Monthly Archives: May 2012

Cool Story

I’m watching Harry Potter for the first time when this happened:

“I’ve always prized myself on my ability to turn a phrase. Words, in my not so humble opinion, are our most inexhaustible source of magic.”

-Professor Albus Dumbledore

#message

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Alabama, the Beautiful

I spent most of last week in Alabama, my home state. And I think, somewhere along the way, I began a love affair with it.

As y’all know, I’m hard on the South, particularly because I grew up in Alabama, and because, in a way, I guess I grew out of Alabama. As I write this now, I understand that in the process, I lost some appreciation for what Alabama has meant to me. Today, I want to rectify that.

Women’s Leadership Institute – Auburn, Alabama

I spent Monday through Thursday with the Women’s Leadership Institute (WLI) at Auburn University. It was a week of sessions and workshops dedicated to telling a different story about women and girls – that our value goes deeper, and stretches beyond our bodies and pretty faces.

The WLI Class of 2012 included a diverse group of dynamic women from all over the southeast. They came to us at various stages in their careers, education, and in their personal lives. Some had grown children, others had babies. Some had earned their Bachelor’s Degrees just days or weeks before we met, while others were working on Doctorates or their second or third Master’s Degrees. It was, for sure, an impressive group.  We celebrated the courage it takes to face your fears, to lead a team, to trust your team, and to trust your leader. We recognized our power, and we acknowledged the ways in which it is brokered – either for some greater good, or because tradition/genetics/culture dictates that we should.

Throughout the course of our lives, women bear unique burdens and take on responsibilities that our male counterparts simply don’t. Man-struggles, though they exist and are no less challenging to the individual, aren’t even within striking distance of women’s uphill battles for respect, for power, for voice, for equality.  For autonomy. Men’s opportunities aren’t limited by their chromosomal make up. Rather, they are expanded by it. Infinite possibilities await if you happen to be born XY instead of XX. For men, the range of human emotion isn’t considered a liability. Questions about work/life balance, and who takes care of the babies while you chase ambition are realities men rarely face. For women, these features of life aren’t really optional. If you’re born with a uterus, limitations come standard.

For centuries, women have shattered false conceptions about their abilities to achieve great success outside of the home. The untrustworthy prism of sexism conveniently forgets that it was Harriet Tubman who risked her life returning to the South on missions that rescued more than 70 slaves. And it was Cleopatra who tactically employed beauty and charm as she ruled Egypt and was the alluring, elusive mistress to Rome. Queen Cleopatra and Harriet Tubman were merely women, and yet they succeeded in altering the course of world history. There’s nothing “mere,” minimum, or paltry about such a feat.

In the same way, women have enjoyed success in every facet of human life: family, business, science, medicine, and technology, the arts, research, and politics. But the psychology of sexism persists. Though the glass ceiling may be cracked in several places, it remains firmly in tact.

And chief among the reasons why, I think, is women’s lack of control over narratives about their own lives – their needs and ideas based in the context of their life experiences.  On Monday night, we watched the documentary, “Miss Representation.” The film lifts the veil from media’s influence on the way we value women. Media messages would have you believe that women are, or should be, “forever 29” or younger, size 4 or smaller, married and mothering or laying looking under every Tom, Dick, and Harry to chase that dream.

It’s hard to be a girl, and then to grow up and be a woman. You’re measured against a standard that doesn’t exist. Perfection, as determined by men who never stray too far from their inner 13 year-old boy, isn’t an achievable goal. Media pushes the message that you need to be as close as possible to perfect to have value, and the market creates the illusion that you can actually buy your way into the mirage. But it’s a ruse. A clever, disheartening and disastrous ruse. Because the truth is that imperfection – the differences among us – that appeal to those among us, that’s “perfection.” Perfect. Defined by me, for me.

This was the second time I served as a Faculty in Residence with WLI. And, just like the last time, I came away inspired. The Residential Intensive Training week at WLI reminds you that women are powerful, brilliant, courageous, AND nurturing, beautiful, sexual beings. And it gives you license to be that, without contradiction.

Here’s my favorite photo from my week with WLI. It is what teamwork and sisterhood looks like.

No matter what you’re going through, sister, I’m determined to get you over this wall. The mission isn’t complete until we all make it over.

Tuskegee University – Tuskegee, Alabama

The base of the statue reads: “There is no defence or security for any of us except in the highest intelligence and development of all”

Like many ‘Skegee Alum, before I ever enrolled at Tuskegee University, I already had roots there. My dad, uncle and auntie had already taken the journey. So in August 1999 , when I showed up with the FAMU bumper sticker on my car, I wasn’t the most enthusiastic Golden Tiger.

