Sunday, September 30, 2018

Salty Pretzels: Cultural Misappropriation

Halloween is coming. You may already know that it is one of my favorite holidays and I am looking forward to some family cosplay this year now that the Kid is in school. However, I am already over the annual ritual of policing costume choices on the basis of race and culture (a sin most often committed by white people), also known as cultural appropriation.

I engaged in an exchange with someone online last year about this issue and it ended in a stalemate because she was dug into the idea that certain costumes and characters are "for us" exclusively while other costumes and characters are universal. I take issue with that position, and I am willing to risk being the lone voice in the wilderness this Halloween because I am actually looking forward to seeing how many little white kids decide to dress up as the Black Panther.

But before we address children's costume choices, let's set the ground rules for everyone over the age of you-should-know-better-than-that-isht. Here it is: dress in a costume, not as a culture. Don't unleash your racist urges by dressing up in blackface and skip the feathered headresses and warpaint. There is no reason to dress like a Klansman or as a Nazi because you already know that ain't funny. And don't get precious if you are called out for being that asshole and you end up losing your job or your scholarship. You've been warned.

So now, let's turn our attention to the fuzzy area between costumes and culture. For example, what if a child wants to dress up as Nacho Libre? Lucha Libre is a Mexican wrestling cultural tradition, so was the character portrayed by Jack Black, a white guy, an appropriation or was it a homage? According to the PC argument, dressing as a luchadore if you're not Mexican might be considered offensive. So might dressing your daughter up as a geisha if she's not Asian (Japanese specifically) or dressing as a hula dancer if you're not Hawaiian. If you're not French, can you dress like a mime or a can-can dancer? If you aren't Australian, would Crocodile Dundee be problematic? If taken to its most illogical stretches of the imagination it could be (and has been) argued that dressing as a cowboy if you aren't from out West also could be offensive.


See how quickly it goes downhill? I haven't even gotten to the Disney characters that were at issue in the argument I had last year. And if we keep on going, then it gives all of those still-living-in-their-mama's-basement racists an excuse to complain when characters that historically have been white get recast (such as Spiderman).

I am not making light of a serious issue, nor am I joining the dark side by making fun of political correctness. I am merely suggesting that certain cultural expressions can be costumes in the appropriate context. We can cite examples from the past where it was obvious the intent was to poke fun of or ridicule other cultures, such as Mickey Rooney's very unfortunate depiction of an Asian neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany's. But I think that we go too far when we complain about a child dressed as Mulan, even if she isn't Chinese.


We also go too far when we argue that certain characters belong to specific communities. The key word is character. Mulan is a Disney character who happens to be Chinese, but are we suggesting that only little Chinese girls can see themselves reflected in her story? (BTW, you've probably guessed that she is my favorite Disney Princess because she isn't technically a princess, but is a heroine.) Does that mean that my only options for my daughter are Tiana or Elena of Avalor or Doc McStuffins? And do we seriously believe that white girls have "enough" alternatives so they should be discouraged from even considering Tiana, Doc McStuffins, Shuri, Elena, Jasmine, Pocahontas or Mulan?

Halloween is supposed to be fun. In addition to having a sufficient stash of allergy-free treats (gluten-free unsalted pretzels and stickers), I also have to worry about dressing my child in something age-appropriate that isn't too sexualized. I have to plan for several Halloween events and come up with ideas for my own costume. And then I have to prepare for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I have a lot of Busy Black Woman stuff on my plate, so the last thing I need to worry about is offending some graduate student accidentally or on purpose.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Trigger Warnings

In advance, I am not at all surprised by what will be the likely outcome of today's vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. That hearing yesterday was the hottest messiest nastiest boo shay to occur in recent time that was not a scripted drama or a reality show.

I am not old enough to remember Watergate, and certainly was not around during the Civil War (and I invoke those two historic events to mark other highly divisive points in our history). But I was a college student when Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas, and recall quite vividly how divisive and painful that experience was. If I can take you back 27 years, I was on a black college campus in Georgia, situated next door to another black college campus and between the two, public sentiment was already divided over several other issues, namely the Mike Tyson rape trial. I won't fully revisit that incident at this time, but recalling how that impacted us in addition to the confirmation hearings, I can only tell you how it isn't surprising to find ourselves back here again.

I might be all over the place with this, but yesterday was triggering for me and I am clear that I was not alone. In fact, I KNOW that there were many others who found themselves moved by the mere presence of Christine Blasey Ford at that hearing yesterday. I am not going to weigh in on the issue of her credibility because people with far more experience have that duty at present, but I will say that it struck a nerve.

Anyone who is inclined to wonder why victims do not come forward need only to replay some of the theatrics from yesterday. Begin with the fact that there was an obvious imbalance on one side of the aisle that required a face-saving strategy that backfired. You know what would have been more effective? Having women on the committee from your party in the first place. You know what else would have been helpful? Not proceeding with the farce of hiring a female prosecutor if you were so concerned about public humiliation.

Let's also address the opening statement that set the tone (which was later re-emphasized during the second half of the hearing when everyone felt less inhibited). You can argue that there were partisan shenanigans taking place behind the scenes, but please don't argue that it was one-sided. And please don't suggest that the elapse of time between the initial accusation and it becoming public was part of some intentionally political ploy. The witness stated that it was her CHOICE not to go public until she was forced to do so. If anyone had truly been listening to how she reached her decision to come forward, it doesn't follow that the people whom she trusted to protect her identity would turn around and exploit her with her permission. Seriously, think about that.

