“Do You Still Beat Your Wife and Other Nonsense!”

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So, the National Football League gave Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice a 2 game suspension for knocking his wife “smooth out” and to make matters worst, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith put his foot in his mouth by saying that women have to stop provoking men (to hit them). This is so ridiculous on so many levels it is all I can do to try to write “intelligently” about it. For the sake of transparency I am married to a former NFL player (an offensive lineman) and hitting each other has never been in the equation.
I believe that adult people (for the most part) don’t hit people they view as peers. For one thing, peers can hit them back. If you infantilize someone–treat them like a child–you hit them not expecting them to retaliate. I have heard many young men declare that their father or older brother stopped hitting them the day they hit them back. In the case of domestic abuse, the abuser is counting on the fact that the partner they are abusing will never defend him/herself.
But what about this notion of provocation? I thought that explanation went out the door when we finally decided that women’s choice of dress or state of intoxication did not serve as a catalyst to rape. Somehow, we keep reviving that ridiculous reasoning. Are we saying that Rhianna provoked Chris Brown? Are we saying that Tina Turner provoked Ike? Are we saying that any woman who is trapped in a cycle of abuse is provoking it? I think one of the things that really bothers me about this kind of talk is that we are also demeaning men (although there are indeed women who are abusers) by assuming they are unable to control their emotions and cannot take responsibility for their own actions.

Since this episode began Stephen A. Smith has made a “heartfelt” apology for what he calls his “foolish” and “wrong” statements. ESPN has suspended Smith for a week from its “First Take” broadcast. His punishment is about the same as Ray Rice’s which speaks to the real issue–the NFL is not taking the issue of domestic abuse seriously. It is an ongoing issue among athletes. Former quarterback Warren Moon had domestic abuse issues. Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown had domestic abuse issues. Baseball player Manny Ramirez was charged with domestic violence. The research literature says that athletes are far less likely to receive a harsh penalty when they are charged with domestic violence. Even when we have extreme cases like Kansas City Chief player Jovan Belcher who killed his girlfriend and committed suicide, we are not seeing an institution (the NFL) take decisive action to help its players understand that it will not tolerate domestic violence and abuse. We are not seeing a society that takes domestic abuse seriously.  Our solution to all kinds of problems seems to be “beat him/her!” Our society must learn that violence produces violence. It is not the way to solve problems. It does not make us tough, respected, or right. As much as folks snicker about Solange attacking Jay-Z it was Jay-Z who took the high road and acted appropriately (even if it was because he was aware that there was surveillance in the elevator). Yet, the word on the street was that Jay-Z was “punked.” We cannot celebrate family violence in any form. Let’s try to learn to celebrate love and peace!

Stay Black & Smart!

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“Real” Housewives/Girlfriends/Side-pieces and other foolishness

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I confess…I don’t really know who Phaedra, Kendra, Nene…and whoever else on these “reality” shows is. I have never watched them and don’t intend to. What I do know is the conversation that surrounds them and the way they represent Black womanhood makes me sick. Why? After all, it’s just TV and there are demeaning representations of White women on also. There are the Kardashians, Jersey Shore, Mob Wives, and Hollywood Housewives. But my dislike of reality shows that pit Black women against each other does not reflect a reality I know.

My mother was one of 5 girls in her family. These women had each others’ back no matter once. When they were alive they called each other EVERY day. And, my mother had a set of girlfriends who were like her sisters. Indeed, I have always referred to them as my aunts because they functioned like family members. My mother could depend on her girlfriends as much as she could her sisters. My mother, my aunts, and my “play” aunts were the perfect models for the true  nature of Black women’s friendships. I took the lessons I learned from them into my relationships with Black women.

I did not have a sister growing up and although my brother and I were very close, I craved the special relationship of a sister–someone with whom I could share all the trials and triumphs of growing into womanhood. I found those relationships with my girlfriends. My first close friend was an elementary school friend who went through puberty early, ended up getting pregnant, and was sent to live with relatives “down south” by the time we were in junior high school. Before this, she and I spent all of our time together. We shared girlhood secrets and never allowed anyone to speak ill about each other. We never had a disagreement that lasted more than a day and we certainly never had a physical fight.

