cafeteria wilted salads and stale sandwiches, united in a powerful front. There is no stopping us now. The powerful White folks watching us pass in the hallway are defeated. Their efforts to play us off against and keep us apart from each other have failed….

In real life, the day that the only three Black women in my department came back from our first lunch together was a little less dramatic than my movie version, but no less meaningful to me. I could almost see the thought bubbles floating above the heads of folks as we passed by. What had we been doing at lunch together for so long? What had we been talking about? Were we dissatisfied with something in the department? Had the carefully planned diversity efforts somehow gone awry? Was the department not being welcoming and inclusive enough?

No. Three Black women just wanted to have lunch together. And, hopefully, get to know each other. Really get to know each other. Some kind of way we had decided to see past the misconceptions and the assumptions…to move beyond the past burn marks each of us had suffered at the hands of other Black women…to risk each of our statuses within the department (the Acceptable Approachable One, the  Caretaker One, the Young Cute Bubbly One…) in order to be all of our selves—at least to and for each other.

I suppose in the movie we’d have to do something symbolic as each of us, finished with our baddass hallway strut past gape-mouthed White colleagues, opened our respective office doors and returned to our work day. Maybe each of us in the privacy of our offices would take out our Fake Black Cards to see them vanish to nothing in our fingers. Then the music would swell and the credits would roll….

I know that here in real life my next experience with other Black women in the workplace might take me back to square one with the Authenticity Game. I might have to answer the “What’d you pledge” question for the umpteenth time, might have to go for weeks or months harboring inaccurate assumptions about my Black female coworkers and them about me. Perhaps the ending will be happy but just as likely, it will be another disaster.

But this is my movie. And I like the vanishing fake Black cards ending.

***Part 3 (of 3) here***

June 8, 2009

Working With Black Women, Part 1: My First Black Friends

Filed under: Working With Black Women — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 2:24 pm

I’ve been whining in this space about my job hunt. No news yet about any of the recent applications I have submitted. But the one I am most excited about would—if I were to be fortunate enough to get the job—be a very different experience for me. Already employed in my would-be division are several Black women. Like, more than three. So my addition to this team would mean that we’d basically be a unit chock fulla Black women.

I admit that the thought of that has got me thinking.

For most of my professional and academic life I have been The Only One. From first through fourth grades there was me and Baker Morton (*not his real name) as the only two Black kids in our whole grade. All the other kids assumed we were either brother and sister or, come third grade or so, boyfriend-girlfriend. I heard about me and Baker sitting in a tree kay-eye-ess-ess-eye-en-gee so many times it is ingrained on my ear drums. Baker avoided me like the plague.

In high school, my parents gave me a break. We moved to a mixed race neighborhood. When Mom and Dad found out that I was to be bused to the majority-White school in the system we had just moved from, they marched me down to the administration offices and demanded that I be allowed to go to the 60%-40% Black-White school 15 minutes away from us. My father had said to the confused administrator, “Don’t think of her as a Black student who needs to have experience with White kids; think of her as a White kid who needs to have experience with with Black kids.” I was allowed to go to the 60-40 school. It saved my social life. (I would also meet my future husband there. Another story.)

In this new high school I had my first Black female friends.

On the eve of my first day of school, I had images of tough, street-wise girls with Angela Davis afros, switchblades stuffed in their socks and packs of cigarettes in their designer purses. I didn’t see anyone exactly like that my first day. But still these Black girls in high school were something else. Louder than I had been used to. More confident-seeming. Hair styles that looked as if they just stepped out of the beauty salon. They looked, physically, more like women than girls.

My first Black female friend I met while sitting alone at the lunch table. She came over and sat down and introduced herself. We found out we shared the same first name. She was holding a bible and began talking about how much she loved the stories, mentioning in particular all the “sexy stuff” that could be found in its pages. As unfashionable as I felt—with my too-new clothes that may as well have had tags screaming “BACK TO SCHOOL SALE AT J.C. PENNY,” she was even less fashionable. Her clothes looked as if she had sewn them herself using patterns borrowed from “The Little House on the Prairie” wardrobe department.

Great, I thought. My only friend for the next four years is going to be this outcast.

But that friendship only lasted a week or so. I still feel a slight rush of hot shame when I think about how I dumped my like-named first friend once I had made real friends. Actually, it’d have been better if I had dumped her. Instead, I just sort of…went out of my way to make sure our paths did not cross, spoke fewer and fewer words to her, “forgot” to meet her at her locker after English class…until she figured out on her own that we were no longer friends and she stopped talking to me.

I needn’t have worried about trying to fit in once I had my circle of “real” Black female friends. They were a pretty diverse bunch. One lived on the other side of town in the projects, getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning and transferring buses twice in order to attend this better school. Another lived in a stable, working class neighborhood. Another was the daughter of a Black professional and had a mother who was the only stay-at-home Black woman that I had ever met. They wore all different styles of clothes, though mostly the “preppie” fashions that were then in vogue more so amongst the White kids than the Black ones. Musically, they liked Prince and Rick James and P-Funk—but could groove to Elton John, too. There was no need for me to try to “talk Black” around them, and they were in the same advanced classes that I was in, so no need for me to play dumb.

