Tag Archives: racism

Miss Simone

When I look at Nina Simone, I see what is right with her, and what was wrong with the culture that surrounded her.

-Tanya Steele

When I was a girl, my dad would listen to Sunday Morning Classics with Hal Jackson every single weekend.  For many years, Sunday Morning Classics woke me early every Sunday and I have never been a morning person but I didn’t mind. Sunday Morning Classics is where I remember hearing Nina Simone’s “MY Baby Just Cares for me” for the first time. I was familiar with the tune because of the classic Channel commercial.  My adolescent imagination was enchanted by her voice and the sexiness it lent to this very French perfume. What she does on the piano in that song is beyond my words to describe. In fact, although the song itself is quite popular, it’s not her vocals but her piano solo that slays. She was after all a prodigy, classically trained in piano from a very young age.

I read her autobiography a few years ago and last night I watched the documentary “What Happened Miss Simone” on Netflix. I had problems with it. But I had problems with her autobiography as well.  I was disturbed to learn how her husband, Andrew Stroud had severely beaten her throughout their marriage as well as tied her up and raped her on one occasion. I was disturbed that she chose to stay with him but based on her mindset I can understand why she stayed.  It was also sad to see how Nina replicated this abusive behavior by beating her own daughter in later years. But again, I can understand why this happened as well.  It became apparent to me as I read her autobiography that Nina was perhaps not the most reliable account of her own life because she seemed only to pull selectively from the parts of her memory that did not require her to take any responsibility for her own negative behavior.

What disturbed me about the documentary was the reliance on her husband to describe her and her declining mental state without ever interjecting that he was responsible for so much of it. It was if you were listening to a perpetrator talk about the unfortunate abuse of their own victim. I was not against him being a part of the documentary but at no point was there any evidence that Liz Garbus sought to investigate him or what in his background had caused him to be such a violent man. Though the facts of his violence were stated, his character was never really called into question. He was called a bully for working her hard. Nina was called violent, angry, difficult, unpredictable, frightening, prone to mood swings and more.

But the violence began long before Andrew entered Nina’s life. And that I believe is what laid the foundation for her acceptance of his abuse. As a girl, Nina was “discovered” by two white women who witnessed her incredible piano playing talent in church where she lead services and followed sermons that her mother gave. Nina’s family allowed these white women to isolate her in their home for many hours a day in their home while they trained her to be that exceptional Black novelty, the first Black classical pianist in America.  Money was raised for her scholarship. Her lessons were paid for. She was treated well. But she was isolated, lonely, always on the outside of things and worst of all, she was forbidden by her parents to ever complain about racial prejudice or to admit that it had any effect on her life. I don’t know if it is possible to really grasp what a thing that is to endure for a black girl born in America in the 1930s but I do know that this was violence that began in the core of Nina’s emotional foundation. Being taken in by two white women who displayed human kindness while facing and witnessing the evils of racism by the same white faces in other situations,  feeling like an outsider in both Black and white circles because like a bird in a gilded cage, she was held to higher expectations, set apart from the group and worked so hard that she basically had no childhood and no healthy form of socialization with her own people.

In this White ruled world, Nina was chosen. She was supposed to feel lucky. But sadly she was tortured, angry and depressed for most of her life except for the rare moments on stage when she could as she said be “free.” And you could see it in her movement; hear it in her voice and the music she made. She was a force of nature and I don’t think she ever really felt understood by anyone. She only came close to being free when she was able to release her spirit on stage. And what she did on stage was beyond the result of careful rehearsal because she would change her performance up all the time. She was notoriously disciplined but she did not allow that to dictate her performance. It was as if she defied her own training or rather she would channel her classical training into something  deeply emotional and spiritual.

The music that made her a star was considered by her family and I’m sure to the two White women who plucked her out of seeming obscurity to be “The Devil’s music.”  How ironic. She had to change her name (her real name was Eunice Waymon) to protect her identity and fragment herself in order to do what came naturally to her. When Nina found deeper purpose as an artist in the Civil Rights movement and began writing protest songs, she was ostracized again by record companies who refused to play her records thereby cutting her off from means to support herself.