And just as a side note, this is deja vu all over again with respect to Anita Hill...she came forward after she learned that she was going to be outed by the media as an accuser. Who has more to gain by releasing an anonymous allegation? (And before anyone argues that the media has some angle here, need I remind you that the identity of Deep Throat was a secret for decades and we still don't know who wrote that internal resistence NYT op-ed from a few weeks ago.)

Then there is the matter of the response. Again, no assessment of credibility because that is someone else's job, but the issue put before the people is character. And the atmosphere of the entire proceeding changed dramatically, especially when the idea that this might be some kind of revenge of the Clintons...and I'm just going to leave that there. I have nothing but sympathy for Brett Kavanaugh's family because NO ONE should have to endure having their personal life micro-analyzed for the sake of a job. There were folks who jumped to the most extreme conclusions about him within minutes after his name was announced, so of course he regards this as a vast conspiracy. How else should he?

Perhaps the real trigger was the build up of this entire week. There was the Cosby sentencing and reaction. There was the reappearance of Michael Avenatti with additional allegations made against this nominee. In the past two weeks, there were allegations made against another very powerful man in Hollywood that resulted in another public fall from grace. There is our President and his inability to control the sexist impulses that rage within him. And there is social media.

In two separate and unrelated incidences over the last 24 hours, I have witnessed how social media can be both a force for good and for evil. I am very clear that yesterday caused a lot of anguish and anxiety for far more people than anyone realizes. Anyone who believes that incidences involving sexual abuse are simple matters is foolhardy. Anyone who assumes that there is a clear cut choice with respect to reporting these matters is intentionally insensitive. Anyone who thinks that the end result of this entire spectacle is something other than a disaster is mean-spirited and heartless.

And that's all I can manage right now, because there is still so much happening and I need to be able to process in order to move onto the next thing. I don't want to diminish this moment by saying anything trite or predictable, but I am praying for everyone who has found coping with life difficult this past week. I won't offer any useless advice or virtual hugs, but just know that you are not alone.

No Escape

I am literally sitting in front of the television in the few minutes before the confirmation hearing resumes for Brett Kavanaugh. It might take the rest of the day for me to finish this piece because I do plan to watch as much of this as I can before I need to scoop the Kid from school.

Yesterday as I was headed to get her, I thought about how I spend a great deal of time watching the cable news and how I now regard watching anything other than the news as a distraction. How I hope to watch the reboot of Murphy Brown this evening, but depending on what unfolds today, I might need to rethink that plan. How watching the news or listening to the news and then processing anything seems nearly impossible in an unrelenting news cycle.

This came to me as I was listening to the President ramble on through remarks about whatever because pretty much whenever I hear him, I do my best not to imagine the womp, womp, womp trombone sound from the Peanuts cartoons. I am convinced his intention is to overwhelm us to the point of paralysis because perpetual outrage is exhausting as hell.

In addition to the constant breaking news that tells us little to nothing, we are always on edge. We are always waiting to see what nonsense and fuckery is next on the horizon. Such as today, I am convinced that if these hearings prove to be even slightly damaging to the nominee, the President will fire the Deputy Attorney General to reset the news cycle. (<----- It was noon when I wrote that, so we shall see.) I have no prediction if that also means that some other bombshell might be waiting to drop.

Are you as physically, emotionally, and mentally depleted as I am? As I have been since as far back as I can remember? I realize that a great deal of my energy is expended on the Kid, who is a human whirlwind of boundless, never-ending kinetic motion...until she goes to sleep. And I cannot help but to look upon the President as a 70+ year old version--the same petulance, the same uncontrollable emotions, the same insatiable need for attention.


I've been reassured that my child will grow out of this phase. Dear God I hope so. And I guess if we are lucky, our country will be rid of a certain person as of January 21, 2021 (if not sooner, and I am definitely counting the days). I don't think it is hyperbole to suggest that we as a country cannot survive another four years of this.

And here is where I took a break to run some errands before I picked the Kid up from school. I continued to listen to and/or watch the hearing throughout the day and whew, talk about a hot mess. So I guess I was wrong. After what I witnessed today, it appears we are settled into the idea of perpetual chaos as the new normal. That's the only way I can describe what I saw so to invoke the imagery that the nominee himself referenced, we sowed the wind, now we reap the whirlwind.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Shades of Gray

I have been struggling with the allegation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. It is seriously a terrible situation all around, and I don't exactly know what the resolution should be. I have my own political feelings about this nomination, but my concern isn't about what his addition would mean to the Court. This is about the impact it will have on my daughter.

I was 15 nearly thirty years ago. It was the late 80s. I wasn't very popular, so there were not a lot of boys beating down my door. I spent a lot of time with my family. I spent a lot of time in church. I spent a lot of time alone in my room. (This could be my life today...) Whenever I did attend a party or a church function, I hoped to get some nice boy's attention. Not in a sexual way, but in the way that girls and boys interacted on sitcoms and in the way we remember John Hughes' films. The way they interact on Disney Channel shows nowadays.

