Monthly Archives: May 2012
Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is my favorite book of all-time. I have read the book many times, and I learn something new about myself and the world each time I re-read it. As a feminist, I think deeply about the ways race and class contour our experiences and understandings of gender oppression. Toni Morrison has written powerfully about race and gender throughout her illustrious career. Her use of Pauline Breedlove to showcase how class privileged white feminism has consistently betrayed Black women is yet another brilliant stroke of her intellectual imagination. On page 120, Pauline is reminiscing on her life, her relationship with her white female employer, and her relationship with her husband. The passage illuminates the doubly fraught position of the Black woman when she is up against both white supremacy and black patriarchy. Pauline reminisces,
“I would have stayed on ‘cepting Cholly come over by where I was working and cut up so. He come there drunk wanting some money. When that white woman seen him, she turned red. She tried to act strong-like, but she was scared bad. Anyway, she told Cholly to get out or she would call the police. I would of gone upside his head, but I don’t want no dealings with the police. So I taken my things and left. I tried to get back, but she didn’t want me no more if I was going to stay with Cholly. She said she would let me stay if I left him. I thought about that. But later on it didn’t seem none too bright for a black woman to leave a black man for a white woman. She didn’t never give me the eleven dollars she owed me, neither. That hurt bad. The gas man had cut the gas off, and I couldn’t cook none. I really begged that woman for my money. I went to see her. She was mad as a wet hen. Kept on telling me I owed her for uniforms and some old broken-down bed she give me. I didn’t know if I owed her or not, but I needed my money. She wouldn’t let up none, neither, even when I give her my word that Cholly wouldn’t come back there no more. Then I got desperate I asked her if she would loan it to me. She was quiet for a spell, and then she told me I shouldn’t let a man take advantage over me. that I should have more respect, and it was my husband’s duty to pay the bills, and if he couldn’t, I should leave and get alimony. All such simple stuff. What was he gone give me alimony on? I seen she didn’t understand that all I needed from her was my eleven dollars to pay the gas man so I could cook. She couldn’t even get that one thing through her thick head. ‘Are you going to leave him, Pauline?’ she kept on saying. I thought she’d give me my money if I said I would, so I said ‘Yes, ma’am’ ‘All right,’ she said. ‘You leave him, and then come back to me to work, and we’ll let bygones be bygones.’ ‘Can I have my money today?’ I said. ‘No’ she said. ‘Only when you leave him. I’m only thinking of you and your future. What good is he, Pauline, what good is he to you?’ How you going to answer a woman like that, who don’t know what a good man is, and say out of one side of her mouth she’s thinking of your future but won’t give you your own money so you can buy you something besides baloney to eat? So I said, ‘No good, ma’am. He ain’t no good to me. But just the same, I think I’d best stay on.’ She got up, and I left.
So much for “sisterhood.”
It’s been over five hundred years since the first enslaved Blacks arrived in the United States. I wish I could say that I expect this society to recognize Black humanity, but I know better. It’s been a long time since those first enslaved Blacks arrived in South Carolina, but as much as things have changed some things have painfully stayed the same.
The topic of Black humanity has been on my mind for some time now. I want to address what I feel is one of the covert forms of white supremacist thinking operating in our society today. The sentiment in question isn’t the kind of white supremacist thinking that many of us have been trained to spot. Unlike the sentiment that “all Blacks are criminals,” it doesn’t announce it’s arrival. What I am talking about is a sentiment that is sadly supported by Black and non-Black alike. The sentiment that Blacks “should know better” when it comes to prejudice against other groups. It is this sentiment that I want to examine in this essay, and hopefully show how it is a product of white supremacist thinking.
The line of thinking usually goes something like this, “Blacks should know better than to oppress ______ because Blacks have been oppressed.” This refrain is a favorite of white supremacist and the uncritical Blacks who parrot their thinking. Most people might see this as an innocent reminder that Blacks have been oppressed, and should automatically lend their support to other oppressed groups, but I disagree. I think this thinking is actually a window into the way we view Black people in a white supremacist society.
