Category Archives: Reading Black Girlhood

Picture of back of Black girl's hair, styled in ponytails with ball ball elastics and barrettes on the ends.

Who I Be When You Look At Me: SOLHOT Part 3

“At that moment I just wanted to be there with the girls, as this is the primary investment of SOLHOT- to remind Black girls that we are right here with you.”
Ruth Nicole Brown

“…Dang!

                                                                                                             I said I’m almost ready I just

Got to

         Gotta

                                                                                                         Got to do

       Do

My

hair.

And if you don’t know this, then you don’t know nothin’.”
Ruth Nicole Brown

SOLHOT be
Braids, beads, barrettes,
ball-balls and Blue Magic
Bergamot between some
Big or Lil mama’s knees.

Mama/ Daughter Daydream 1
Girl: Mama, why do hair gotta tangle? Dang!
Mama: Daughter, it goes something like this. Your scalp be acting out the story of America. The Z pattern of West Africa resists the colonizing straight line of Europe and the way it gets along with the straight line of the indigenous strands depends on how those strands got there. Were your people the ones who met the indigenous and learned to live under the radar of white power in Maroon societies or were your people the ones who were bought and sold by people, Cherokee for example, who said, “Fuck it. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”? Sometimes, there is no way of knowing. My job, baby, is just to try to persuade all the people on your head to commune in some beautiful way. We can make something beautiful. I wish I could promise it would never hurt, but I can promise to be mindful of my own heavy hand and I can promise to be right here with you.”

Those who denigrate ball-balls, barrettes, and beads know nothing about protection or community or the protection of community. They pretend to learn everything they know about “protective styles” from internet blogs on “natural” hair. Our Mamas know there is nothing natural about the art on our head. They know it is jazz and they be makers of music.

They told mama
straight hair hurts less.
The lye burned bright.

I got my first perm when I was two years old. If you think this is an assimilation story, you know nothing about my Mama. You know nothing about tangles and tears, about dreaming of a daughter who does not have to cry as you cried, then finding her hollering between your knees, even your mechanisms of care perceived as weapons.

SOLHOT be
Ball-balls, beads, and braids.
Be navigators of necessary
pain. Be “ouch!” and “sorry!”
Be “that better?”
Be beaming “There.”

SOLHOT be
placing me back
between my mama’s knees,
be showin’ me how
to love this picture.

Mama/ Daughter Daydream 2
Girl: But mama, is our hair the only kind that tangles?
Mama: Hell no. These ain’t even tangles, more like cliques. I’m not detangling as much as I am reorganizing. Kinks and curls have the good sense to cluster for their own health and, with adequate moisture, are actually less likely to tangle than straight hair. Individual strands of straight hair meet at angles that make them more susceptible to knots. What any hair needs to avoid knotting are mechanisms to make contact less abrasive.

SOLHOT asks what conditioner is necessary for detangling (organizing)? Do it gotta be straight (middle class subjectivity)? No. Do it gotta hurt (petty-gogy of the oppressed)? Sometimes AND not always. Can it be fun? Yes. Show me how. Dance. Do yo thang, do yo thang, do yo thang for me!

The lie of all lye:
Apply it once and you’ll be straight.

It is not that the parents who place their children in the advanced program want them to be white. They trust white supremacy’s devotion to meritocracy. They hope that our approved (by whom?) applications will protect us from the disdain of teachers who see us as problems to fix.They do not want us to cry as they cried.

They could not have anticipated the lessons articulated by numbers alone. My school was in a predominantly Black neighborhood where most of the white kids were bused in for the advanced program. Hence, my only contact with white kids were with those who, like me, had tested in. Without this context, I let the numbers tell me this lie: if there are only three Black students in an “advanced” class of 24, and 17 Black students in the “regular” class, then it must be that most Black kids are “regular” and most white kids are “special.” I must be here by accident and someone is going to find me out. I begin to have panic attacks over new math.

Meanwhile, the “regular” students develop theories of power that rightfully implicate us in this lie. Outwardly, I begin to wear “special” as a defensive stance (a la Grant Hill) against the kids who accused me of thinking I’m all that because I walked to the white class. It was the classist tracking system that turned us against each other; it made the “special” kids year-long targets in the hallways, which made the “regular” kids lifelong targets of our bourgie theorizing based on a politics of advancement.

Our parents could not have anticipated our addiction to advancement, the way we strove to “touch up” our achievements like perms on new growth lest we be found out. They couldn’t have anticipated the way that some of us would be undone by our strivings, the ways we would be scarred by lye. I develop a fear of hallways and classrooms– a fear of violent contact with those who have not advanced, a fear of violent contact with those who doubt that I deserve my advancement. 

SOLHOT wrecks this. I am not a basket case tonight. I am a tender-headed girl who spent a lifetime in fear of snags, who began to think of my hair in terms of false attributes rather than analyzing its condition. “Dry” rather than “in need of moisture.” “Tangled” instead of “in need of reorganization.” A girl who learned to lean into the lye and let it burn like some holy ghost come to save me from my own flesh.