If I had been at a pool party like the one that brought Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford together, I can only imagine that I would have been flattered if some guy had flirted with me. And if things had gone too far out of control as she suggested they did, I can admit that my reaction would have been the same as hers. NO ONE would ever have known.

I am not about to reveal any deep dark secrets that will ruin someone's future chances of ever sitting in a position of power. Like all teenagers and young adults, I had experiences in high school, college, and even in law school that I would rather not recount in detail. I was never raped or sexually assaulted, but I did end up in a cab very late one night after being put out of a guy's apartment because I didn't want to have sex with him. Yes, I had been drinking.

I was lucky. He thought he was doing me a favor by not forcing me, and all these years later, I can admit that I am grateful. Because if he had not been the asshole who put me out on the street instead of the asshole who forced himself upon me, I can't even...

As I was writing this, I read about the other allegation made against Kavanaugh and well, it definitely fits into the premise I was building to here, which is how our definition of sexual assault has evolved a lot since the 80s when he was a young man. It has even changed since I was a young woman in the 90s. Although I am about ten years younger than Kavanaugh and his accusers, I am old enough to recall how rape and sexual violence were defined in that era. Rape was a stranger attacking an unsuspecting woman wearing a mini skirt in a dark alley. Sexual assault was not part of our vocabulary. Neither was date rape.

I say this not to justify or offer an explanation for anyone's behavior. I mention this because we didn't have the language to describe those gray areas of sexual contact then, but that doesn't make any of it acceptable now.

We were young. We were hormonal. We were naive. We were afraid to say no. We were already too far into it. We were drunk. We were high. We were just trying to have a good time. We were trying to fit in. We were just having fun, but then...

These statements are not unique to any specific environment, such as elite private prep schools, Ivy League universities, public schools, military academies, or HBCUs. All of us need to understand that there is behavior that crosses a line into that gray area, and once that happens and there isn't consent to proceed, then there is a problem. And that can ruin someone's life.

I mentioned the impact all of this would have on my daughter, who is still three years old. But one day she will be a 15 year old and the talk I want to have with her about encounters with members of the opposite sex should not include the warning that no one will believe her if. I do not want the words that follow that if to perpetuate systematic inequality. And I don't want her to carry around the burden of secret shame for nearly twenty five years (or more).

Friday, September 21, 2018

Salty Pretzels: Watching Black TV

Why is it that every time we decide to watch a black sitcom/drama/movie, some of y'all respond with a master's thesis of analysis? Why can't we just laugh/cry and move on to more important stuff like electing black governors in Georgia and Florida and Maryland?

I haven't written anything substantive about Insecure, and I promise, this will not be another bloated, self-important, over-analysis of the last episode or of anything that has already aired in the last two seasons. All I need to say is that I enjoy the show. I am just happy to watch something on TV that doesn't air on the Disney channel or PBS Kids. For half an hour, I get to change the channel from MSNBC or CNN or a rerun of a sitcom I used to watch. #thatisall

So why do folks have to deconstruct everything with the objective of making us mindful and reflective about what we're watching? Did y'all do this for Sex and the City and I missed it because I didn't have HBO back then? Is every episode of a black sitcom a very special episode? Why does this annoy me so much?

Let me back up to what made me open this family sized bag of stale, sour cream and onion flavored pretzels. It was last summer when some chick uploaded her feelings onto Facebook Live about the movie Girls Trip and it went viral. Admittedly, some of my saltiness had a lot to do with the fact that her commentary was damn near an hour long, yet still got re-posted multiple times (like who seriously watched that entire video). But now, some of y'all are similarly going in on Insecure and making way too much about the larger meaning of life as a 30-something black woman in Los Angeles.

Chill. It is not that deep. Let me summarize: Issa is a damn mess. So are ALL of her friends.

Now, I am not trying to stop us from having legitimate post-show discussions on social media about the return of Lawrence, Dro's lying ass, or whether Nathan is a fugitive from witness protection. Those conversations are fun. It reminds me of how we all bonded over Scandal just a few years ago, and how we are still trying to understand that Teddy Perkins episode of Atlanta. That level of pondering is entirely appropriate.

But when it gets to the point of questioning whether these characters are written with a realism based on authentic black female relationships (and yes, someone really went all the way there), I just can't. When some public health professional feels the need to criticize the show for all of the unprotected sex but didn't catch how they handled that with a character developing chlamydia, that feels a wee bit like overthinking things unnecessarily. Hello, Ross and Rachel, anyone?

It is a TV show. Just watch...or don't.

I get that whenever we see black people on TV, we want to see them in a positive light, but unless we are watching the local news, I think we need to become less uptight about how every character is portrayed. We need to accept nuance and multifaceted humanity. People are messy and indecisive and smart and stuck up and very often, make questionable decisions. Since I mentioned Sex and the City, can we just admit that Carrie Bradshaw and Issa (and Molly) make many of the same damn mistakes with men? If you watched SATC for any length of time, how could you not question her judgment with respect to Mr. Big and how they ended up married in that terrible movie? Are you certain that you wouldn't sit around at brunch and talk about Samantha while she's in the bathroom?