Not being The Only One allowed me to develop an identity as a Black girl/woman in the context of other Black girls. I was the only one in our group who was born in another state, had lived in other cities, and had experienced a kind of bohemian upbringing. Thus, I became The Worldly One. I had a musician mother and had been on the inside of nightclubs so, even though a couple of my other female friends were in Jazz and Marching Bands, I was The Musical One. We were all in the advanced classes and were all well-liked by our teachers, but because of the special composition awards I received I was The Writer One. On the romantic front, I was not the cutest or the prettiest, or the most popular with the fellas, or the most experienced at flirting and whatnot. But, perhaps because of my utter lack of natural opposite-sex interactive skills, I developed a somewhat of an allure: I was The Elusive and Mysterious One. As the only one of us who had come from majority-White school settings, my born-again Blackness was intensive and all-encompassing: I was The Militant One.

Despite highly achieving, my high school years were not without a certain mid-level mischief. Still, I developed into the one who could best keep track of curfews, organize alibis, and keep my wits about me in wrong places at wrong times: I was The Responsible One.

You would think that this experience during my teen years would be the perfect foundation for a lifetime of positive working relationships with other Black women…for sharing in the workplace with other Black women a sisterhood, a sense of shared goals and common destiny, and a respect for our differences…for an immediate ease of interaction with other Black women, a sense of comfort in me with them and them with me.

You’d think, maybe. But you’d be wrong…

*****(Part 2 here; Part 3 here)*****

April 14, 2009

Yoo-hoo for Hoo-hahs

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — pprscribe @ 2:44 pm

Quick PSA #2: Womanist Musings has alerted me to a product that says it provides “feminine zone nourishment.” Please note that this product is not nourishment for your honeypot, but is instead designed to somehow make your ladybusiness itself more nourishing.

Really, there is no need for such nonsense. These unneccessary products have been around for ages and are just as silly in 2009 as they were back in the 70s when my own little hellokitty became a full grown vajayjay. What my cha-cha could really use is something sweet and tasty to smack my lowerlips on throughout the day as I am running errands, writing on my computer, cleaning my house.

That‘s a product any luckylucy could jump on.

April 6, 2009

Go Tell It

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — pprscribe @ 3:35 pm

Often when WOC speak or allies attempt to engage with racial conversations critically we are silencedIt has become essential that we promote spaces where we can engage safely.

~Renee @ WomanistMusings

Please consider submitting some of your blogwork to the 3rd WOC and Ally Blog Carnival. Submission details here.

Inside-Out

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — pprscribe @ 11:48 am

She was sitting in the lobby of a barely two-year-old suburban high school. It was about an hour after school let out for the day, but the building was still a-buzz with activity: drama club meeting and band practice, National Honor Society fund raiser and cheer leading tryouts. And most of all—sports of all kind.

This particular lobby where she sat was across from the Natatorium. The school housed the largest and most state-of-the-art facility in the greater metropolitan area, with two Olympic sized pools and regulation diving boards. Here is where her daughters took their “Golden Guppy” swimming lessons and right now they were in the bathroom across the lobby changing into their suits.

While she sat on the bench, watching streams of young people flow by, three teen-aged girls walked over and sat on the next bench beside hers. They were giggling and talking the giggles and talk of teen-aged girls everywhere and everytime. And periodically pulling out small cell phones to read and compose text messages like many teenage girls of this time. After a few moments of watching and listening to them, the waiting woman determined that their names were Ashley, Mariah (like the singer), and another Ashley. The first Ashley wore pink sweat pants with the word JUICY in Gothic script across the butt, and a sleeveless pink t-shirt. Both Mariah and the other Ashley were wearing flannel pants that appeared to be men’s pajama bottoms. Topping her flannel pants Mariah wore a black t-shirt with a beautifully silk screened portrait of the late rapper, Tupac Shakur. Coming down almost to the knees of the other Ashley’s flannel pants was a letter jacket in the bright primary colors of the high school. All three wore their long blond hair in a single pony tail fastened with what looked to be vintage jeweled hair clips.

The waiting woman sat, half listening to their conversation, and reflecting on her own style fads as a teen: overalls with one strap undone, perfectly pressed dark blue Jordache jeans, crisp white oxford shirts with a horse and rider embroidered over the left breast, Jheri Curls. This reverie was interrupted when JUICY Ashley suddenly stood from the bench and began rapping a lyric that the woman knew to belong to Lil Wayne, a lyric heavily littered with nigger and bitch.

Midway through the second verse, JUICY Ashley (noticing her two friends noticing the middle-aged Black woman seated on the bench next to them who was noticing them) abruptly stopped. Addressing the woman she smiled sweetly and said, “Don’t mind me. I’m a White girl on the outside but a Black girl on the inside. I’m like…a reverse Oreo.”

The woman managed a smile of her own—trying to make it as sweet as she could—and forced an “Oh.” The girls went back to spitting their rhymes and periodically checking their phones for text messages. Within moments they had moved on—gone to their practice, or to catch their rides home. Or perhaps off to the club where they would pop bottles of bub and make it rain on some hos.