White supremacy has never allowed Blacks to simply be, or be seen as, human. Within a system of white supremacy, Blacks are forced to occupy only one end of the limiting spectrum of humanity. We are either seen as super-human or subhuman. The view that Blacks are subhuman is cited by white supremacists to explain Blacks supposed “cognitive deficiency.” A white supremacist “scholar” by the name of James D. Watson claimed that Black intelligence is not the same (inferiority implied) as White intelligence, and cited “tests” as his proof. It would be comforting to think that James D. Watson is alone in his beliefs, but there are countless examples of White supremacist “scholars” making claims about Blacks seeming lack of humanity. Conditions such as poverty have also been used to support the idea that Blacks are subhuman. Harvard professor Evelynn Hammond has spoken publicly about the degree to which white supremacists went to justify that Blacks were subhuman. When discussing with PBS the history of white supremacy in science she remarked,
“they find differences in sizes of chests, breadth of chests, length of limbs, capacity of lungs, these kinds of things. And, of course, they read those differences through the lens of race. So they read them to say that all African Americans can be categorized as having lesser lung capacity than all whites or whites of various ethnicities. So that’s how they analyzed that data.”
Her remarks are a clear reminder of the lengths that white supremacist s went to in order to enshrine the notion that Blacks are subhuman.
As I stated earlier, white supremacy pushes Blacks into limiting either/or categories of subhuman and superhuman. The view of Blacks as superhuman allowed for white supremacists slave owners to see Blacks as superhuman workers. An enslaved Black could then be expected to work from sunup to sundown without break or water. An enslaved Black could be expected to endure any amount of indignity without complaint or critique. The superhuman view of Blacks allows white supremacists to express shock at Black vulnerability and fragility. Blacks alone are expected to “get over” the past. When talk of slavery occurs white supremacists act as if Blacks should heal overnight. The message being that our superhuman like quality to endure should have surely resulted in us forgiving and forgetting in an instant. One of the most covert examples of Blacks being viewed as superhuman is the idea equally white supremacist and patriarchy idea that Black women are the strongest women on earth. This sentiment is trotted out by white supremacists of all races to justify the misuse and abuse of Black women. Black women are saddled with superhuman strength, and not allowed to be seen as anything else. She is singled out as strong, and her fragility, vulnerability, and insecurity is ignored. She literally becomes a “freak of nature.” A Black superhuman expected to bare any number of indignities.
Many will remember May 9, 2012 as the day that President Obama announced his support of same-sex marriage. I will remember that, certainly, but I will always remember something else. I will remember seeing people, Black people, promote the white supremacist sentiment that Blacks should better understand the plight of gays in our society. That Blacks should know better than to be homophobic. As a Black gay person, I find this sentiment to be disgusting. I have to admit that is one cultural narrative that I am incredibly tired of seeing. The view that Blacks should “know better” forces Blacks yet again into the position of having to be superhuman. Never mind that many groups have experienced oppression throughout history, it is Blacks alone who must shoulder the burden of “knowing better.” It isn’t coincidence that I never see any other groups saddled with the “you should know better” narrative. Why isn’t it that Whites are thought to “know better?” Did White people not flee Europe because they were suffering under religious and class oppression at the hands of other Whites? Have the disabled in our society not been marginalized? Have women not been enslaved by men? Why is it that these groups do not have to “know better” despite suffering in this world? White supremacy is why. Black people should not contribute to the oppression of another group, but this isn’t because we have “went through things.” What group on earth hasn’t? I refuse to allow my race to be turned into the poster oppressed. Black people should be seen as human. We should not be given the superhuman tasks of “knowing better” simply because we have went through things. We’re not superhuman and we’re not subhuman, we are human. The tendency for Blacks to expect themselves to be superhuman is one of the unnoticed and under-noticed aspects of white supremacy. Proclaiming that Blacks should know better denies us humanity. Like all people, we are a people with faults.
Black people should not know better when it comes to supporting the full rights and dignity of other groups of people. Like all humans, our support for equality should come from many sources, not just the fact that we have also been oppressed. Respecting other groups isn’t something that you are born with, but something one must work at. It can be attained simply by having been through hard times. We must still make a choice to live our lives with respect for all groups of people. Being Black doesn’t imbue us with special powers to automatically understand someone else’s plight, nor should anyone think it does. When it comes to Black people, the following needs to be understood: not superhuman, not subhuman, but human.
“Whose house is this?” – Toni Morrison
It is this question that ushers us into the world of Toni Morrison’s tenth novel Home. Like so many of Morrison’s novels, Home is not a singular thing, but a stand-in for many different conceptions. Throughout the novel, Toni Morrison asks us to think about what “home” is, and what it means to be “at home” with ones self.