We place too heavy a burden on entertainment to uplift the race. And I am speaking from experience, because I have definitely been a proponent of respectability television in the past. When it was still politically correct to complain about BET, I did so. I admit to being snobbish about which reality TV shows I will watch. I have plenty of issues with certain stereotypes and tropes, but I realize that if we really want to see ourselves in all of our complicated glory, then we have to accept that not every black man on a sitcom will be Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable. And speaking of...he famously lambasted the premise of Living Single because he assumed it to be a show about something that it was not.

My point--let the show run its course without any of the baggage of our historical and sociological expectations of perfection over quality. Remember Frank's Place (of course not, because it only ran for one season and never reruns)...so just enjoy this great moment in black television that finds a black woman starring in her own show that she created.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Black in Fashion III - September Issues and Fashion Week

New York Fashion Week has come to an end and as I sit here in my unfashionable sweatshirt and sleep cap, I can only dream of the day when I get to be fabulous enough to be wearing the same ensemble while blogging from my hotel room after a whirlwind weekend of shows and parties. Just putting it out there for February 2019, btw...

This has been a crazy week, so I will admit that this third installment of my #BlackinFashion series is posting later than I anticipated and is abridged from my initial vision. Instead of a series posted to social media, there is just this digest because I ran out of time. And in a week that included the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Conference, an unending news cycle of Presidential insanity, a hurricane, and life in all of its chaotic glory, I think this is pretty good four five days after the fact.

Somewhere I saw a headline that touted the presence of black women on every major September fashion issue...but that wasn't exactly the case. THE major September Issue with a black woman on the cover this month is VOGUE, and this is not just another Beyonce picture on the cover, it is a photo taken by an artist that she personally selected. And that artist, Tyler Mitchell, is a 23 year old who has the honor of being the first black photographer to shoot a cover for VOGUE. There is also a rare interview. If you haven't gotten the issue yet...(yeah, me too).

I did happen to snag a copy of Glamour, a magazine that I only ever read at the nail salon. But the September cover girl is comedian Tiffany Haddish, who is definitely having a moment. In addition to pissing off Katt Williams for no apparent reason other than jealousy, she is in at least three forthcoming films. Since they both won Emmys maybe they can hug it out (and maybe some generous designer will give her something other than that Alexander McQueen dress to wear...not that we don't appreciate her keeping it real). But once you appear on the cover of a fashion magazine, designers should be taking note.

I came across this cover of ELLE UK featuring a pregnant model named Slick Woods, who just in the past couple of days made headlines for giving birth hours after walking in the Savage x Fenty show! Apparently, she was in labor during her trot down the catwalk, but no worries because Erykah Badu was chilling backstage just waiting to be her doula.

Speaking of Rihanna, she appears on the cover of Edward Enninful's first September Issue as editor at British VOGUE. I shan't address the matter of Kanye West and his children on the cover of Harper's Bazaar, but will point out that Zoe Kravitz is on the October cover. Zendaya is on the cover of Marie Claire and if you are looking for anyone else, take a look through this list of September Issue covers.

I am still old school when it comes to following fashion, so as everyone else turns to Instagram to keep up with the trends, I am unsure if the author of this article is right. However, if the outpouring of emotion over the death of fashion blogger and influencer named Kyrzayda Rodriguez, who succumbed to stomach cancer last week is any indication of the future, perhaps Anna Wintour is presiding over a dying medium?

Unlikely, at least in the short term. Anna still gets front row seats at the shows, and her magazine has helped to spotlight some of these black designers and models who were featured during New York Fashion Week September 5-12, 2018:

Bella Rene - website

Cushnie - ELLE article

Carlton Jones - website

Pyer Moss - VOGUE article

Salem Mitchell - VOGUE article

Telfar - PAPER article

Finally, I have to mention that I learned a new term this week, "lewks" thanks to my imaginary sister-in-law, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I just happened to be reading through my Twitter timeline the other day and read how she had been attacked over an expensive outfit she wore for this interview. While I am convinced that this pettiness has a lot to do with Ocasio-Cortez's refusal to buy any of the wolf tickets sold by the folks who need better hobbies, this entire controversy emphasizes the point of this series. A fashion statement has social, economic, personal, and political implications. And the statements aren't just made by the clothes (take note of the model in the Tommy Hilfiger ad, Winnie Harlow). Fashion can be dismissed by people who take themselves way too seriously as superficial, but in the process they miss the broader message.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Birth of a Radical

Today marks one of those solemn anniversaries that we must commemorate, even as some would prefer that we allow it to fade. When I say some I mean those who say that these memories are too painful, that exposing them to such pain is unfair. The some who wince and whine "that was so long ago" or "why dredge up the past when we've come so far"...

Those same some who blame victims who die under suspicious circumstances.

Nevertheless, today is my Dad's 71st birthday. Fifty-five years ago, on his 16th birthday, an act of domestic terrorism occurred at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that resulted in the deaths of four girls who were inside the church, two other young people who were killed in related incidents, and severe injuries to at least 20 others.

My father and so many other young people, were radicalized by that church bombing. They took to the streets to join civil rights protests (having only just participated in one of the largest to take place in Washington just weeks earlier). At the end of a tumultuous decade of activism that included sit-ins, freedom schools, voter registration efforts, anti-war protests, and the election of Richard Nixon, many of those young people continued their work in different arenas. My Dad went into academia, while others went into business, entertainment, journalism, public service, and other fields.