No sooner had the three girls left than the woman’s small daughters came bounding out of the bathroom, laughing in their one-piece swimming suits and carrying the oversized duffel bag between them. They dropped the bag at the woman’s feet and one of the girls exclaimed loudly, “Mommy, Mommy, watch this!”

The two girls then recited something in perfect two-part rhythm. The words went along with synchronized body movements: first a stop-in-the-name-of-love outstretched right palm with the left hand on the left hip, followed by a flick of the right wrist, a double roll of the head on the neck, and ending with a slap of the right palm on the right buttock.

The words they spoke along with these movements were, “The HAND is off DU-ty so TALK to the BOO-ty!!!”

Thinking immediately of JUICY Ashley and her sisterhood, the woman said, “Where did you get that from?” That is how she might have planned to say it, but the words that actually came out were much louder and harsher: “WHERE DID YOU GET THAT FROM!!!”

Clearly alarmed, both girls stopped smiling. “From Hannah Montana, Mommy.”

Not JUICY Ashley, or the other Ashley, or Mariah-like-the-singer. A character on a Disney Channel television program.

For the second time in as many minutes, all the woman could manage was an “Oh.”

The girls exchanged a look between them that was equal parts concern and pity. Quickly filling that space left in the aftermath of the woman’s outburst, the second daughter said, “Mommy, can we go on ahead inside the pool? Will you bring our bag?” The woman tried to make her smile as sweet as she could, “Yes, of course, baby. Go on. I’ll bring the bag.”

With a quick thank-you and a trail of laughter, the girls ran across the lobby and opened the large glass doors to the noisy and humid Natatorium. The woman sat for a few more moments, perhaps watching footage of the scenes she had just witnessed. Shortly, she stood from the bench, picked up her jacket and the large duffel bag, and followed the girls inside the pool area.

***First draft originally posted Feb 4, 2009***

March 17, 2009

Old Like Me

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — pprscribe @ 1:56 pm

The young man scanning and bagging my purchases at the bookstore check out line stopped to look at the magazine cover featuring Michelle Obama.

“I just love her,” he said.

“Me too,” I replied.

“Such an impressive background. And I loved her speeches during the campaign.”

“Mmm hmm,” I said vaguely, trying to figure out the debit card swiping machine.

“And she really looks so good…”

"You're a Woman, I'm a Machine." R. Motti, http://www.flickr.com/photos/motti/285637478/

"You're a Woman, I'm a Machine." R. Motti, http://www.flickr.com/photos/motti/285637478/

Here his voice did not intone down as one’s voice should when one has come to the end of a statement. Instead, the “good” hung there for a moment on the same note as the “so.” I knew there was more to follow and it soon came:

“…for a woman her age.”

She looks good for a woman her age.

What the hell is that supposed to mean? The First Lady is a year older than me. Do I, too, look good for a woman “my age”? Just average? Worse? What are women in their mid to late forties supposed to look like?

I thought about these questions all the way home. I still do not know whether I should be happy that people of all ages and races find Mrs. Obama attractive, or offended that they seem a little surprised that they should find her attractive. I don’t know what it says about me that Michelle Obama is now the example of what an attractive Black woman should look like. I mean, I am happy that she is tall, brown-skinned, curvy, healthy. I know what it is like to be thought not attractive because I am not petite, not White or “light-skinded” and not rail thin.

But that day in the bookstore I had on: some old scuffed up shoes, a frayed sweatshirt, and some old jeans. I had on no make-up and my hair was tied in the old week-past-my-touch-up pony tail. My gray hairs were visibly on display and my hand bag was about five years out of fashion.

I probably did not look good for my age or any age.

I used to frequent a certain Taco Bell in my neighborhood. A young man at the drive through window began to recognize me whenever I’d come through. It all started one time when I ordered with Lil Wayne blasting through the speakers. When I pulled up to the window he was bobbing his head to my music. “You jammin’ for lunch today, huh?” After that exchange he would always speak to me about something other than whether I wanted to upgrade my drink to a large for 50 more cents. He always gave me extra “fire” sauce packets even though the sign at the window said they would only give out three per main entre.

One time–I think this time I had OutKast on my car stereo–I drove up to his bobbing head and he said, “You know, I think it is so cool that someone your age likes this music.”

I was devastated. When I told the story to my husband he laughed. “Don’t be offended. He saw you as an MILF. Definitely don’t say anything to him about it. We could use the extra fire sauce.”

An MILF? A few googles and I had my explanation for what that particular acronym means. And again, the confusion about whether to be offended or charmed.

So here I am. Sitting at the 3-way identity intersection of “Black,” “female,” and “middle aged.” Not used to being considered the epitome of female beauty by mainstream America, my looks are now “in” because of the First Lady. Not used to being thought cool because I had always been such a nerd, I can now be down simply by being an old lady who likes young music. I am in a new weight class of sorts, competing against other middle aged moms. I apparently am ranked fairly highly in this class, but I am not sure what–besides extra condiments–I will win as a result.

I really do not know where to go from this intersection. But I probably should try to start dressing better. I’m about to log onto the onine J. Crew catalog right now…

The Silver is the New Black Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

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