Still, the beauty of SOLHOT’s Black girlhood is neither inherent nor natural. In Hear Our Truths, Dr. Brown writes, “When identity is premised on sameness and Black girlhood premised on shared oppression, organizing Black girls’ spaces may surely replicate the same kind of disciplinary measures of control and surveillance strategies that Black girls have long since manipulated and outsmarted, foreclosing the kind of solidarity SOLHOT depends on.” Even in my SOLHOT-as-hairstyling metaphor, I am clear that homegirls are not about taming, controlling, or manipulating Black girls. Dr. Brown reminds us that black girls have already outsmarted these unnecessary patterns of control. Rather, the SOLHOT homegirl/ girl “we” is about stylin. Black girls choose the style because they have already figured it out: they gon’ think what they gon’ think. Which is the beginning of freedom. Because if they can think what they think, can blindly adhere to false evidence like measured (by whom?) skulls and standardized (by whom?) tests, then we can/ must do the same. We get to name what we see and decide to celebrate it. As a construction of freedom, Black girlhood is not essential to Blackness, but it is essential for surviving Blackness as somebody else’s construction. It is the promise, no the dream, that we can do more than survive our reflection in a broken mirror. SOLHOT carries their own mirrors.

In the middle of the performance, Dr. Brown and her ride-or-die homegirl, the one who said, “You mean Dr…” bring me a purple hand-mirror. In sharpie, someone has written “You are SOLHOT. We see you!” alongside hearts and names and encouragements that all drown in tears. I am baptising myself and it will take years to come up out of the water. When I do, I will be holding the hands of girls and homegirls.

SOLHOT be
mirrors
handheld
passed ‘round
talking back  
talking Black
singing a Black girl’s song:
SOLHOT, SOLHOT what do you see?
I see a Black Girl looking at me.
Black Girl, Black Girl, what do you see?
I see freedom looking at me.

Chart of uses of verb to be.

Who I Be When You Look At Me: SOLHOT Part 2

 

In the colonizer’s English, “be” is an intransitive verb, meaning it does not describe an action, but a fixed equivalency. Note the passive “fixed” and ask yourself fixed by whom? And if you ask yourself “fixed by whom,” then you join the daughters of Bambara, Jordan, Malcolm, and now Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown in critically thinking about how you came to be who you it is you think you are. Perhaps you will get to a point where you begin to wonder about who you are being and if you still all wrapped up in the colonizer’s game of fixed subjectivity- being one stable thing at any one stable time- then the shit might make you loopy. Which is to say the kind of woman who would walk around town in a dress so ill-fitting that it won’t zip up in the back. And then people might start wondering out loud about your dress and, if you don’t have a sense of humor because you have to breathe to laugh and you can’t hardly breathe in your too-little dress, well then you might just get defensive. Saying stuff like this is the proper dress and this is the right thing to wear and it wasn’t designed for just one kind of somebody and this is what everyone is wearing and if you (who look at me) can’t see that, then you must be the fools and I worked hard to get into this dress and I’ll be damned if I let one of you (spit that word with mad disdain) make me feel bad about it. Well, then you will be thoroughly Americanized.

Which isn’t to say that “be” in AAVE is inherently freeing. It’s used to describe habitual actions. Things that you do again and again. As in, we be compulsorily educated and still don’t know what we about. The habitual “be” can become an identity marker only inasmuch as it helps with familiarity– root word family. As in, She’s the one (of us) who be singing. Or she’s the one (of us) who be joking all the time. She’s the one who be snapping pictures. She’s the one who be hiding over there in the corner. She’s the one who be dancing. Stability isn’t a necessity. Especially when your folks have many talents and they don’t always be doing the same thing. Like, the one who be snapping pictures also be dancing.

Habitual “be” is freeing only when you embrace instability. As in, the one who be crying on all the skits might one day be the one who be laughing and dancing with us.

Tonight, I am the one who be crying on all the skits because SOLHOT is showing me who/ how/ what it is possible to be when they look at me.

