Archive for February 2009

WOC and The Great American Novel

February 24, 2009

Today I was browsing news sources when I came across this article on the main page of Salon.com:

Why can’t a woman write the Great American Novel? This is a book review by Laura Miller. Interestingly, my bf had shown me an article in The Economist about it too. The book is a book by Elaine Showalter which is “the first comprehensive history of American women writers from 1650 to 2000.”

It’s a great topic. It seeks to question why women are rarely respected authors, why men outnumber them 2:1 on NYT Book Reviews, why they aren’t writing “the great American novel.” Its basically a modern A Room Of One’s Own–a book I love. To be sure, there are barriers that women find difficult to break through in writing. The concept of a room of one’s own persists today, where men are granted this privilege, something that women have to fight for. Then there’s the idea that housework is a woman’s domain– which leaves no time for writing, and has for centuries .  The book seems to interestingly compare women’s writing in the UK to women’s writing in America– concluding that back in the day, the class system in the UK provided greater opportunities for wealthy women to have time to write.

The review of the book itself drifts off while Laura Miller begins considering the subject on her own. When I reach the end of the first page, I see this:

easierwocnovel2

They had to go there, didn’t they. At this point I am not optimistic for the second half of the article. When I reach the part about WOC it turns out to be just a paragraph:

The great exception to this rule [of being left out of the mainstream-my edit] is women of color — most notably Toni Morrison, but Prose also singles out the Native-American novelist Leslie Marmon Silko — whose work became mainstream in the 1980s. Apart from their own considerable talent, these writers have been politically liberated to claim a big swath of territory that white male novelists could not make a feasible bid for anyway; Don DeLillo knows better than to attempt the Great American Novel about slavery.

Okay. That’s all very well, but just because WOC have different perspectives that whites cannot know, doesn’t mean they somehow have it easier as far as writing novels and being recognized. Morrison and Walker and such are standalones in a great dearth of mainstream-media popularly recognized female authors of color. Surely Beloved and The Bluest Eye come from a place that white people cannot write from, (and are brilliant books), but there’s also the simple fact that for a lot of people, these books DO represent niches. We read Morrison in the “cultural” or “African-American Lit” sections of our high school lesson plans. And are we ignoring all the more numerous black males who write on race issues? (Hughes, Du Bois, Ellison,  Mosley, Jones etc), or white men like Faulkner who write on them as well?

The framing of the issue in a tagline that says: “Is it easier for women of color..?” is always problematic with me. I believe that for all women, recognition in writing, film directing, music, etc is much harder to achieve and sometimes comes at a higher price, than for their male counterparts. Let us not dismiss the problems of WOC simply because we see women like Morrison succeed. Just as this article started pointing out, books about “female subjects” or things largely considered female domains (domestic novels, etc)  just don’t have the legitimacy in mainstream America. The same then goes for writing about  things largely considered niche/ for the African-American communities, not for the mainstream. How can people fail to realize that?

Rihanna

February 20, 2009

I just learned that TMZ released a photo of Rihanna’s face taken by the police after being violently attacked by Chris Brown.

Now I had no misunderstandings about how TMZ was above anything like that. But I will say I am even more disturbed by TMZ than I was before.

As women so much of our lives are invisible. Anonymous. We are a monolithic Other, we are not thought of when the people in power make laws, policy, stimulus packages. Our “issues” are not discussed, our rights cast aside in favor of “saving money” or “focusing on something more important.”

But as soon as something becomes “media worthy”- whatever that means- Our images are used without our permissions, without our voices, to become sensationalized and reproduced for public consumption.

What happened to Rihanna happens to so many women every day. In every community, every demographic. But we choose to ignore this fact so often, we choose to not think about these women, but when it happens to a superstar, we are hungry. This woman, who did not choose to have this highly personal painful situation so highly publicized. Did not ask to become the “face of domestic violence.” Did not ask for her image to be used to sell magazines so the wolves can eat up her pain and use it for their own entertainment and text the latest gossip to their friends.

To release such a disturbing, triggering image so that people can click on it, say their “Ewwww”s and get on with their days– that is negligence and insensitivity and sexism in the highest form. It is her pain, and it is the pain of all of us who have had this done to us, or who live in fear of it, or have loved ones living in fear of it.

I hope we can have productive conversations out of this. I hope that if something comes of this, it will open people’s eyes and maybe encourage more action and more people to speak out. I am glad some people are noticing the issue of domestic violence for the first time– but not in this way.  The solution is not to comment on blogs saying how either she “deserved it” or “black men are crazy like that.” Or write things like how “she has such a beautiful face, its a pity to see it like this!” Or to get “grossed out” and move on with our days. We need to acknowledge that this happens to women who are not famous and who are not ‘beautiful.’ And it can happen anywhere and to anyone and we need to address it in our communities and fight against it. And to respect that this famous woman did not ask to be dissected in this public way. We must hold ourselves accountable to these women and help them, and listen to them. And tell our men it is not acceptable and you will be held accountable for your violence.