Home’s plot is relatively simple. Frank Money, a discharged Korean War, returns two an American brimming with racism. He receives an urgent letter telling him that he must return to Georgia to save his sister. We are to join him on his “odyssey” as he returns “home.”
At just 147 pages, I would be lying if I said I didn’t wish that Home were longer. There are many chapters, like the one dedicated to Lenore (the “evil” matriarch) that I wish were longer. After a life changing incident, Lenore is forced “to be content with the company of the person she prized most of all–herself.” Morrison, unlike so many writers, has never apologized for writing women who are beholden only to themselves. She breaks away from the patriarchal tendency to believe that a woman should be someone else’s best thing before she is her own. I could have spent the entire book reading about Lenore, but this is Toni Morrison’s story to tell, and I can’t fault her for not allowing her characters, dynamic as they are, to run off with the story. I wish more would have let her characters soar rather that just appear. They are dynamic, but dimmed a bit. I think you will find Lenore’s chapter to be quite powerful.
As powerful as Lenore’s chapter is, this is the story of Frank Money. It is through his eyes, and as you will find out his defiance, that we are allowed into the “home” that Morrison has constructed. Frank Money is scarred psychologically from his time spent at war. As Money returns to Georgia Morrison imbues his journey with the beautiful social commentary that only she can provide. We are asked to grapple with the consequences of war, the dynamics of intimate relationships, the painful history of medical experimentation upon Blacks, Jim Craw laws as well as customs, and many other issues that are not unique to the 1950s. One of the main issues that Morrison concerns herself with in Home, is what it means to be a man that is “at home” with himself? Is manhood honesty, vulnerability, action, or apathy? Perhaps a mixture of all?
Morrison’s writing is beautiful, but understated. The scope of the novel is small, but the themes are large. This is the Morrison that we know and love, but toned down and more restrained. It’s as if Morrison wrOte the entire novel with “less is more” constantly on her mind.
Overall, Home is a fitting chronicle of a particular period in the Black experience. It serves as an approachable history, one not rendered cold as can often be the case in non-fiction books. There is a shocking revelation at the end of the novel, and it perfectly encapsulates what it means to be “at home” with oneself. The events following this revelation allow the main character to be “at home” with himself. It provides an example to us all of what it means to come home.
We should work hard to not become strangers in our own house. We should strive to not be a house of lies. Frank takes on this challenge. Will you?
Underestimating love was our first mistake. Thinking it needed years to do its thing. We forgot–or, perhaps, never remembered–that love could come in a week and completely rock our world.
The question my friend asked was an innocent enough question. The kind of question that a person taught to see love as a quantitative affair would ask. “How long was your longest relationship?” He asked. I’m not sure when questions like this begun to irritate me, but it seems that questions like these are communicating a form of defeat.
We live in a society that is far too preoccupied with the length of a relationship rather than the quality of one. How many times have we heard someone boast about the fact that they have been in a relationship for X amount of months, years, or decades? Never mind that the people in the relationship are beyond miserable. We are taught to believe that the most important thing in a relationship is how long that relationship lasts. The quality of the relationship and the sheer exhilaration that relationship brought, however short, are not supposed to matter.
I used to trouble myself with paranoia that my relationships didn’t last long enough. I had internalized a problematic cultural narrative that insisted that there is an appropriate timeframe for a relationship. It didn’t matter that my episodic relationships were full of wonder, pleasure, pain, and love–things common in all intimate relationships regardless of time. It didn’t matter that I had loved more intensely in two months than some people love in two years. I was too focused on forever, and it was staining the way I looked at my relationships, how I processed “the end”.
“It didn’t last forever.” No, it sure didn’t, but a lot of things in the world don’t. I had to embrace that notions of eternity, however comforting, don’t afford us the opportunity to do justice to our intimate relationships. Our obsession with length rather than quality thrusts us into boxes of obsession that render us incapable of judging intimate relationships on criteria other than “duration.”
When it comes to relationships, “long term” or “short term,” if it ain’t about mutual pleasure, understanding and love, I ain’t checking for it. I no longer seek long-term-relationships just to be able to say that I am in one. While length can convey certain things, such as commitment and conviction, it shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all when we look at love and relationships.