  • It is possible to be poet and scholar. I make the mistake of calling Dr. Brown “Ruth Nicole” to one of the other homegirls because a mutual friend told me to tell Ruth Nicole she said hello. The homegirl snapped, “You mean Dr. Brown ?” and I corrected myself and mentally used the colonizer “be” to permanently fuse this person, my homegirl’s homegirl, with this title that frightens the shit out of me because I am being shown by my professors on a weekly basis that it’s a title I must cut my limbs off (and grow somebody else’s in their place) to fit (as in, “we expect more rigorous work in a graduate-level course). But here Dr. Brown is on stage doing spoken word about the “dirty work” of making a safe space for Black girlhood to be (as in exist) and I know that this is rigor. This can unapologetically (and without permission) be my work. 
  • It is possible to be a thick dancer. And I’m not thick. But I am other things that do not fit the images of dancing bodies that I have been consistently fed. Fed– another passive verb begging me to ask “by whom?” Which is to say that you can and should bite the hand that feeds you– often– to see if it is real. Because when possibilities are being fed to you, you can confuse “should” for “can only.” As in, “Hip hop video dancers should have small waists, big titties and huge butts” can transform (if you are not careful and if you stop keeping company with girls who be dancing) into “dancers (this loss of specificity is an end goal of product merchandizing) can only have small waists, big titties, and huge butts.” And when some yoke as heavy as this gets broken in a routine involving teenage girls and adults (I should also say this showed me that it is possible to be an adult dancer), well all you can do (all I can do) is cry.
  • It is possible to hold tension between theory and praxis. Chamara, Chamara, Chamara. That girl is something else and I trust that you know what I mean. Chamara is unpacking nonviolence as theory and praxis and, in doing so, breaking all the rules somebody else made up about being with Black girls: Be a mentor, as in be more knowledgeable than they are about everything. Show them “the way” to where you find yourself, especially if you have multiple degrees. Teach them not to cuss, not to roll their eyes, not to talk back, not to fight, not to do any of the things they need to do to handle their problems with the tools they already have. Gift them with the tools of middle class “civility.” Tonight, Chamara wrecks all of this with love. When you love the person who is making herself vulnerable to you (as in, If I don’t fuck this girl up, then she’s going to keep bothering me), you don’t judge the choices she thinks she needs to make. Part of loving Black girls (as intentional practice) is letting them be. 
  • It is possibly to be many things or anything. It may or may not be true that every time the song bird returned to the stage, I cried. I was overwhelmed by her freedom to do it all. To sing, dance, and act. To poet. To open herself up to the scrutiny of strangers. I began to ask myself the questions that have shaped the last few years of my life. What are the conditions necessary for this kind of freedom? What are the conditions necessary for this kind of confidence? What are the conditions necessary for this kind of joy?

To Be Continued…

Singer whitney Houston circa eighties holding microphone to her mouth mid-song.

Who I Be When You Look At Me: SOLHOT Part 1

March 2012

My daughter is one and a half and she is just fine after having had heart surgery five months ago. Six months ago, my father narrowly escaped death and we do not know that he has just one year to live. I have been in my graduate program for four years and I am just beginning to conceptualize my dissertation topic. I am dating a man who is stirring up my latent queerness with his incredibly long hair, his repetition of “no homo,” and his refusal to connect on an emotional level. My relationship with a family member I’ve depended on is on the precipice of disaster. I don’t intellectually perceive any of these things, but I must know them somewhere deep, some unknown and liquid place that erupts in a moment that is supposed to be celebratory.

I’m sitting in a performance with near strangers at a conference on Black girlhood. This is my first conference as an invited speaker and I’d bombed the night before. I wasn’t myself because I was still trying to figure out who I was as an artist turned academic. There were things I knew that I wasn’t prepared to defend– namely, that Black girls were okay, that Black girlhood could be a space of freedom, that dancing freely (even sexually) is spirit work.

Tonight is the main event of the conference, the performance of a movement from Champaign, Illinois called Saving Our Lives, Hearing Our Truths (SOLHOT). Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown built the movement on this vision: Black girls are free and Black girlhood is freedom. Tonight, I will begin to learn the things I need to know to live free in this world. And as I reach for language to describe who I am in this moment, I realize that we don’t have language for emotional vulnerability that isn’t tied up in the concept of the enlightened and completely rational Western subject.

My impulse is to call myself a basket case, a term with ableist origin that was first used around World War I to describe quadruple amputees who may have been transported in baskets. I want to dwell for a moment on the impulse to create a derisive slur to describe interdependence– especially interdependence that is reparative for some trauma. The disdain we harbor for interdependence has to be a projection of guilt for the way that we have, as a nation, behaved toward other human beings. Hence, independence becomes the  defensive stance of the abuser who knows he deserves neither a shoulder nor a hand from most of the people around him.

What kinds of people turn mechanisms of interdependence into insults? Welfare, Affirmative Action, literal or figurative baskets, or hands, hands, for goodness sake!!! According to the logic of extreme independence, a scholar who needs hand holding isn’t a scholar at all. What kinds of people denigrate holding? Denigrate babies? Do we not see how fucking happy babies are when they are being held? Do we not see that they are showing us how to live?

I am in need of holding tonight. I sense that I can’t hold myself, my world, my relationships, my family, together by myself and I haven’t grown comfortable in that truth yet. That’s why I am bawling on the shoulder of a stranger who lives out her name, Angel.

Angel and I begin to cry when the first teenage girl sings Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” Whitney had just died a month before. So much of her story was wrapped up in my lived girlhood and my notions of girlhood as a site of repression. I’d grown up hearing that Whitney’s addiction was a result of her choice in lovers. “Don’t date the wrong kind of man or he will fuck your whole shit up” was the lesson. Many years later, I learned that she didn’t have a real choice, that the real love of her life had been disallowed. American darlings can’t be queer. The yoke of that disallowance was broken in death, so maybe freedom brings the water to the surface. Freedom for Whitney, freedom for the brown girl singing her song like she knows what it feels to love a person you can’t hold forever. I keep learning how it feels.