‘Cause I’ve already ripped off my mask’

February 19, 2009

 

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Mike Check is probably my second favorite…after “First Writing Since” which I already posted before

Oh and here’s some Sista Queen cause she’s the shit and I’m on a Def Poetry kick.

‘Try being a lady’ Oh, you mean you want me to act catty and shady,
play with me like a doll, degrade me then trade me.
Use me as your trophy so that you can parade me, Use my vagina to only birth babies.
Be your damsel in distress so a brother can save me, hmmm, HOW BOUT NOT!
Cause if my tongue was a trigger you would have been shot,
Get real i’ma stay inappropriate till I fucking rot. I don’t talk about love, i don’t talk about sex
I don’t talk about things that’ll put your dick on erect. I won’t pour you some tea,
I won’t bake you some cookies, I won’t be your next Ciara singing about my goodies.
I won’t speak when I’m spoken to, how about I speak when I choose,
I don’t care if you the press I’m gonna speak my views.
I won’t be what you want, I won’t be what you ask,
how about some of you LADIES show your real face cuz I’ve already ripped off my mask

WOC Blog Carnival Plug

February 15, 2009

Today, everyone should head over to http://tellitwocspeak.blogspot.com/, where Renee, of Womanist Musings has a WOC Blog Carnival:

Tell It Women Of Color Speak, is dedicated to giving voice to women of color. Historically we have been marginalized, exploited and silenced. Throughout our difficult history we have struggled to maintain our dignity and self-worth. It is in the name of our fore mothers who struggled so that we could be here today that I call this carnival.
Submissions can range from gender, history, politics, sexuality, personal stories etc. I will place no limits as we have been limited enough. Please feel free to share, as we are all on similar journeys. It is my hope that we will devise survival strategies together. For those that seek to ‘other’ us, read and learn, there is so much we have to teach

Everyone should check it out.

Activism v. Professionalism: Floral Arrangements Edition

February 13, 2009

Last night was the night of a big event/reception/awards ceremony I’d been working on for the past 5 months. It was a recognition of young women who have made great strides in their sectors, and who have made a difference to the community. About 400 people were there, including Congresswomen and Obama Campaign people.

It was something my team and I had worked very hard on, and I was proud of it. I had never really done event planning before, and had little experience on it, and the past 5 months were a great learning experience for me. And it made me think about my future more and more.

I wanted to be a part of this event because it was a subset of a large Women’s organization that is pretty well-known in the area. I’ve been aching to get more involved in feminist/women’s issues in my spare time, especially since my full-time job isn’t really in that arena. Its what I want to do for my life’s work, so I wanted to start somewhere.

The experience taught me a lot about myself and brought up some questions– where is the line between Activism, and Professionalism? Are both equally important?

Barbara Smith writes, in But Some Of Us Are Brave (people, get this book if you do not have it):

That word ‘professionalism’ covers a multitude of sins. I always cringe when I hear anyone describe herself as ‘professional,’  because what usually follows is an excuse for inaction, an excuse for ethical irresponsibility. It’s a word and a concept we don’t need, because it is ultimately a way of dividing ourselves from others and escaping from reality.

This quote sounds harsh, and I don’t mean to relate my experiences to it, but I mean for it to provide a background. The entire time spent on this event planning was time not spent on anything nitty or gritty. It required no analysis, nothing grassroots, no activism, no real challenge to any system. The time was spent on picking a venue for a gala, picking caterers, finding a speaker, marketing, and–last but not least– flower arrangements.

I mention the flowers, because to me, it represented the biggest disconnect I had with the entire situation. Here we were, we were all ‘professionals’, adding this to our resumes– organizing something that would honor other professionals. This is not unimportant. Women’s work is underacknoweleged, and underpaid, and a ceremony honoring women who have done great things is a wonderful idea. It’s just…I believe there are better ways to tackle this, there are more people to help, more important things to be done, or things I’d rather be involved with.

It was 2 hours till show time. I took off work early to arrive at the venue and set up for the evening.  I asked what needed the most help, and everyone immediately said “the flower arrangements.” My understanding was that we just wanted to put some flowers on the tables with the food, to make them look nice. That this understanding was an oversimplification, is an understatement. There were different sorts of flower-holding vessels. There were different types of flowers. There were diagrams. There were water dynamic-based tactical strategies to get these flowers to float in a specific way.

I tried my hand at putting the arrangement together, but felt more and more awkward. I don’t know a damn thing about flower arranging. Or what people like to see at food tables at galas. Everyone else was critiquing the way the petals fell, the buoyancy of the bouquets, and I finally just said “…does it really matter?”