When I went to college I met a woman who would become a lifelong friend. Our commonality was as two working class/poor girls in an environment filled with middle class girls. Our friendship was incredibly deep (event though we pledged different sororities) and endures today. I was a bridesmaid in her first wedding (yes, girlfriends can outlast husbands) and earlier this year I hopped an airplane to go celebrate her 30th year in ministry.

I join women’s organizations because I like being around and working with women. I tease my husband by saying that women over 50 and 14 year olds have one thing in common–everything they really like doing they do with their girlfriends. My choice in films, theater, and shopping venues are better matched with my girlfriends’ taste than my husband’s. (I realize that’s not true for everyone). I like the way the women’s organizations and women friends with which I affiliate seem to work together and support each other. I like how we seem to remember the little things and lift one another up when we are down. I survived breast cancer because my women friends pitched in to help me and my family. My women friends who later were diagnosed with this disease knew I would make myself available to drive them to treatment, prepare meals, or just sit quietly so they would not be alone. When one of my friends needed surgery she timidly asked if I could drive her to her surgery at 5 o’clock in the morning. It never occurred to me NOT to do this for her. That’s what friends do for each other.

The foolishness of reality TV would be comical if it were not for the potential harm it can do to our young girls. The idea that Black women are to fight over men, tear each other down, and verbally and physically abuse each other plays into prevailing stereotypes about Black women as evil, hateful, without any sense of whatever we are now calling feminine. It seems comical because Black women have historically been incredibly loyal to their girlfriends. Films like Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” and Terry McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale” each display examples of Black women’s solidarity. They ring truer than “real” housewives.

The absurdity of these shows is revealed in Kevin Hart’s parody show, “Real Househusbands.” What makes his show funny is that we all know that it does not reflect the nature of men’s relationships…it’s just stupid and everyone laughs at its stupidity!

Finally, I have to ask, what is it about these depictions of Black women that make them so popular? Is it something rooted in racism, sexism, or both? Do they depict a version of Black women’s relationships that I am just not privy to or are they just another example of media exploitation of Black women? What do you think?

Stay Black & Smart!

“Ain’t nobody Actin’ White…Or are We?

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Once again we are having a “spat” (it’s not worthy of the word “debate”) about whether some Black people are charging others of “acting White” because of their pursuit of academic excellence and their ability to speak “American Edited English” (I am careful not to call it Standard English since it is not the “standard” in many English speaking countries). Although this notion surfaced again because of something President Obama said, its more recent scholarly reiteration comes from a 1986 journal article authored by Fordham and Ogbu. In their article the authors argue that some Black students are teased and chided for their academic excellence because their peers accuse them of “acting White.”

Other scholars (Tyson, Darity, & Castellino, 2005) conducted a mixed methods study that demonstrated that many academically successful Black students are encouraged and admired by their peers without being accused of “acting White.” Peter Murrell argued that the “acting White” phenomenon may be a developmental stage, especially when Black students are in desegregated schools where they are the minority. Later, Murrell argues, many of those students who enter colleges or universities with established Black Student Unions or similar affiliation groups identify strongly with Black culture and aesthetics. Even more interesting, Ferguson conducted a study of 35,000 students–Black, White, Latin@, and Asian-American and found that ALL students reported that their peers tease each other for being highly school-focused and call it “Acting White” and Latin@ and Asian-American students reported this behavior at a higher rate than Black students!

Now, we have a rekindling of President Obama’s suggestion that Black students are discouraged in their academic pursuits because their friends call high aspirations “Acting White.” Unfortunately, the President is either forgetting or unaware of both the contemporary and historical context in which this epithet is used. In a contemporary context, Americans of all races and ethnicities have always teased and ridiculed what they term as “nerds” or “geeks.” This is not exclusive to the African American community. In the 90s sit-com, “Family Matters” Jaleel White plays the character, “Steve Urkel” who is the butt of jokes because of his “nerdiness.” No one wants to be like Steve. Laura, the love of his life falls in love with his alter ego, Stephon–not geeky Steve! The entire premise of the current popular sit-com, “The Big Bang Theory” is that the four scientists are brilliant but social and culturally awkward. They are not the role models that most teenagers seek to emulate.