I can’t stop crying. I try.

To be continued…

Cover of Lazaretto by Diane McKinney Whetstone. Picture of a man and woman hugging each other.

Enough Hope to Last for a While: Review of Lazaretto by Diane McKinney Whetstone

Cover of Lazaretto by Diane McKinney Whetstone. Picture of a man and woman hugging each other.

I really wish I’d written this shortly after my last sweet moments with the book Lazaretto, by Diane McKinney Whetstone. I prefer writing through the satisfied haze of having just spent intimate time in a dream world where good character is rewarded and villains see just ends.

I read my first McKinney Whetstone novel twenty years ago, as she reminded her fans on her Acknowledgement Page. I owe my love for her, and for Black women’s fiction in general, to my mother- my other favorite writer and the woman who introduced me to Tumbling, a story with many threads that is ultimately about the way that a community comes together to heal in the wake of tragedy.

Lazaretto is also about a Black community in Philadelphia that, in the wake of President Lincoln’s murder, bands together to do what we do- find creative ways to survive white supremacy. But Lincoln and white racism are really tangential, as they are in most McKinney Whetsone’s novels. Like Toni Morrison, McKinney Whetstone usually writes whiteness as a troublesome spectre which black communities resist when it can’t be ignored. In this novel, the community becomes intimate with white, orphaned brothers who are in relationship with one of their own.

Hence, Lazaretto is a story about chosen kinship. It starts with two teen girls whose lives and prospects have seemingly been laid out for them before their births. Sylvia, who is training to be a nurse, has inherited her aspirations from her middle class family, though she rejects their prejudices. Meda, who is an indentured servant to a wealthy white lawyer, is pregnant with a child her exploiter has fathered. On the fateful night of their meeting, the lawyer has brought Meda to the nurse Sylvia works for to terminate a pregnancy that is already too far along. When he finds that the baby was delivered alive, he orders Sylvia to hand it over so that he can “handle the matter.” This is Sylvia’s first experience with the life-negating power of whiteness. Meda’s first child and Sylvia’s first delivery bind them in a moment of loss made more even more profound by news of the President’s murder.

What I found healing about this novel is the girls’ navigation of their own power to choose the love that heals in the aftermath of this brutality. Sylvia chooses a sister friend from the other side of the tracks (literally), a working class neighborhood her parents have forbidden her to visit. Meda chooses to care for two white infants at an orphanage near the midwife’s office. She also chooses to have a romantic relationship with the head of the orphanage, a woman who is both a Suffragist and Abolitionist. These choices (a reminder that power exists at multiple locations) help the girls thrive through years that unfold as their stories intertwine in thrilling ways.

PuddnheadWilsonCover. Picture of two identical white boys holding baskets.

My nerd self is most impressed by what seems to be a nod to Mark Twain. Puddn’head Wilson is a lesser known novel of Twain’s that was published during the period known as reconstruction. Roxy, a woman who is enslaved,  is carrying the plantation owner’s son (I am struggling with the language of parenthood that is so tied up in capitalist patriarchy). What I am trying to say is that plantation twins preceded what some folks derisively call “project twins” in that the owner’s wife and the people she legally owned were often carrying siblings. The system was brutal and I don’t want to make light of it here. But the wonder of this story is Roxy’s choice to switch the boys at birth. The “white” boy is raised as a slave while her own son is raised as a free white man. The results are as disastrous as the construct of whiteness. On the one hand, Twain could be read as illuminating this construct, which allows men to behave as animals with little consequence. On the other hand, Twain could be read as making the Birth of a Nation-ish argument that freedom is just damned dangerous in the hands of Black men.

Lazaretto has saved me from caring about these counter arguments as it presents a third way out for whiteness, a more hopeful imagining of what could happen when boys are disconnected enough from the inherited privileges of whiteness while in loving community with a Black woman. Loving a single Black woman isn’t enough for racial reconciliation or the overthrow of patriarchy. If it were, slavery wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did in this nation, as the sons of brutal men would have chosen their Black caregivers over their power. But when there is no power to be gained just by living long enough to become a man (oh how I love the Underground series on WGN for illuminating this truth)– when, in fact, the only love or sense of community you’ve ever known has been Black, then a person stands a chance at immunity to white supremacy. At least these characters do, and that’s enough hope to last me for a little while.

On Dancing Naked While Bumping “Cell Therapy” w/ the Drapes Open

Two black girls, maybe teenagers, dancing together.

Camille Brown’s “Black Girl: A Linguistic Play”

 

It seems apropos that as I face this page, I am anxious about where to enter the metaphor of personal writing as nakedness. Black girl nakedness makes everybody anxious for exactly that reason. Who will enter and how and who will be blamed when the entering changes the girl into something she hadn’t planned to be?