Looking at those four faces frozen in time (which I have done many, many times), I think of what could have been had those young women not be killed in that church. What if the casualties had been four adolescent young men or four older deacons? What if the church members had heeded the warning call and evacuated the premises? What if one or more of the bombers had a sudden change of heart about bombing a place of worship? What if...

When we recall these historical tragedies and ask these questions, we realize that the answers are complicated. We might not be where we are at this current moment. We wonder about what could have been and realize that even horrific incidents serve a purpose in shaping those of us who survive. Their deaths were not in vain.

For years, my Dad told me how this incident impacted him as a young man. How he transferred to Howard University from Merrimack College to be more involved in the movement. How he met Stokely Carmichael and rode with him to Mississippi during the summer of 1966 against my grandmother's wishes. How the events of 1968 left him disillusioned. How he and his friends gravitated to Pan-Africanism which is how their children have African names like Ayanna, Mossi, Sekou, Massai, and Nia. How his commitment to black political empowerment meant that he refused to move to the suburbs, even during the crack epidemic.

How I believe that when the young people from Parkland, Florida led a march on DC earlier this year, mobilized by the senseless tragedy at their school, people like my Dad (their grandparents) saw shadows of themselves. 

To the some who question why we insist that we will never forget those four girls, I note how we insist on remembering the nearly 3,000 who died on September 11, 2001. That despite the claims of our current President, who somehow believes that he did everyone a favor by merely being born, we will remember the nearly 3,000 lives that were lost in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. We will remember those lives lost during Hurricane Katrina, at Sandy Hook Elementary, in Chicago, and those who die daily in this opioid crisis. For every tragic death that we recall--whether in war, natural disaster, senseless violence, or even by accident, on those dates radicals are born.

Radical parents who run for elected office in their child's memory. Radical classmates who advocate for legislation to avert future tragedies. Radical children and siblings who march in the streets. Radical artists who write lyrics and paint murals and film documentaries to express our pain. Radical educators, journalists, entrepreneurs, and activists.

Happy Birthday Daddy. Rest in peace Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Representation Matters

On Sunday, I took the kid with me to Target in an effort to wear her out by bedtime. I knew the risks of taking an overly stimulated child who hadn't napped all day to a crowded big box retailer on a Sunday evening when apparently everybody else had the same idea, so I made a trip to the toy aisle in order to keep things calm. I had no intention of buying anything, but the kid (who now has a clear understanding of wanting things on store shelves), made her way to the doll section and reached for a Barbie. It was a Black Barbie, and while she was searching for a button that would make it sing or talk, I happened to see these:


And they made me smile. My daughter and her peers have so many options that were unavailable to previous generations of young girls, and I commend mainstream toy companies for finally realizing that children of color deserve to see themselves reflected in characters and merchandise. We've been saying this for so long, but diverse representation matters. It is phenomenal that little black and brown and Asian girls get to see representations of themselves, just as it is equally important for little white girls to see their peers. From Doc McStuffins to Mulan to Moana to Tiana to Jasmine and even that fairer-skinned Pocahantas (yeah, I noticed), Disney has made great strides in offering diversity. Mattel has done the same thing with Barbie, and while there isn't a classic movie catalog or a theme park to reinforce these images, who would have thought that Barbie would ever rock a fro?

Let's be clear, these companies have made these dolls to attract our business. They know that if they do not offer us dolls that look like our children, our dollars will go elsewhere. My parents never bought me a Barbie doll because she was white (remember, it was the 70s and I have an African name) so they were very intentional about those types of things. By the time black Barbies became a thing, I was no longer interested and the one Barbie that slipped through the cracks ended up with an asymmetrical hairdo. Here is the black Zuri doll I had as a child, sold by Shindana, a black toy company that operated in the 70s and 80s (and yes, my daughter is named for her).

In turn, I have been very intentional about the dolls I have purchased for her and my nieces. Disney's Princess Tiana debuted the year my niece was born, so naturally I bought one for her. This past Christmas, I bought my other niece the black doll from the preschool American Girl line and bought my daughter a black doll from the toddler American Girl line. I expected to wait a few years before investing in the next level doll, but guess what my daughter will receive at some point whether she asks for one or not (because how can I possibly not buy her the Latina astronaut doll of the year)?

So yes, I'm all in and spending big bucks and praying that my child doesn't get creative with a permanent marker or a pair of scissors one day.

Representation doesn't just matter with respect to toys. This Sunday while we were all watching Black Girls Rock 2018, the revamped Miss America contest debuted and crowned a black woman named Nia from New York. There have been black Miss Americas for a while now, but I am old enough to remember when Vanessa Williams made history. While we have all been debating whether Serena Williams was the victim of sexism or of her own bad temper, I remember a time before the Williams sisters dominated the game. They are now old enough to be beaten by younger players who grew up with them as role models. In a few weeks, there will be a lot of little Black Panthers on your doorstep. As some are questioning the existence of black mermaids, I am already prepared to purchase everything Zendaya once that live-action movie is released.