Historically, “acting White” was a notion imposed on enslaved (and later newly emancipated) African Americans. For instance, learning to read was punishable by death. It was illegal for Whites to teach enslaved African Americans to read. To be able to read was seen as “acting White.” Speaking, using American Edited English was also seen as “acting White.” For those who saw the film, “12 Years a Slave,” you will recall how Solomon Northrup was required to modify his Northern, “educated” linguistic register to avoid further persecution from the slave master. The complexity of how Black people are required to “act” in certain situations is not merely about whether one is “acting White” or not.

Our survival is dependent on cultivating and maintaining cultural and linguistic flexibility. Young Black folks who say, “I’ma make it do what it do” are drawing on the same linguistic repertoire as grandmamas who sit in church on Sunday singing, “I don’t feel no ways tired!” The syntax and structure of Black English Vernacular (BEV) melds African linguistic forms with modern vocabulary and youth culture slang (see for example, work by Geneva Smitherman and H. Samy Alim).

The piece of the so-called “acting White” phenomenon that troubles me is the way SOME people who have greater access to and fluency in dominant culture forms denigrate Black cultural expressions. This, to me, is an example of internalized racism and self-hatred reflected in rejection of our natural beauty (e.g. hair texture, skin complexion, body types, facial features, etc.) and cultural expressions such as our music, our fashion sense, and yes, our language.

Our obligation as adults is to help our children learn dominant cultural forms WITHOUT losing or hating our rich heritage. It is not an either-or proposition; this is a true example of “both-and.” We must learn to be bi-cultural  (or even, multicultural) to thrive in a global environment.  We also have to acknowledge the ways that most “successful” (academically, financially, politically, etc.) Black people have had to adapt to White norms while trying to hold on to our blackness!

President Obama’s “swag” and coolness is a part of his appeal in the Black community–it reflects his blackness. The fact that he gets up each morning and goes to an office in the same place he lives wearing a suit and tie reflects his conforming to dominant cultural norms. He celebrates his own bi-cultural heritage but fails to see the way many young people are fighting to hold on to a sense of self and authenticity.

“Acting White?” Of course we sometimes do. I have seen even the hardest thug represent himself in a courtroom or other tough situation using the most dominant form he could muster if it meant avoiding a penalty. We have to remain culturally flexible to maintain our livelihood and our flavor! What do you think?

Stay Smart & Black!

How AIDS Jumped the Color Line

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In 2012 history of medicine professor Keith Wailoo (Rutgers University) explored the history of cancer and how its prominence in Black communities is a recent phenomenon. Historically, cancers showed up more often in White communities because of their association with more sedentary lifestyles and diets of rich foods. Black people used to do more physical work that provided plenty of exercise and we used to eat less processed, simpler food. Today, we are as sedentary as the rest of the society and take advantage of both convenience and fast foods. The results is that 85 percent of Black women in the US are considered obese and cancer has become more prevalent in our communities.
In the early 1980s I lived in the San Francisco Bay area when the AIDS epidemic hit. At that time people literally called it the “gay disease.” There was such terror associated with the disease that people would not allow themselves to be in the same room with someone who was HIV infected or with full blown AIDS. One of the early talk show hosts, Phil Donahue had an AIDS patient as a guest and all of the cameras were covered in plastic, the camera men wore surgical masks, and there was no studio audience. The rash of deaths that resulted from this mysterious disease that seemed to be devastating the gay male community became a national emergency. However. once the research dollars began to produce some promising treatments (despite not yet yielding a cure) the (White) gay community seemed to rest a bit. Additionally, some efforts were made to do needle exchanges in communities so that drug addicts could protect themselves from the virus.

Today, the AIDS epidemic resides in the Black community–the Black, female, heterosexual community. Black women are the major victims of AIDS primarily because of their relationships with men who are drug infected or who have had sex with HIV-positive males. But, the national emergency around AIDS seems to have subsided. According to the Black Women’s Health Imperative, “Every 35 minutes, a woman tests positive for HIV in this country.  And, the impact of HIV among Black women and girls is even more startling.  Nationally, Black women account for 66% of new cases of HIV among women.  HIV/AIDS related illness is now the leading cause of death among Black women ages 25-34.”