I felt like they thought I was from Pluto. How could the placement of the petals not matter? And I couldn’t help but feel like the whole argument was frivolous and privileged and out of place. And I was feeling like an alien. So I told them I really would be much more helpful elsewhere and got the hell out of the flower area. I hung up signs, took donations, helped people find their way to coat check, and the whole evening progressed very nicely.

I by no means mean to degrade what we did for 5 months, or that night. I met an amazing group of women who are bright, thoughtful, feminist, and creative. We celebrated women’s efforts in the work place, and the great advancements we’ve made. For this, I smile. But when it comes down to it, we really didn’t challenge anything, or make anything better for the average woman, or anyone really. The activism part of the equation was completely missing.

I hope very much that women who love flower arranging and gala planning, and honoring already prominent, successful ladies will spring forward and continue where we left off, to make hundreds of other ceremonies of this nature. They should do this work, because its nice and inspiring, if that’s where their hearts are. My own heart is a different story. I need to challenge conventional standards, I want to get my hands dirty helping improve average women’s lives, I want to address structural inequalities due to race/class/gender, I want to come at everything from an anti-racist, feminist perspective, I want to write, I want to listen, I want to act. If I’m not a professional, so be it, I choose grassroots anyway. And if nothing else, the experience taught me this for sure.

Vogue! Strike a Pose, Michelle Obama

February 11, 2009

Hello, Beautiful:

There are probably going to be people critiquing how much attention we are devoting to Michelle Obama + fashion, etc. Yes, I think we should talk more about her as a person and not the dresses she wears. But the thing is, Vogue is arguably the most popular fashion magazine. Vogue doesn’t have the greatest history of putting WOC on the cover of their magazine. And putting such a great role model WOC on the cover, which is going to be very visible, is positive. Michelle Obama is extremely intelligent, powerful, independent, all of these things. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t also have a great sense of style. Or that its not positive to use her image to show how beautiful POC are. (since apparently, Madison Avenue doesn’t understand that Cute Black Girls Are Everywhere, You Idiots (Danielle Belton Campaign See her blog for more).

Black History Month

February 10, 2009

I saw this article on The Root this morning.

Apparently there are a good number of people who believe that, since America put an African-American in the White House, we can stop pretending to care about Black History Month.

Now, to be fair, I don’t think our country’s use of Black History Month is enough at all. I don’t think many people remember that it is Black History month, and if they do, don’t particularly care or know anything about Black History. And the idea of separating one group out, and only for a month, seems pretty lacking. And it seems that the only thing that its really used for is HBO specials or teaching an extra unit in elementary school. Not that those things aren’t important.

Yes, Black History is American History too. But people in America don’t have the same experiences, and people living in privilege have a pretty good history of silencing and ignoring those who don’t. Yes, we elected Barack Obama. But NO, we are NOT living in a post-racial society. Racism is still alive and well, even when its subtleties are harder to detect. Obama’s presidency doesn’t diminish the importance of Rosa Parks or Malcolm X or Sojourner Truth or Frederick Douglas. I believe that we must know our past in all its complications. We cannot forget their struggles or the ongoing struggles today.

If anything, maybe Black History Month should be reconsidered and more out in the open, more in focus, more in the dialogue. It should be connected with what’s going on today. What has changed? What hasn’t? How can our understanding of Black History help us answer these questions?

As Afi-Odelia Scruggs writes, ”

[T]he importance of Black History Month transcends its emphasis on race. It’s one of the few times in the year when the nation—the nation—is encouraged to plumb its past. Americans are an ahistorical society. We’re always searching for the new thing. Thus the observance benefits us all by sharing the stories of folks who overcame the odds against them.

Having a month designed “Black History Month” isnt going to magically solve any problems. But the fact of the matter is, a lot of Americans don’t think of race on a daily basis, and certainly not of history. POC are routinely silenced and made to feel like their stories and struggles and contributions aren’t important. And even more, for WOC. Even WITHIN progressive or feminist communities. And if Black History Month sheds a little more light on them, or gives white people a little pause, its more than worth keeping around. If it helps in not allowing white people to selectively forget racist or privileged aspects of their own lives, it is a success.

Take the time to read up on, or write about, or reflect on important events in our history and in black history. Maybe take a look at it from a legal context. A social or political one. A feminist angle. Maybe read some bell hooks. Or musical! Listen to some Mingus or Armstrong, Hendrix or Pac. Any angle that interests you! Just Listen. And Share.

A random assortment of links:

U of Washington African-American History Library

Black Facts

Angry Black Bitch (blog)

Afronerd (blog)

The Root

The Black Snob (blog)