Yeah, my kid also loves Anna, Elsa, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and those chicks from Descendants, along with Harley from Stuck in the Middle, Andi from Andi Mack, and Zuri (of course) from Bunk'd. She loves Abby Cadabby, who is a pink fairy monster on Sesame Street, Pinkalicious, and Pinky Dinky Doo (yes, I just caught onto the pink theme). She loves Miss Elaina and Katerina from Daniel Tiger, Peg from Peg+Cat, and JoJo Siwa. How ironic that my very strong-willed and determined child identifies with other very strong female characters, regardless of race or species. (Mind you, our limited universe of fictional female characters consisted of Miss Piggy, Lady Elaine Fairchild, Wonder Woman, and one Smurfette.)

Finally, this topic has really hit home for me as I look around and see all of the women who have emerged on the political landscape as candidates and leaders, as commentators and analysts, and as activists and advocates. Last week I saw how a woman my age with my name running for Congress with this very same message won a primary election against the odds. It matters when women are in positions of power. It matters when women speak truth to power. It matters that women are bringing folding chairs with them to demand room at the table.

Representation matters--for little Afro-Latina girls named Zuri, as well as for Busy Black Women named Ayanna.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Brick Walls

I did not intend to even address this Geoffrey Owens story, let alone relate to it on a personal level, but I feel the need to say something, and maybe even encourage others (myself included) in the process. I was triggered by what happened to him--from the fact that he he was 'outed' to the subsequent ridicule and shaming to the hope that things can and will turn around for him.

We have all hit these brick walls in life. Sometimes we see it coming, and we get to slow down to minimize the impact. Most times, it comes up out of nowhere and we crash. I don't even have to know the particulars of his situation to know that he hit a wall and this was his way of trying to deal with the impact.

Let's start by dispelling the myth that being a working actor means riches and fame. No, it means having a job for the moment, and then perhaps the ability to secure another one in the future. Acting is temporary work. The fact that The Cosby Show was a big hit in the 80s means that there are royalties and maybe other opportunities. But one cannot live on royalties and the possibility of future work. And he wasn't the star of the show, he was a supporting actor, just like all of the other kids and significant others on the show. In fact, until the later seasons, he was a guest on the show. Even after he married into the family and became a regular, he was not featured in every episode.

After that show, he had name and face recognition, but he still probably had to hustle for jobs. In the 27 years since that show ended, he has worked as a character actor. In fact, the last time I saw him on screen (which was the first time I saw him in a while) was on an HBO show called Divorce, but again as a character and not the star. He currently has a few other roles in production.

But, as he explained on Good Morning America, he needed more income to make ends meet and working at the grocery store offered him the flexibility to continue to audition and work as an actor when possible. He mentioned that he even taught at Yale, his alma mater and does not need any sympathy because he was performing honest work. Of course, because of all this attention, he had to quit his job at Trader Joe's, but he also might get a job with Tyler Perry, which means in that cliched way we hope that life will work out, this setback has possibly been a setup for his comeback.

Here is how I was triggered and brought to tears: I know what courage it must have taken for him to take a job at a grocery store and run the risk of being recognized, and potentially shamed for it. I know what it is like to have high hopes and dreams of the kind of life you want, and then fall short of achieving or maintaining those dreams. I know what it is like to have to make do with reality and make hard choices. I know what it is like to then have those choices used against you to further shame or mock you into seeing yourself as a failure.

I was just going to tweet out a few reactions to this story, but I felt the need to share one of my brick wall moments. I came back to DC after law school with no job in place. I searched and applied for every legal job that seemed to fit, but got nowhere for more than a year. So I took a temporary job with one of those organizations that brings students to DC, which worked out great until it ended. Then I got a part-time job in retail while continuing to look for full time work. That job carried me through the holiday season and into the summer. It wasn't great, the pay was terrible, but it paid the bills and I had the flexibility to go on interviews and work various other temp jobs as needed.

Then one day, a high school classmate of mine walked into the store. She had not been a friend, but I knew her well enough to recognize her. It had not yet been ten years since high school, but when she asked why I was working at the mall, I suddenly felt very ashamed. And so I quit by the end of the month. For a while, I found sporadic temp work and set up my own practice, but it was still several months before I landed a steady job.

As far as I am concerned, there is no moral to my story that ends well...at least not yet. I won't address the fact that I have been under-employed for years, nor will I divulge how long that has been my reality. I will admit that a part of me prays that the lesson of Geoffrey Owens' story is not that everything will miraculously work out, but that things will eventually work out. There is a way to rebuild after experiencing a crash.

However dejected and depressed I feel right now (and it is pretty bad today), I actually feel inspired by his story. I am inspired that he hasn't given up on his dream, he just found another way to work towards achieving them. I am inspired that his story has lead us all to re-evaluate the tendency to mock others for seemingly falling down. How many of us have hit that brick wall, and remained a wreck? Are we seriously shaming a man who has the courage to take a less glamorous job than the one he once had? Does it make us feel superior to him, or are we afraid that the same thing could happen to any of us?

As I write this and re-examine where I am and how I am dealing with the brick wall in my path currently, crashing is not the worst thing. It hurts like hell, but I am still here. I may just be a writer with a law degree, but once upon a time I was just a frustrated and bored housewife. I have the opportunity to create a possibility for myself which might not have happened if I had not been fired from the last dead end job I held. Geoffrey Owens is not just some guy who went Yale and just bags groceries. He is a working actor.