Those Blacks who consider themselves “educated” tend to think of AIDS as a disease that ignorant and uneducated people contract because they do not take proper precautions, but AIDS has made its way through the Black community–crossing gender, sexuality, and class lines. Despite all the admonitions most Black people don’t know their status. Some years ago I applied for some additional life insurance and the insurance carrier told me I needed to get a physical and an HIV test. I though, “Are you crazy? I’ve been married to the same man for ever. I have 4 grown kids. I have grandchildren.” But, if I wanted the coverage He told me I had to get the test. I cannot tell you what a relief it was to get a negative result…to know for sure.

The Black community is doubly burdened by the scourge of racism AND the challenges of everyday life (family, jobs, finances, politics, relationships, etc.). The fact that we have another health challenge that we can prevent (or at least diminish) by protective behaviors means we have to be more vigilant and as the late poet Maya Angelou would say, “When you know better, you do better!”

Stay Black & Smart!

 

Black on Black Crime? Or Just Crime?

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Black on black crime…we’ve all heard the term. Not only have we heard it, we’ve responded to it and asked questions about its prevalence and what we can do about it. However, one of the critical questions we do not ask is why are we focused on Black people’s crime against other Black people when the truth is most people who are victims of crime will be victimized by people of their own racial group. Why? Because most crimes are crimes of convenience and opportunity. Given the powerful segregation in our society most people are likely to come in contact with people in their own racial group. This is especially true among the poor since they are more likely to live in hyper-segregated neighborhoods. Few criminals drive miles across town to mug somebody. When I lived in the San Francisco Bay area one of the most heinous crimes that occurred happened in Chinatown. A Chinese gang bolted through a restaurant and slaughtered the patrons…all of whom were Chinese. I did not hear anyone talk about Chinese on Chinese crime. Just saying that sounds strange.
In the academy award winning movie, “Crash” (2004) the opening scene portrays Ludacris and his partner carjacking the District Attorney. I turned to my viewing partner and said, “I’m not buying this premise!” Los Angeles is as racially segregated as any major city and the likelihood that Ludacris (I can’t remember his character’s name) would be in this fancy neighborhood filled with wealthy, White people AND committing a carjacking just doesn’t square with reality. A believable potential carjacking scene is the one in “Grand Canyon” where Kevin Kline’s character gets lost taking a shortcut, ends up in a Black community, and has a car breakdown. That would be a crime of convenience. The would-be carjackers/muggers had not planned a crime…a vulnerable person showed up in the vicinity.
I don’t want to suggest that we should not be concerned about crime in the Black community. Of course we care. But let’s be careful about the language we use to describe what is happening. When White acquaintances ask why Black people victimize other Black people I always respond, “Why do White people victimize other White people?” This simple question helps to reorient our conversation. Crime is crime and its roots are remarkably similar…inequality, addictions, greed. We have to be critical about everything people say about us (and we say about ourselves)!