I enjoy being in a place mentally where I can enjoy a relationship regardless of its duration. I can value a two week relationship just as much as I value a two month or two year relationship. I treasure love when it comes. Nothing in nature lasts forever: seasons come and go, rivers dry up, and night eases into day. I’m not caught up in “forever.”
I wanted to believe that DiscreetCity.com was a satire site. The strange, but funny, creation of a Black gay man with way too much time on his hand, and not enough awareness of the dynamic issues taking place in the Black gay community. I was mistaken. DiscreetCity.com by all intents and purposes appears to be a very real website with a very real (if not very critical) aim.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that DiscreetCity.com was more than a little bit problematic in its claim of providing a safe-space for the maligned(?) masculine gay man. On the surface, the aim seems legitimate, even noble, but it doesn’t take a Ph.D to realize that DiscreetCity.com is operating under some very serious, and very dangerous, delusions.
DiscreetCity.com is not at all shy about identifying itself as a site for *masculine* and and bisexual Black men. Why the singling out of masculinity? I’m not sure, but that is how the site chooses to organize itself, and I suppose that is how we should judge it–as a site for *masculine* gay and bisexual Black men. The site claims that it is filling in the gay for the poorly represented *masculine* gay man in the mainstream media, but I think there are other aims at work, as well.
The site claims that it is “not here to bash femininity,” but that seems to be what a number of the posts on the site are about. One does not have to overtly attack something in order for it to be attacked. Covert attacks are, and continue to be, lobbed against feminine men in the Black gay and bisexual community. The site, in fact, seems to be obsessed with femininity in the Black gay and bisexual community despite its claim of being centered on masculinity in the gay community. Of it’s featured articles, at least two are about femininity. The sites featured articles include, “Missing: Masculine homosexual men of color in the media” and “Are Young Black Boys and Men Becoming More Feminine.” Of course, these articles rely on a host of feminine stereotypes to get its point across. Apparently, femininity in the Black gay and bisexual community is nothing more than wearing lipstick, doing drag, and being “flamboyant.” At least, that is what one gets from the images and writing used.
It appears that DiscreetCity.com doesn’t know who it wants to appeal to. The site claims to be focused primarily on masculine Black gay/bisexual men, but it proceeds to write posts for Black gay and bisexual men in general. Can the site make up its mind? Either it wants to cater to a supposedly marginalized segment of the Black gay and bisexual community, or it will represent the interest of all men in the Black gay and bisexual community, regardless of gender expression. A recent post, “The Top 10 Reasons That You #Fail as a Gay/Bisexual Man” appears to be speaking to all of the Black gay/bisexual community–as it doesn’t specify masculinity–but that seems at odd with the sites own stated interest of catering primarily to masculine Black gay and bisexual men.
My biggest issue with DiscreetCity.com stems from the sites seeming lack of interest in understanding how femininity and masculinity play out in the Black gay and bisexual community, and why. Historically, feminine gay men have been the most represented in the media because they have been the most willing to be seen. Masculinity has long been seen as synonymous with heterosexuality. And, when given the choice between been seen as homosexual and being seen as heterosexual, many masculine gay men have chosen the latter rather than the former. The media barriers in the Black gay and bisexual community have consistently been broken by feminine Black gay and bisexual men. Whether it be RuPaul tearing down barriers as a singer, producer, and actor; or the dynamic cast of Paris Is Burning. These, in my opinion, are not cases where we should turn our head and lament the presence of feminine men, but rather celebrate the fact that someone is willing to usher us into the mainstream–if that was you goal to begin with. A homophobic society is going to reward masculine Black gay and bisexual men for remaining silent and invisible. While this is unfortunate, it is not the fault of feminine Black gay and bisexual men. That femininity, and not hetero-patriarchy, is seen as the enemy is one of the most deeply troubling aspect of DiscreetCity.com’s existence.
DiscreetCity.com seems to be focused primarily on media representation, but I want to dig a little deeper. The claim that masculine Black gay and bisexual gay men seems laughable given the complete and utter disdain held for feminine Black gay and bisexual men across the Black bisexual and gay community. When I can visit a Black gay and bisexual social networking site and see “no fems” proudly displayed on profile after profile, we have a serious problem, and no amount of masculine crying for wolf will change that. Where is the interest in this interrogation? Perhaps it will come from a site with the specific interest of redressing that community wide disdain, but it should be known by sites like DiscreetCity.com. I suppose, it is easier to be divisive and reductive than it is to be inclusive and visionary.