Monday, September 3, 2018

The BBW Tea Party: Aretha's Homegoing

Alright, I waited a respectable amount of time and went back to revisit some of what I missed in the three hours I turned away from the extravaganza that was Aretha Franklin's funeral, so here it is y'all, the Busy Black Woman's Tea Party. Do you have your hat, your snacks, and a little something to give it some zing? Take your time to assemble your necessities and then come back ready to indulge!

1. We are not comparing funerals!
Don't come for me with any nonsense about how the white folks put Sen. John McCain away with solemnity and how we sent Aretha away with a parade. I know. Sometimes that's how it is done, and if you need a primer on Black funerals after having seen Imitation of Life or having sat through the marathons that celebrated the lives of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, then you need to go on and follow Marc Lamont Hill (who felt the need to explain this on BET of all places). We. Ain't. Got. The. Time. For. That.

Look, this same issue has been noted and debated in the past, but the black delegation decided that it would not give in to the pressure of abridging these celebrations if that's what folks want. And y'all knew that once the lineup was released with a tentative schedule that ran six hours long, this wasn't about to be no sedate funeral.

And furthermore, Senator McCain has had, by my count, four (4) funerals, including military rites and whatnot. If all of that had occurred in one day, then his service would have been about four or five hours too...

2. President Obama can go where he wants!
So the former President didn't go to Aretha's Homegoing, but he went and spoke at one of John McCain's memorial services and some of y'all are mad at him about that. Well you can stay mad. The man is a private citizen and can chose whether he wants to blow an entire day in Detroit, or whether he can spare a few hours in DC. He earned that right.

I have it on good information that the Franklin family decided to extend an invitation to the Clintons because of their long-standing relationship (and the fact that Clinton gave her a National Arts Medal), and that the Obamas stayed away so as not to overshadow the Clintons. So this was all arranged and decided beforehand, so go on and focus on who else wasn't there.

3. A Whole Lot of Folks Weren't There
But I doubt that any of you plan to hold that against them. Mary J. Blige wasn't there. Patti LaBelle wasn't there. Beyonce wasn't there. The Winans weren't there. Thankfully Madonna wasn't there. Shall I go on?

Gladys Knight wasn't even slated to be on the program (she sang the night before at the tribute concert), but she stepped up as the warm up for Stevie, who arrived in time to end the services on a high note before he had to roll out for his next concert gig in Massachusetts last night.

4. That Eulogy
My Dad called me when Rev. Williams was about two minutes into his message, and by the time we finished talking, the Reverend went on for at least another fifteen minutes. I haven't been willing to sit for a full replay because I heard more than enough.

Don't come at me with any explanations about what I missed from his sermon because I have heard so many versions of that same tired message and there is no new spin or fresh take that I need. I don't know why Aretha asked him to preach her eulogy after there had already been seven hours of more appropriate tributes offered, and I won't speculate about her beliefs. I just know that it is entirely consistent that some folks will leave a black funeral pissed about something, so there you go.

5. Don't Try It
Don't lay Big Mama out in a gold coffin. Don't rent a specialized hearse. Don't order a fleet of pink Cadillacs. Don't get up there to sing if that ain't your ministry. Don't have a three-day wake with wardrobe changes. And even if you have the money to pay for any of the aforementioned nonsense, don't die without a will.

6. Unless Otherwise Instructed, Wear Black
But for the love of God, so that no one spends several days discussing the length of your hemline as a defense to your being felt up by the presiding Bishop...

And that applies to the men in attendance as well. Was Bill Clinton wearing a purple suit???

7. Cicely Tyson Can Do Whatever She Wants
She can wear a hat that looks like it came from the set of the Flying Nun. She can give a spontaneous performance piece (an adaptation of When Malindy Sings) that nobody expected. She can perform that piece with such passion that we didn't notice that she didn't have it memorized. She can do anything!

8. So we have discussed almost everything else, but Ronald Isley...and Faith Hill.

9. Correct the Record
Aretha Franklin did not record for Motown, so she was not part of that label's fabled Golden Era during the 60s. I know that we want her to have been a part of that history as she was friends with many of those artists, namely Smokey Robinson. But somehow, I don't see Aretha being content to playing second fiddle to Diana Ross (#ijs).

10. Pray for the Family
In the end, after we have had our fun we must consider the loss felt by this family. For all of the enjoyment we the public got from experiencing that extravaganza, there are her loved ones for whom that was one of the most unimaginable experiences of their lives. In that casket was a mother, a grandmother, an auntie, a best friend. It was a privilege that we were allowed to witness her celebration of life. In the weeks to come, when we have moved on with our lives, let's remember their generosity and pray for their comfort and strength.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Sexism is the New Black

Yeah I said it. I've said it previously, but y'all didn't believe me. So I repeat--sexism is the new black.

I was minding my own business, listening to John McCain's funeral, folding laundry and going through the kid's clothes to see what she can still wear (because she has legs as long as mine), when I decided to check social media. Between Meghan McCain taking a full on drone strike at the President and the postmortem of Aretha Franklin's funeral yesterday, there was a lot to keep me distracted.