Stay Black & Smart

Black Fraternities & Sororities…Still Relevant or Bourgeois Tribalism

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So I’ve just left a wonderful sorority convention where over 11,000 mostly African American women made a huge impact on the local economy of a city. I believe the reported numbers are $15 million in hotel, food, and trade dollars. We also did a number of service projects that provided school supplies for children of incarcerated parents and food for hungry individuals. On the whole I am pleased with the service work we do. However, when my White colleagues realize that, at my age, I am still active in sorority life they seem amused.
I sometimes attempt to explain the fundamental differences between Black and White fraternal organizations. The primary difference is that White fraternities/sororities express their worth during the undergraduate years. Because of their wealth White organizations are capable of sponsoring houses their members live in. Thus, living in a choice house is an on-campus perk of Greek life for White students.
Most Black fraternities and sororities provide their tangible benefits in the post-graduate years. Listing a Divine 9 organization (the 9 historically Black Greek organizations) on one’s resume can open a professional door or smooth a transition. When I moved from the west coast to the Midwest I first contacted the local chapter members of my sorority in my new city to help me identify a realtor, a physician, a dentist, and an attorney…all of which they quickly did.
Some of the most notable African Americans in our society have Divine 9 affiliations…Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Coretta Scott King, Dorothy Height, and many, many more. All 9 of these organizations are built on a foundation of service and sisterhood/brotherhood. But there is another side to what happens on the ground in these organizations and it is this reality that makes “Black & Smart” ask about their relevance.
All of these organizations have battled the problem of hazing. Despite being illegal and against ALL the organizations’ policies, it still occurs. The depth of this behavior has resulted in physical and psychological harm even unto death and million dollar lawsuits. So, are these organizations still socially relevant? I believe they CAN be and clearly their programmatic initiatives in health, education, the economy, voter registration and political engagement, and culture are wonderful and positive forces in our communities. But, do they outweigh some of the tribalism that continues to this day? Do they outweigh some of the ways we pit ourselves against each other? Do they outweigh our representing ourselves as little more than gangs whose members have college degrees?
Our histories emerge from being excluded from White Greek life. They also emerge from being attentive to some of the specific needs of Black communities that were not being met by other organizations. They emerge from the need of the developing Black middle class to engage in racial uplift and “give back.”
Where is the place for these organizations in today’s Black society? How do we move beyond the cliquishness and foolishness? How do we do what we started out to do?

Stay Black & Smart!

Please Mr. Cosby…Stay in Your Lane

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I begin this blog with a confession…I have always loved the comedy of Bill Cosby. As a native of Philadelphia I always got his references and appreciated the way he inserted “Philly-isms” into his stand-up and his TV show. I have great respect for the way he brought humor and dignity to Black life. He is steadfast about not cursing or debasing women in his comedy. He has earned the title of “America’s Favorite Father.” but lately he seems to be everybody’s grumpy old man…something akin to the Boondocks, “Uncle Rukus!”

In numerous public pronouncements Mr. Cosby has castigated poor Black people (particularly women) for being terrible parents. He rants about the way they these parents raise their children, the way the children dress, the way they talk…their very existence. He does this without recognizing the contradictions that exists in his scoldings. Mr. Cosby, go back and look at some of your Fat Albert episodes. Your characters use Black English as their primary mode of communication. You cannot denigrate the culture at the same moment you are profiting from it.

Do the community elders critique the younger generation for how they dress, talk, and act? Of course they do…just as our elders criticized our clothing, our music, and our talk. But there is a kind of mean-spirited blaming of the victim that is showing up in critiques like those being offered by Mr. Cosby. Why is he so angry at the Black community?

I have a naive theory about the source of his anger. In 1997 Mr. Cosby and his wife lost their son to a senseless and tragic murder. From all indications he was a random victim who was attempting to repair a flat tire when the murderer came upon him. Ennis Cosby was the Cosby’s only son of 5 children and he fought valiantly to be successful despite his dyslexia. Very soon after Ennis’ death Bill Cosby was back on the stage doing concerts wearing a T-shirt that read, “Hello Friend”–a favorite greeting of Ennis Cosby. I think that the way Mr. Cosby dealt with his grief was to keep it all inside except when he saw parents who still had their sons not raising them the way he raised his sons.  The sight of these sagging pants, rapping, swagging young men was just too much! His attacks have been vicious and vitriolic. They blame the victim and fail to lift the very people he claims to be correcting. And, of course they make they political right as happy as they can be.

Mr. Cosby’s critiques fail to look at the huge structural and symbolic disadvantages poor Black families face. And, his critiques hurt. We are used to White people describing us as pathological and dysfunctional but when the tongue-lashing comes from one of our own…one who we love…it is discouraging and fractures our community.

Finally, like Sweet Honey & the Rock asks, Mr. Cosby I have to ask, “Are your hands clean?” Over the past decade we have heard all kinds of rumors about your sexual misconduct. Out of his own mouth Mr. Cosby admits to making support payments to a woman he fathered outside of his marriage. So…American favorite father is not exactly squeaky clean. And, as we typically do, the Black community forgives your transgression. However, we don’t expect for you to turn on us…make us laugh…bring us quality TV programming…stay in your lane! What do you think?

Stay Black & Smart!