I’ll back up. This writing started as a daydreamed response to an article I read the other day about the cheapness of the personal essay. Apparently, writers are being exploited for clickbate and paid less than those who are “true” journalists in that they interrogate others instead of themselves. It’s curious (but not surprising in a capitalist society) that access is confused for cheapness (see, for example, the way that the essay is denigrated to “think piece” just as folks have more access to publishing on their own terms). It’s curious (but not surprising in a sexist society) that everybody wants to tell women what to do with their terrible stories, especially if it involves suppressing the very narratives that might set them free. It’s curious (but not surprising in a racist society) that the life writing of Black women is dismissed as a too-heavy reliance on identity politics that isn’t rigorous enough to be respected as a way of knowing. And so, the article says, take your time and write a real essay. Take your time and do real research. As if writing the self is not useful research. As if writing the self (especially when that self is dismissed and denied access) is something cheap. A woman scribbles in a journal in one room while Montaigne essays on sheets of fine rice paper in another. Fuck outta here.

To write the personal is to get naked and to get naked is power when folks be talking under your clothes no matter what you wear. When I write my life, I am beating to the punch the people who might write about my broke black single mama life and its influence on my more “serious” work as a scholar, poet, or novelist (enter “Nikki Rosa”.) There are too many untrue stories about my type for me not to write naked. Which is not to say I write in defense of myself, perched on the veneer of respectability and issuing demands to be treated as royalty. I am writing to remind myself that my truth doesn’t fit dominant frames, that the abuse I receive is because of the way this threatens folks. I am writing the story that will save my own life.

But I don’t do this without fear. I am afraid of what will happen if the wrong people see me naked, if they think my nakedness is an invitation to the very discourse that erases me. The other trying to fit my body (of work) into a framework that she understands well. I thought the answer to this was to always be writing inside a frame.

Enter Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy.” A chorus I’ll never forget. “Who’s that peeping in my window? Pow! Nobody now.” I am 13 years old in 1995 when I hear Cee-lo’s alto reminding me of a deacon’s prayers. It’s been three years since I saw Spike Lee’s Malcolm X in the theater with my father and my best friend. We were a militant pair in fifth grade, refusing to stand for the pledge, admonishing our peers to stop playing cowboys and Indians, wondering aloud why we had to wish for white Christmases. For that reason, for the magic of us, two Black girls figuring out the world together, for the memory of my father standing up in the theater and dancing to “Revolution” as the credits rolled because he understood what I am only learning– that sometimes you have to snatch some joy from the ether when there is nothing but sadness all around–, I merge “Cell Therapy” and the classic image of Malcolm X with a gun in his window in my mind. Who’s that peeping in my window? POW. Nobody now.

In this merger, the interior is that which should be defended against brutalizing others who are literally trying to blow your shit up. The (window) frame is the incessant naming of the systems that oppress you. But what does the marriage of this image and this song mean in the age of the internet? When trolls have so much access, when they are the ones who linger and say “Nigger, I dare you to show your face,” every time you part your drapes? What happens to the work when you write as if there is a gun in your hand, when you lean so much on the frame that you forget to enjoy the interior? Who’s that peeping in my window? If I care too much about the answer, I couldn’t write soul-open the way that I want/ need to write.

My muses don’t hang around when I decide to claim my right to be naked and get all jittery about who w ill be watching at the same damn time.Ms. Lucille is one such muse and today she showed up to save my life with this poem:

 

if i stand in my window

naked in my own house

and press my breasts

against my windowpane

like black birds pushing against glass

because i am somebody

in a New Thing

 

and if the man come to stop me

in my own house

naked in my own window

saying I have offended him

I have offended his

 

Gods

 

let him watch my black body

push against my own glass

let him discover self

let him run naked through the streets

crying

praying in tongues

 

(from Good Times, 1969)

 

Come through, Ms. Lucille! And thank you for the last stanza, for the way that you elucidate the real fear of coming upon a black woman naked in her own home: what truth will her nakedness speak about you? In what ways have you put on the wrong clothes in your quest for civilization? In what ways do the ideals of Western enlightenment actually make you less human? Less connected to the earth, to each other, to the ever-elusive self?

An aside: Mab Segrest, in Born to Belonging, is also helping me figure this out. The introduction (or 1st chapter?) to this book is an amazing history of the enlightened self that betrays the sadness of the Western subject—the way these lonely men got it dead wrong.

Which is to say that I’m doing something different than getting naked to press my breasts against the glass. I’m winding. To wind is to exercise muscles you didn’t know you had until you started to move. It is to get progressively better without instruction in the top-down way that we think of education. This is black girl cipher-speak. An invitation to show up and watch me show out. An invitation to do your own dance for me, to show me that things I had never imagined are possible. It is to learn and teach in chorus. Yelling, “Yes!” and “Get it!” and “Okay!” and “I see you!” and “Do it!” and “Werk!” It is the glory of being seen by folks who find joy in the seeing. By folks whose desire is not dangerous. This is clearing work. Dancing as if there are no cracks in the trees.

