This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

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

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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, theĀ  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)*****

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