 

News Flash…All Black People Don’t Think Alike!

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There have been those times when my White brothers and sisters have suggested that my perspective couldn’t possibly be right because some other Black people didn’t hold that same view. The idea that Black people have to have a single unified view on some perspective is fairly pervasive. Part of this belief about unanimous opinion may come from the fact that many times we are undifferentiated in the treatment we receive. Regardless of class, regional and generational differences we can all be subjected to the same hurtful racism.
One of the places where we are accused on group think is around politics. Since the major party affiliation of African Americans is the Democratic Party we hear people intimate that we cannot think for ourselves. Those same people forget that we used to overwhelmingly be members of the Republican Party. Yes, when it was the party of Lincoln we had good reason to affiliate with it. Segregation and Jim Crow was a hallmark of the Democrats (aka Dixiecrats). We could not get into trade unions that northern Democrats controlled. We switched parties when FDR presented the New Deal. Like other people we vote our self-interests, not our race!

People presume group-think among Black people when they ask one of us to speak for all of us. I can recall numerous times when a White person has asked me a question that begins, “Well what do Black people think about…?” to questions concerning OJ Simpson, President Obama, school choice, Michael Jackson, and any number of issues. I have learned to respond to that question with, “I don’t know, what do White people think about that?” That response always draws that weird look when the questioner realizes how ridiculous it is to ask one person to speak for every member of a group that makes up almost 14 percent of the nation.

The other aspect of group-think we confront is being “checked” by referencing another Black person. I recall being in an academic discussion and expressing my opinion only to have a White colleague say, “Well, Professor So-and-So (who is also Black) doesn’t believe that…” I slowly gathered myself, turned to the colleague and replied, “And?” She was so confused by my response because her comment was designed to silence me and it didn’t work.

I have Black friends and family members who would never dream of putting a piece of “soul food” in their mouth. I have Black friends who think of a night at the symphony as a relaxing way to entertain themselves and others. I have Black friends who hate Tyler Perry movies. Believe it or not we don’t all like Oprah! Having grown up in a large, northern city I have some distinctly different perspectives and sensibilities than some of my friends and colleagues from the South, the West Coast, or the Midwest where I currently live.

Anyone who doubts the diversity of Black thought should wander into a busy Black barbershop or beauty salon. They are training grounds for lively debate and although filmmakers have made these venues into parodies, there is some truth to the idea that people come into these spaces with strong (and often opposing) opinions. Unfortunately media love to pick the “one and only.” The one comedian, the one politician, the one scholar. White America loves to anoint one Black person whose job it is to speak for all of us.

The diversity of Black life and culture is what makes it vibrant and alive. Thinking of us as a monolith is what disadvantages our children in school classrooms. Teachers with preconceived notions of who they are and what they are (in)capable of doing results in lowered expectations and lowered outcomes. Do you have a story of being forced into the monolith? Come share it with us.

Stay Black and Smart!

Light Skinned vs Dark Skinned: Are We Still Doing This?

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Last week I sat in on a media literacy workshop at our Hip Hop in the Heartland Institute as we talked about this issue of colorism in the Black community. Yep…we are still dealing with this. I wonder how many of my Black friends remember either witnessing or participating in an activity where two Black people placed their forearms next to each other to determine which was “the lighter?” It was a silly thing to do but we did it anyway. Somehow being “lighter” meant being “better.” The notion of making distinctions between light and dark complexions may seem strange to some of our White friends but these distinction come from the overwhelming dominance of a Western European aesthetic and preference for “lightness.”

Some years ago while in Ghana at a slave dungeon I noticed a set of homes in front of the shanty’s on the shoreline that were clearly of higher quality than the others. When I asked about them our tour guide explained that when the Portuguese slavers raped the African women they often produced offspring who could not fit into Portuguese society and who they did not want to face chattel slavery in the Americas. Their solution was to create a separate class of people with special housing for them in Ghana. From the beginning the Europeans created a separation between “light” and “dark.”

Once in the Americas enslaved African women continued to be subjected to the brutality of rape. Children who resulted from that terror sometimes received the special treatment of being assigned to inside work rather than field work…hence we got the terms, “house niggers” and “field niggers.” The animosity that grew from that distinction (based primarily on skin color) remains with us today.