And what if one decides to step outside of the clearing? For money, no less. Does it negate the protection of the clearing? Can I still hope for relative clearing safety when I am stepping outside? It is true that I have chosen to dutty wine in crowds that weren’t created for me. To do that is to take on the danger of being misunderstood, or worse, fixed by people who are afraid of what this naked dance stirs inside themselves.

But dancing outside of the clearing is also to imbue the hips with hope. That there will be enough clearing members in the crowds to save you should shit go terrible. That the people standing round won’t all be terrible. That the commonality of your humanity will move someone. Maybe.

If not, I hope my girls will still come through, form a hedge around me, and dance with me wherever I am. Won’t you come?

Starting Over… Again

DSC_5287_ppAgain. I start at the beginning all over again. It has been difficult to maintain momentum when I’ve been trying to figure out real life survival as a single parent who may have rendered herself unemployable in a job market that rewards experience over education (and all I have to show for my eleven years of full-fledged adulthood is education atop education atop education). I was sold a lie. Or perhaps I was sold a dream. Or perhaps I believed in the dream of a dreamer with limited perspective. I’m sure the first of my ancestors who believed in the inextricable link between education and opportunity didn’t see the ways that webs were forged over kinship that we could neither see nor infiltrate.

But I digress. What I want to do is finish the dissertation because my pursuit of the credential has been extremely expensive in more than one way. And I am eager, as my dissertation doula once laid out, to join the ongoing conversation about Black girlhood. To see my work as an addition to the archive rather than as a means to an end is both a challenge and possibly the only light on this dark side of the dissertation process.

So I begin again. Step one: update my research.

Just a link and a note to self to finish this list…

So this: http://www.autostraddle.com/10-novels-memoirs-by-and-about-black-lesbian-bisexual-and-queer-women-224721/

is my list of summer reading. I am making my way through this list and re-reading some of the ones that I’ve already read. I’m so excited to begin this journey! I didn’t even know some of these stories existed. I’ve also followed this lead to this website, Sistahs on the Shelf, a hub for readers of black lesbian romance. And that’s where I found the author Kionne Nicole, whose book review was my first post on this blog. As my favorite poet has said, the world is round (and small).

The House You Pass Along the Way– Something like a review

So I wanted to jot down my initial thoughts about one of Jacqueline Woodson’s earlier YA novels so that I wouldn’t build up the type of pressure that tends to keep me away from the page for long periods of time. As my dissertation doula reminds me, I know enough about enough to have a meaningful experience with this book, with these characters, with Woodson’s project of making black girl lives known, of articulating the ways that selves are made.

I come to this coming of age novel as a formerly and sometimes chronically lonely black girl, much like the main character Staggerlee, unaware of the ways that my loneliness radiates as an unwillingness to connect. Words that are never spoken in this novel but that seem ever-present are depression and self-isolation. “Stuck-up-ness” is the way that fear manifests itself in a person who is trying to come off as brave, who is trying to figure out what the pieces of herself actually are even as she is labeled by others. It has been my own journey and it also seems to be the path that Staggerlee, the fourteen-yr-old queer and chronically lonely protagonist, is on. She gets her loneliness honest. She is a self-described “mixed up” girl raised by a white mother in a small black town. She feels tied to and protective of her mother’s whiteness even as she is haunted by her own Black grandparents’ racially motivated murders. Although the protagonist mentions that her mother took time to herself in a sad room after the birth of each new child, and even though the narrator describes her mother as sad and alone, she never labels her mother as a depressive. And I don’t know what that means to me except that without the label, there isn’t a cure. It is as if the mother and the adults and children around her have accepted her isolation as just “her way.” And her way is a sad one, one that Staggerlee seems to follow before the advent of a visit from a queer cousin who makes her feel connected to community again.

I think it’s important that the mother isn’t named a depressive because this is a book about intentional naming. Staggerlee has named herself after the trickster figure because her queerness (that she just knows will be unaccepted) has forced her to ponder the gray areas between right and wrong. As a biracial and queer child, Staggerlee can’t afford to think in black and white, especially when her self-image is so precarious. Precarious is actually a word that Staggerlee ruminates on in the beginning of the book. And Trout, a cousin and love interest, has also named herself. She’s chosen a fighter fish as a namesake for its will to live, for the wildness of its fight, for the way that it thrashes about even when the hook has wounded it. In a dark twist, she talks about fishing just to watch the fight. She has learned to dismiss guilt and accept the darkness of her desire to see a fish fight, but she internalizes the guilt of caring deeply for other girls. She has been sent to the country to become a “proper lady” because her adoptive mother does not like the tomboy dyke she is becoming.