Let's start with a quick dispatch of topics I reserve the right to revisit at another time: (1) a comparison of the length of the services or the differing funereal rituals on display; (2) the absence of President Obama at one service and his presence at the other; (3) the fact that the current occupant of the White House was so unwelcome at both events that he spent the day huffing and puffing about Russia as if anyone but the Russians give a damn; (4) that Lindsay Graham is a crappy friend; and (5) Rev. Jasper Williams gave one of the worst eulogies I have ever had the misfortune to half hear.

My focus today is on the issue of Ariana Grande and that uncomfortable moment she shared with Bishop Charles H. Ellis III after her rendition of Natural Woman. I was running late for a lunch appointment, so I dashed out of the house just as she took to the stage. Thus, I missed the chance to take note of her dress, her ponytail, her voice, or anything else about her performance. Later, I saw various reactions on Facebook regarding the Bishop's conduct, then today I finally watched the entire clip. It begins with the Bishop embracing Grande after her performance with his hand right up under her armpit. And it stayed there as he pulled her close to commend her and then proceeded to make a bad joke about her name sounding like a menu offering at Taco Bell. She looked visibly uncomfortable and offered that uneasy, yet familiar visage of dread and disgust.

Now, I'm going to say a few things from the perspective of a Busy Black Church Mama and you can disagree with me if you want, but trust that I am speaking from experience.

The dress was short. It was a funeral, not a performance. But I cannot blame Grande for not making an appropriate distinction between the two concepts since she was asked to sing a secular song and some of the other folks on the program were also dressed for a performance and not a funeral. Yes, I am referring to the Mother of the Church, the Rev. Shirley Caesar. Some folks forgot where they were, like our favorite Auntie Chaka Khan, who didn't know the words to her own solo; or our cousin Fantasia who tossed off her shoes before she got down to singing. And we're not going to discuss the matter of Queen Aretha's three (3) costume changes, which might have given one the impression that this was some kind of show...

But the dress was black. And it was cute. And Grande is 25, so she can get a pass. I don't know anything about her upbringing or her life other than the fact that she is engaged to some guy from SNL, so I am going to surmise that this was a fashion faux pas that shalt not be repeated the next time she is tapped to perform at a funeral. If she doesn't opt for something more discreet, well that's not really any of my business.

For perspective, take a look at this clip of Aretha with Don Cornelius. If you can tell me why he was clutching onto her so tight at the beginning of this interview, and then why he backed up to compliment the outside of her house while he was staring at her chest, then you already know where I am headed.

So let's talk about the Bishop, and why he felt the need to call Grande over to the podium after she finished singing. Why did he grab her up under her arm, and why did he pull her in close even after he made his awkward joke about her name? Why did folk feel the need to point out that his wife was sitting less than ten feet away, so we didn't really see what we all know we saw? And why do folks keep bringing up the length of her dress in response to his manhandling?

Let me tell you why: because sexist behavior is socially acceptable as long as we can offer an excuse for it. As long as we can distract people with the netting on Aretha's sweater or the hemline of Ariana's skirt, the smirk on Bill Clinton's face, or the awkward moment when the Bishop's hand tightened around Grande's ribcage, we don't have to address whether any of that was sexist.

The bodies of young women in religious settings are treated like the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. We are taught from an early age that Eve tempted Adam, so women are the forbidden fruit. It is our fault if lustful eyes, hands, and thoughts replace the Holy Spirit; therefore, we must be modest and covered up. As a tall teenager with long legs, that became a bit of a challenge. Then as a college student who experimented with various forms of self-expression, my style choices were intentionally daring. One Christmas I wore a slip dress in front of my grandmother and my cousin's boyfriend that had less fabric than what Grande wore and I can only guess what was said about that.

Eventually, I bought into the respectability politics of church attire after I was elevated to visible church offices. So I accepted the scarf that was placed across my lap and carried a jacket or shawl to cover my exposed shoulders. I wore my knee-length white Deaconess dress on Communion Sunday and my Trustee pantsuits on the other Sundays. Yet, as an adult working with the Praise Dance Ministry, I was still pulled aside and instructed to cover my body (that was being used in praise y'all, praise.)

One sister-friend in ministry noted that the Bishop's familiarity with Grande as well as other aspects of the service highlighted women's continued subservience in the church. She noted that most of the women on the program were performers while the men were clergy and dignitaries. Then of course there was that eulogy...spoken over the body of a woman who was a teenage single mother. Brother Pastor, since you are casting stones, Aretha and her siblings were raised by a single father.


Finally, I started this piece after participating on a thread started by one of my line sisters that specifically referenced the Bishop's behavior and belated un-apology to Ariana Grande. A male respondent equated the Bishop's inappropriateness to Ariana's dress, so I called it out as not the issue. He suggested that her attire was another issue, but then elsewhere on the thread made reference to how the women kept trying to avoid that topic. And that isht made me mad because first of all, that aardvark tried to write me off. Second, by conflating the two issues, it was as if one issue begat the other--her short dress led to the Bishop putting his hands on her. So it is the responsibility of a 25 year old pop artist not to get herself groped at a nationally televised funeral. Third, the Bishop apologized to the Latino community for the Taco Bell reference because that joke was culturally insensitive but deflected on how he touched her inappropriately.

But her dress...but her emails.