Some people might argue that we should be well past those kinds of separations. We should be, but we’re not. We have determined that the “pretty” women are those that look like Hallie Berry, Mariah Carey, Beyonce,  and Alicia Keys. We see women like India Irie and Lupita N’yongo as “exotic.” Black folks still buy skin-lightening creams; but rarely go to tanning booths. The image at the top of this blog post reflects our continued participation in the self-hatred that colorism produces. Our children are still selecting the “White doll” as the “pretty” doll. We still tell dark-complected sisters things like, “Oh, you’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl!”

I wish we could get to a place where we would tell our children how absolutely beautiful they are no matter what shade of the incredible color spectrum they fall on. Call them delicious dark chocolate, sassy espresso, cool caramel, mocha magic, or any other tasty name you can think of. But never ever call them ugly. Never juxtapose their beauty with their skin color. Share with them the awesome advantaged of more melanin (and in a later blog I’ll discuss the versatility of our amazing hair).

We have way too many other issues to confront in a highly racialized society–education, employment, health care, mass incarceration, and many more–to be “stuck on stupid” regarding skin color. As Iyanla Vanzant might say, “Just stop it!”

Stay Black & Smart!

 

 

What is it with Black People and Sexuality?

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Black people (at least those that I know) seem to have a strange relationship with sexuality issues. I’ve noticed this over the course of my life. I am a baby boomer so that officially makes me old. As a little girl I remember gay people in our community but also remember almost everything we did seem to render them invisible. I recall my mother referring to a woman in the neighborhood who dressed in men’s clothing as a “she/he”. It didn’t seem offensive (but I was a kid so I wasn’t sure) but it also didn’t seem nice. Mostly, I think we ignored her.
As a teenager one of my good friends was a brother I’ll call “Chad.” He was a terrible stick ball player and probably never touched a football. He was very tall and quite imposing so generally, people did not bother him. He and I would go downtown to shop together because he had impeccable taste. He was the one teenager in my neighborhood who got a cool job–he was a gossip columnist for the local African American paper. Everyone wanted to be spotted out and about by Chad and no one wanted Chad to call them out for having a bad outfit or being uncool. For my prom Chad and his date double dated with me and my date. By midnight we both figured out we’d have more fun with each other than with our dates so we ditched them and partied all night until almost 10:00 a.m. the next morning. I never thought of Chad as gay probably because I didn’t think of anyone in terms of their sexuality when I was a teenager…he was just MY friend Chad.
When I moved to California I had a number of friends who were gay. As young adults I could see how difficult and complex their lives were. Most were not out. Some were living “double lives”–pretending to be straight. Others just never talked about their sexuality.
Black people have made sexuality, particularly homosexuality, their most taboo topic. We love James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde and June Jordan. We laugh at the comic genius of Wanda Sykes and we absolutely LOVED (almost to a point of worship) Michael Jackson. But we do not talk honestly about the complex lives of Black, gay people. It was not until I read Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place that I got an inkling of the fear and social exclusion of Black gay life. The brutal attack of the lesbian woman in the text turned my stomach. The premise of her attacker was that what she needed was a “real man.” It seemed to me an ultimate violation–not different from what happened to Black women during slavery.
Today I have many gay and lesbian students, colleagues, and friends and I have great admiration for them. They are fierce in their approach to their scholarship, activism, and loyal to Black people beyond belief–even when Black people do not honor their personhood.

I do not pretend to have the answer to our complex relationship with sexuality. I hear the religious arguments (I am a Christian) and find the evidence pretty thin (legalistic interpretations of Scripture suggest we should be stoning a lot of folks…). All I know is that as a people who historically suffered extreme oppression we should ALWAYS be on the side of the oppressed and persecuted whether they are minor undocumented children fleeing persecution in Honduras or Guatemala, Palestinians without a homeland,  linguistic minorities, religious minorities, people of color, women, the poor, disabled, and yes, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning people. I will not be so cavalier as to say, “Black people get over it.” Rather, I want to say, Black people let’s keep talking and let’s continue to be the inclusive people that is the hallmark of our culture.