And what to say about the relationship of these cousins? Staggerlee and Trout seem drawn to each others in ways that also evade the black and white of heteronormative kinship. They are family in the way that queer folks name and adopt each other, and they are family by law of adoption. However, their lack of blood ties or familial kinship (their parents haven’t spoken to each other in over twenty years; this is the first time they’ve met) makes this romantic friendship less than incestuous. Their love exists in the gray space of the narrator’s chosen name, neither “good” enough to be socially accepted or morally reprehensible. It’s just love unnameable and unnamed. Woodson, writing this YA novel in 1995, shows us the pain of carrying unnamable loves in the heart. Following the naming trope, she introduces Hazel, a love interest-turned-antagonist of/ to Staggerlee. The name strikes a chord for me because of my preoccupation with Gorilla, My Love, Toni Cade Bambara’s collection of short stories that features at least three stories about a protagonist named Hazel. Bambara’s Hazel would never do Staggerlee like Woodson’s Hazel did. Or would she? Hazel was a tomboy, a queer girl with no love interests (except for a fantasy about an uncle in the title story). In one story, a grown Hazel is also queer in the sense of Cathy Cohen’s queer black mother, but she also seems to favor an older, blind man. But even her planned seduction of this man (My Man Bovanne) seems more political than desirous. There is no passion for the man, no mention or expectation of Hazel’s sexual pleasure. In fact, all of Bambara’s Hazel stories are about a preoccupation with, a desire for, some thing that is just out of reach and attainable. Not a person. Is Bambara’s Hazel what queerness looks like without a love interest? Is Woodson calling that Hazel out? Are you, Hazel, as big and bad in the realm of romance as you are in a racist movie theater? I wonder. And I’d rather ask than make speculation. Woodson is alive, prolific, still writing, and reachable by email or social media. But the academy separates me from the texts I read and the hands that write them in ways that feel foreign to me. I am supposed to own my speculation that Woodson is even thinking about Bambara’s Hazel when it is easy enough to find out for myself if that’s true or not. I’m supposed to make an argument about the text that makes claims about but has little to do with the intentions of living, breathing, capable-of-explaining-her-own-damn-decisions author. And of course there are subconscious acts that happen in writing that even the best interviewer can not extrapolate from the source. Sure. But I hate the feeling I have when I think of this text, the way that I want to connect to the person who created the character, and the way that I feel weaker for needing/ wanting that connection. Surely, a “real” scholar would do something with these words, would make bold claims and wide leaps, would shift and shape my interpretations into a solid argument about something a disembodied text is doing with another disembodied text. And maybe I’m not a real scholar.

So I come to this novel as (just) another lonely, brown, queer girl, no credentials to speak of. Feeling fuzzy, warm feelings about a character I may have met in real life without ever knowing. Maybe it was Leslie, the girl I flirted with in elementary school who was quiet, who was beautiful, who was boyish, who was brave, who was quiet, who was beautiful , who I have sense found on Facebook, who is often suicidal, who is chastised by fundamentalist Christian family for the world to see, who is not helped, who will not reach back when I reach out, who was quiet, who was beautiful, who was boyish, who was brave. I hope that Staggerlee is not Leslie, hope that in Woodson’s mythical world where black girls find each other and become each other’s medicine even if only for a short while, Staggerlee fares much better. I hope her family will let her keep her brave differences, hope they will not shush that girl like black families are wont to do.

I have so much hope. Even though the last few pages of this novel broke my heart. I hope still.

But this is a book about more than loneliness.

Things I Told Another Person About this Dissertation or So Glad You See the Love

So I’ve decided to share what I share about what I’m doing to keep me accountable to myself and to archive the thoughts I have about this yet-formless project. I shared this with a beautiful spirit I met on a dating website, so the person speaking is what Chris Rock would call my representative. She sounds so deep!

I don’t feel settled in Louisville. It feels like a place I’m from and I still feel some shock that I’m here again, especially that I’m living in my childhood home without my father. It’s a lot and I still have Atlanta in my heart, but I would have to do some real soul searching before I uprooted my daughter again. I’m in awe of her, that so much resilience is packed in that tiny body. But she’s also probably blissfully unaware. Lol. I’m in the English department at Emory University. I am coming up on year eight and it will be my last year… I’m writing about girlhood in black literature, looking specifically at black women’s novels, stories and memoirs of the early 70’s/ late 60’s. I just love that they used girl narrators to express their frustration with the project of America and the temporary salve of Black Nationalism, neither of which recognized their full humanity. In literature, the first person narrative is the best way to humanize a character and give [her] voice and interiority. So I’m just impressed with and in awe of the way these women waged war on the American imagination without even recognizing white Americans. They talked and wrote as if they would not ever get in trouble, as if they were speaking to a room of their very best girlfriends. The girls authored by those women (toni Morrison, toni case Bambara, nikki Giovanni, ntozake Shange, Maya Angelou) are teaching us a way to survive. That was a lot!

And then, to her question “why the 70s?”