How do you not go mad in these circumstances?

So I was not crazy about this documentary. In fact, like Steele, I was disappointed even in the title, which seemed to suggest that Nina was somehow to blame for all that happened to her with no emphasis whatsoever on the impact of the culture of racism, denial and compartmentalization that eventually unraveled her. She didn’t go mad for no reason. No woman ever does. Certainly, no Black woman.

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Letting Mary Jane be Mary Jane

MJ

Most Tuesday nights I slip into the bedroom with a glass of wine or grape juice and watch “Being Mary Jane.” I don’t update my Facebook status and I rarely tweet about it. I just sit back and watch.

I’ve had this conversation several times with soulsistah4real, that I sometimes find Mary Jane hard to take. I wish that she was happier and that the show was less depressing. She tells me that while she sees where I’m coming from, she still appreciates the show because it depicts a reality she understands.  I’ve let that sink in for a while and continue to watch the show because I realize that just because it’s not a reality I understand, that doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly relevant. In addition to that I always try to be critical of where the standards I measure television shows come from, particularly shows featuring women of color. So I ask myself questions like:

-Why do I need Mary Jane to be happy?

-Where does my definition of happiness for female characters on television and particularly women of color on television come from?

-I happen to claim “dark” and challenging dramas and films in general among my favorites and they are usually dominated by white actors and actresses. Why do I need one of the few hit dramas on a Black television network to be more of a delightful romp?

-What is my definition of happiness anyway? (That’s a subject for a whole other blog entry)

Through my study of film in undergrad, and research I did for term papers on early Black film, it became obvious to me that because of the pervasive monopoly White America has long held over film and television studios, the visual and verbal dialogue of racial prejudice and stereotypes have become the things which Black filmmakers have either dedicated themselves to reacting to and disproving or swallowing the lies and profiting from.  As people of color begin to create more films and television programming that address our own interpersonal, social issues and struggles,  the reality that is unearthed is often tied inextricably to the daily and long term effects racism has on multiple parts of our lives in ways that predominantly white dramas do not.

“Sex in the City” the hit HBO series about the relationship challenges of white women in their 30’s and 40’s employs a large percentage of fantasy and artifice while selectively addressing issues of gender equality, sexual politics and oh, maybe there was like one episode where Samantha dates a black guy and we’re reminded that racial politics exist in this white world of fashion, sex, shopping and female bonding. Oh yeah, there are Black people in New York City ladies. Interesting. Now let’s get back to Manolos and Mr. Big.

In Mary Jane, a show about a highly accomplished Black reporter who takes care of her family, faces numerous relationship challenges, desperately wants to be a mother, and like all of us makes bad decisions that have worse consequences (like real life) why do I struggle with wanting there to be more “lightness.”

The last few episodes of Mary Jane find her making some tough and ballsy decisions for herself despite the ways in which they may be received by men who think she’s crazy, friends who think she’s gone off the deep end, family who find her exacting, snobby and know-it-all and employees who probably think she’s a bossy Black bitch with some nerve because she wants full control her own show which would cover Black issues only.

Mary Jane doesn’t have gay accessory friends like SATC’s “Stanford” who disappear with no explanation after a few seasons. She has one good friend and co-worker who is gay and going through the heartbreaking experience of seeing a relationship end because he was unable to be open about who he was to anyone but Mary Jane.  She has brothers, one of whom gets racially profiled by cops just for sitting in a parked car near a school. She has an overweight and unemployed niece with children who refuses to let her Auntie meddle in her life and yet relies on her for financial and moral support

Why should I expect these things to happen to Mary Jane and then end with her buying bags of shoes and then meeting “the girls” for cosmos.

This is not that show.

This is “Being Mary Jane.”

And I have to say, I really look forward to it, because I don’t always get what I think I want but I always get something that makes me question what I think I know about what it means to be a Black woman in America.

soulsistahseries

I Wish Race wasn’t An Issue…but I Didn’t Make it One

“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.”

-Chimimanda Adichie “Americanah”

Sooo…my last serious relationship before I met the man who is now my husband was with a White guy who worked on the same campus as I did at the time. Until I read this passage in “Americanah” I told myself that the reasons we broke up, both times, had nothing to do with race But when I read this, it was like someone was speaking my internal experience back at me and I realized that I was holding all these feelings inside. I was reading one of my 2002-2003 journals over the Thanksgiving weekend and it turns out that while I never talked about these issues with anyone during the time I was in a relationship with, I’ll call him, “Average White guy” I wrote very clearly about my discomfort with his place in my life.

He hated his family and didn’t ever want to have kids, but other than that, was perfectly lovely, nurturing, kind, generous and sweet. The family hatred and not wanting to have kids turned out to be huge for me. I never even realized how much I wanted kids until he made this statement. Neither did I realize how much I loved the whole idea of family, as much as an introvert as I am. Those things I was always willing to admit and discuss out loud. But race?

This was not my first interracial relationship. It was just the first serious one in which I was not seeing anyone else and at an age where I was no longer willing to deal with anything short of serious commitment. This wasn’t just dating or exploration. I also wrote a lot during our time together about needing to be with someone with a spiritual core, because apparently he did not have one and i am not suggesting that this was because he was White. It was just one of many things about him I could not tolerate. He never said he was an atheist or anything but some things a person doesn’t have to say.

At some point though, in 2002 (I didn’t date it) I actually wrote, “I hate that I can’t sleep with my boyfriend while my hair is natural without feeling painfully self conscious about it.”

This is why I love that I was such a hard-core journaler (journaler should just be a word) since 1989. Because I would never have recalled thinking or writing this otherwise! I think I wanted so badly to believe that I was above or beyond race as an issue in my relationship with AWG that I just buried any idea that it had anything to do with my breaking up with him. I always told people, friends, peers, that it was other stuff. I think I was ashamed to admit that yes, when it came to thinking about a long-term commitment, even with the very first white guy, my whole “we are the world” “can’t we all just get along?” “I am human first” front came crashing down.

7-30-2002

I don’t want to get lazy and get used to this. To settle for something which essentially was not what I was shooting for if I had been shooting for anything. Things he doesn’t want, doesn’t believe in, I have no problem with but I have to find someone who does. I won’t try to change him. I adore him! But even the racial consciousness is a problem and kicks in sporadically for me as a problem where it never does for him. Pisses me off.

And there it is. I didn’t want race to be an issue because I wished that it wasn’t. So I wrote about it but I never raised the issue with AWG.

OH!!!

This memory just in! LOL!

He said he hated his parents because they were racist. AHHHHHHH!!!!

Yeah, I guess he must have slipped that one in after almost a month? At least that’s what I’d like to believe. I’m not saying that either of us were at fault. As Adichie mentions above, when we were together alone anywhere, it was like being in a different world, that same world of isolated and precious intimacy you would experience with any human being you love. But in the street, in social situations, at my family’s home! Oh God! I couldn’t deal. And we never talked about it. I never talked to him about how I really felt because I didn’t want it to exist.

It has taken me years to really see myself, not as I have always wanted to, but the way in which America sees me, and it’s hard because it is so unrelentingly ugly. And while I understand that what they say is not who I really am, I have to struggle not to unconsciously project the same negative qualities and stereotypes on my own Black and Brown brothers and sisters as a way of distinguishing my self. As aware as I always struggle to be, I still struggle not to fall into a place where I think, race doesn’t matter here, I can relax. I can care for a White person and not ever have to deal with the Race elephant in the room trampling over all we may have built together. The truth is that I don’t want it to matter. No person of color does. But I don’t have that luxury. I never have. And any African American in a committed relationship with a White person in America who tells you different is just not at place where they feel like they can discuss it.

 

 

“Black Women Fight Back”

HT_Carlesha_Freeland_Gaither_ml_141104_4x3_992

That may sound like a positive statement. But as it left the lips of my husband this morning as we watched the GMA report of Carlesha Freeland Gaither’s rescue and video footage of her fighting off her abductor, I objected to his statement on the grounds that it was made generically, based on the experience of one Black Woman. Ideas like these can potentially reinforce a stereotype about the strength of all Black Women and be dangerously interpreted as “Black Women fight back. So they don’t need help.” Angry Black Women, Strong Black Women, they don’t need us.