Thank you so much! [My dissertation doula] will be a reader, but also an accountability partner. And I’m hoping she will hold my hand through hurdles and ask really good questions like the one you just asked. I’m interested in the  literary moment, as it was the first time that so many black women were in print at the same time and the first time so many stories were told by little girls. Morrison says she wrote the Bluest Eye because she wanted to talk about the least heard, most ignored. I want to get in the archives and see the story it tells aboutt this moment. I’m especially interested in the story of Morrison publishing the works of her friends and living room community, people who laughed in her house and traded babysitting favors. Something about black interiority in times of great turmoil. My hypothesis is that the women gathered in mourning after the string of brutal FBI murders of high-profile movement folks, even if those gatherings weren’t physical but were spiritual, and that they turned to the children (narrators) for their hope and witness. I’m still in research phase, so I’m open to the hypothesis being proved false to make way for another kind of story about that moment. I’m also open to the project being more thematic than tied to a time period. Then I’d get to integrate some of the contemporary girlhood stories. Thanks for reading all of that and I’m so glad you see the love! That’s the most important piece for me.

Cover of Lyric and Blake with cartoon drawing of two black girls, one with long straight hair and the other with an afro and red-framed glasses.

Book review: Lyric and Blake

My knee-jerk reaction to Lyric and Blake is disappointment that it is only a novella. My feelings are out of place, I know, as I’m not even a lucky member of this novella’s target audience. But I also can’t imagine a queer or questioning thirteen year-old girl who wouldn’t want more time with Lyric and Blake, wouldn’t need more time with this self-assured duo, their imperfect but well-intentioned mamas, and the “automatons” of Alcorn Junior High who both antagonize the duo and throw the beauty and strength of their friendship into sharp relief. Lyric and Blake reads like a daydream, a Black feminist, queer futurist musing on a scenario rendered impossible by time, space, and the many oppressions that threaten us all (we who were never meant to survive[i]): what if Audre Lorde and June Jordan had met in the seventh grade? What world could they have made together if their girlhoods had not been marked by isolation and the cruelty of adults? And although Lyric and Blake are not Audre and June, they are the “ones we’ve been waiting for[ii],” the girls they must have dreamed of as they did their work in the world. But I jump ahead of myself, as I am want to do when I project all of my hopes for a more livable life onto the metaphor of girlhood. In such a dream space, I miss the basics: that Kionne Nicole has composed snapshots of the seventh grade as seen through the eyes of Astin “Lyric” Boyd, a gender nonconforming pre-teen who is uncannily adept at coping with anxiety. Lyric has chosen Alcorn, a predominantly Black public school, over “The Ivy League,” a private school that she attended last year. It is here that she finds Blake, a best friend and ally against middle school cliques that ridicule their androgyny and find all manner of ways to throw jabs. What is clear from beginning to end is that Lyric prefers Black “phobics” to white faux-liberals, and this preference is at odds with her mother’s plans for her future. If we ever really listened to Black girls, we (adult eavesdroppers) would see Lyric’s choice as more than near-sighted. Rather, we would glean strength from the hope that Lyric and Blake have invested in their community, in their choice of messy kinship over the (empty) politeness of The Ivy League. If we listened to Black girls, we would also take note of Lyric and Blake’s necessary maroonage, especially their decision to start their own organization when existing structures no longer served them. Lyric and Blake calls us to an awareness of our subject positions as listeners. Who am I when I meet these girls? Who would I be if these girls were meeting me at their age? Because of this call to reflection, Lyric and Blake should be added to any young girl’s library of adolescent novels. For some girls, Lyric will be a light cast onto shadows—answering questions they’d never ask aloud about “those” girls. For others, Lyric will be an affirming mirror (with all the Hip Hop swag of the mirror that once called Slick Rick a conceited bastard). Still, for queer or questioning girls who identify as femme, Lyric might be a thorn in the side—a reminder that misogyny doesn’t only infect boys; when hurt, the lover you thought was a comrade in the gender wars will fall back on sexist truisms like the vagina as tuna fish or mother as “slimy bitch you came from.” If seventh grade is a microcosmic metaphor for our society, there is no space safe from misogyny, especially not the space of our colonized minds.

Kionne Nicole’s work is a reminder that girlhood exists in a space next to, but beyond, the relative safety of metaphor—a real space where queer girls are actually isolated and ridiculed, where adults who misunderstand gender expression or sexuality make cruel mistakes, where the faculty member you’d identified as an ally starts dating your mama. Girlhood is messy. Girlhood is cruel. Girlhood is an adrenaline rush that Lyric and Blake ride well, holding onto each other so as not to be swept away from what Black feminist evangelist Alexis Pauline Gumbs calls “the shoreline,” that space of presence and action to which our foremothers call us. It is appropriate, then, that Lyric and Blake begins with Lyric’s  humorous girlhood angst about the “cool” way to answer such a call. When Lyric finally decides on a plain and glorious, “Here,” we should all begin to take note.

[i] From Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival”

[ii] From June Jordan, “Poem for South African Women”