I know this was not my husband’s intent. And I was careful to explain that I was not trying to be argumentative. When I heard him say it, I could tell he meant it as a triumphant compliment. But I heard it as yet another reason to engender Black Women in the media as “Strong” in ways that in fact, do not  empower them. It only empowers an already racially biased system to further marginalize and devalue woman of color as strong angry beasts who do not necessarily need to be protected and rescued from danger the way that White women do.

My point is simply that all Black women who identify or are identified as strong need and deserve compassion, rescue, respect, rights and value. I think it’s great that Freeland-Gaither fought back and that there is video footage to prove it but I remain perpetually and reasonably suspicious of the media’s depiction of Black Women. And I’m very wary of the way in which the coverage of this “heroic rescue” story is a potential opportunity to make others feel like my dear husband and innocently declare “Black Women Fight Back!” The declarations beg the question “As opposed to whom?” White women? And if so, then who gets to be seen as the “Damsel in distress,” another stereotype which illustrates weakness and helplessness in women yet demands immediate attention in major news networks whenever a white woman goes missing? To say that white women don’t fight back would be just as offensive, but not quite as dis-empowering.

Many women fight back against perpetrators, probably more than we know. I hope that Freedland-Gaither is an example of many more strong women whom the police force deem worthy enough to take immediate action towards rescuing from dangerous perpetrators regardless of race.

Lessons in Non-Equality and Why Segregation Often Works: Part 2

-Colored-_drinking_fountain_from_mid-20th_century_with_african-american_drinking

Merriam Webster gives the following definitions for the words Equity and Equality

Equity:

1:fairness or justice in the way people are treated.

Equality:

1:the quality or state of being equal

I do wish that Merriam Webster would go into detail about exactly how the state of being equal is defined but since it doesn’t I will venture to come up with my own definitions of equality as I have come to understand them.

I believe that in nature, no two things are ever created equally. I believe there are scientific studies which have posited this opinion. To me it makes sense. Not even identical twins are actually the same in all ways. They can look the same in appearance right down to their DNA strands but they are still not equal. They’re not the same person. Twins are two different people but they need the same things as any other human being in order to survive and thrive. Family, friends, community, education, spiritual guidance, opportunity, livable wages, etc.

The sexes no matter how it is you understand the construct of gender are not equal. Men and women are different and no amount of masterful renditions and reiterations of the song “Anything I can do” can change that fact. Men and women are not the same and if we were, what would be the point of our evolution and development? How would we serve one another or learn about who we are? In order to be in relationship or learn from relationships, we have to have something or someone outside of ourselves to relate with. Differences are necessary to that end; differences in species of plants, animals, atoms, stars. We are all made up of a unique combination of similar concentrations of energy. Differences are necessary in my opinion because ultimately they can be used to discover and reveal similarities and the benefits of balancing both as a way of navigating life harmoniously without a system of evaluation which quantifies or categorizes one experience as being worse or better than another.

Tulips don’t wish to be dandelions. Fish don’t wish to be horse. They are what they are and they stay the course. They know what environment, what food sources and what systems of regeneration, socialization and development serve them best. But that is nature, not humanity. Humanity is the branch of nature blessed with free will.

I’m going to make a huge leap here.

Racism

: poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race

: the belief that some races of people are better than others

:  a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

Now who would go and create something like racism? Who would actually think to create, institute and perpetuate a system which says that one form of life based on the concentration of pigment should be treated inhumanely, beaten , tortured, raped, lynched, castrated, bought, sold, mentally and emotionally traumatized, stereotyped, stigmatized, followed around in public suspiciously, incarcerated for life in massive numbers with no hope for rehabilitation, treated like animals in the country his ancestors built, laid the foundation for, died for, bleed for? Who would do that? Who would create a system of laws which segregates one form of life based on a color, not so that they can create and build a community for the education, socialization and spiritual, cultural re-connection that is necessary for any life form which is uprooted, stolen, bred for slaves, torn apart and had its family structure obliterated but simply to say, “we brought you here against your will to serve us but you do not deserve to be given what you need to survive.”

Who the fuck does some fucked up, sick, dysfunctional, barbaric, unnatural shit like that? In other words who created a system of horrific inequity among those within it’s own species that are equal in biological category?

Still with me?

Next: When We Think of Segregation

What place freedom?

What kind of world do I want my unborn daughter to grow up in? It’s a question I’m asking myself more and often lately. And it kind of scares me.

How do young Black girls come to love themselves if they ever do? I know way more about how they come to hate themselves and each other. Though I have never hated my skin color, I myself struggle all the time with the crippling tendency to identify my value with how I look each day, my weight, hair, make-up, clothes. It’s an ongoing process. In my searching and my studying about the power of the human heart and mind, I understand that these things are only transient, fleeting symbols in our lives. But when I’m in the thick of these illusions on a daily basis it’s a real challenge to remember that these images are not who I am at the core. It’s even harder not to always be angry, disappointed, cynical and even a little apathetic to the oppressive nature of racism and the ways in which it subtly and systematically pumps out the message that people who look like me are not as important, valuable, lovely, integral and human as those who identify as white.

And let me be clear. I don’t hate white people. Just by default of the nature of the way I was raised, (home schooled and vegan) I often have a lot more in common with some white people than most blacks until I don’t. But I’m still uncomfortably aware of the way racism and white privilege work to stereotype, demonize, dehumanize and destroy the character of people of color in ways that have not changed since slavery. I am a woman of color and as such I fall into a category which is largely stereotyped, marginalized, brutalized and undervalued to the end goal of mental, emotional economical and political obliteration. It is the evolution of slavery.

This weekend I was hanging out with six lovely ladies at the house of my good friend and academic mentor. We were eating this great chili that her daughter made and chatting about topics like the inhumanity of incarceration and the experiences of mixed race children and how they make their way in the world. Some time later in the evening I started talking about being a home schooled vegan who graduated from a charter high school. Incidentally her daughter also brought up her experience at something called the Afrika School. I asked her what that was and what emerged was this realization the both of us were raised by women who took us to institutions to educate us about African heritage outside of the system of Westernized indoctrination and education which leaves out completely the stories of African Culture pre Slavery time. We were both enrolled in African Dance, Art and drumming classes as well as holistic and alternative practices like meditation, chanting, smudging, vegetarianism, veganism, cleansing, crystal healing, altars prayer and a respect for feminine energy.

But we never talked to our peers about these experiences. And though we never put them down we also never shared them, revered them or boasted about them. That’s another thing we had in common. I think we both agreed that while we didn’t regret it, we also didn’t know how to fit what we had learned from these experiences into the world we existed in where the majority of young black women and men did not receive his kind of tutelage. And when you already feel strange, or odd, or different from people as a young person for whatever reasons, it’s rare that you make the decision to be your “self” not knowing who that is yet or to share stories which would potentially alienate you even further. In High School, fitting in is about being like everybody else. College is about “reinventing” yourself. It’s all a fucking marketing tool.

In any case we exchanged some of the hijinks of these experiences and had a few awkward laughs over them but agreed we were better off having had them rather than not at all and I told her that I would be interested in interviewing her about our shared experiences at some point. I think it’s important to have a space of comfort and pride with which young black women take part in self affirming practices. I feel bad that  as a young person I was not more out of the closet about my time at the Shrine of P’Tah learning about Imhotep, the pyramid architect or at the Fanny Lou Hamer institute learning more about Black Educators with a small group of young people whose parents had the same ideas my mom had. I might tell myself I wasn’t embarrassed about these experiences but if I wasn’t why would I choose to keep it to myself?

Two reasons.

1. Popular culture aka white identified systems of oppression,  never brought it up and young people respond to popular culture even if they live under a rock.

2. I was embarrassed to share things that were not discussed in popular culture.

I do hope that by the time my children get here, this is no longer the case. But in the meantime I have to do what I can to make up for all that I kept to myself by staying connected to those with like-minded ideals for the promotion of spiritual and historical education of young Black hearts and minds. And while I do that I have to confront and dismantle any residual shame or embarrassment that still exists in me over the possibility of not being accepted by popular culture or any majority.