But a couple of months later, I met a person who changed life as I knew it. And not long after that, I went to my first football game (as a student), and I saw my first probate show – it was Alpha Phi Alpha, the Fall ’99 line. And then I experienced my first Homecoming. Despite my best efforts, I began to let the “Tuskegee Experience” seep in. It was one of the best decisions I never made.

It just kind of happened one day, and I remember it so clearly. I was leaving the Union wearing yellow Old Navy flip-flops. I stopped at the top of the stairs for two seconds, and realized that I belonged there. Not on the stairs, of course. But on campus, that campus.

I felt the same way when I visited last Thursday. My dad’s roots are there, and now, so are mine. My best friend is a Tuskegee alumna, and my girlfriend is a double Tuskegee alum. I’m lucky. I get to have a little Crimson and Old Gold with me always. Last week though, it was nice to be there – to smell it, to see the caf, the yard, the valley, the ave, and the monument one more time.

Say what you wanna about my alma mater.  It is in the middle of nowhere.  It is  country.  And it is dysfunctional at times.  It’s also amazing and majestic in a way.  And for that reason, I wouldn’t trade my Tuskegee experience for your college’s any day.

“I’m so glad I went to ‘Skegee U.”

Mike & Ed’s – Phenix City & Auburn, Alabama

If you’re one of those people who proudly doesn’t eat pork, then go on ahead and skip this part. If, however, you appreciate swine for its delicious contributions to humankind, then you understand my love of good barbecue. I’m talking about ribs, friends. Ribs.

Forget anything you’ve ever heard about DC or Maryland barbecue – that is, if anyone’s ever raved about DC or Maryland barbecue.

I had to go home to get a decent rib dinner. And if I’m going home, then I’m going to my favorite barbecue spot in the world, Mike & Ed’s. The original, and best one, is located in my hometown, Phenix City, Alabama. The building looks exactly like it did the first time my mom took me there for a chipped sandwich, when I was 5ish. The sweet hickory sauce still tastes the same. The thick-cut pickles are still the perfect accompaniment to ribs drizzled with their vinegary hot sauce. And they still serve white bread with a dinner.

The one in Auburn serves sweet tea in a garbage can container – with a spigot on it. I fucking love Alabama.

🙂

My Family – Phenix City, Alabama

I gotta be honest. I struggled with whether I would visit my family on this trip. But my favorite auntie said, “You’re this close. Go see your parents.” So I did.

And I’m glad I did. I needed to see their faces and feel their hugs. I needed to feel them squeeze me like they missed me. And I needed to squeeze back so they knew I missed them too.

We caught up on the last few months, and we resolved the respect issue. However, my mom is still my mom, and my dad is still my dad. And things are still rough and sensitive. But I realized that’s ok. I don’t need it to be more than it is anymore. It was just nice to see my parents and hold them again. That works for now.

And the bonus was that I got to hang out with Granny for a while.

Alabama fed my soul last week. It is indeed a beautiful place.


The Romanticized South Redux: I’m Looking at You, North Carolina

Jennifer Cockrham, a nurse from Walkertown, N.C., holds her hand over her heart for the Pledge of Allegiance during a rally supporting a constitutional ban on gay marriage in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday, April 20, 2012. Voters will decide May 8 whether North Carolina will remain the only state in the South without such a constitutional ban. (AP Photo/Allen Breed) *sigh*

Being a Southerner in a major city has made me acutely aware of what I appreciate about my heritage, and those qualities I loathe about it. When I moved to the DC metro area 5 years ago, folks knew immediately that I wasn’t from around here. I learned quickly that the ease of my smile was welcomed precisely because warmth is an unfamiliar character trait around these parts. Likewise, the first time I visited New York a few years ago, I thanked a man for information and he called me back over to where he was standing to ask where I was from. When I told him I hailed from the great state of Alabama, he said to his comrades, “Told ya she wasn’t from here.”

Moments like these provide great perspective. Because to Yankees, southern hospitality represents a kind of charm and grace that you just don’t get everywhere. We say “please” and “thank you” and “ma’am” because somebody along the way told us that’s how decent people treat people. Now that I’ve had the chance to experience being Southern from the outside looking in, I’ll shred my usual diplomacy for what my parents called “constructive criticism.” Dear Dixie, I’m only telling you what I see because I still love you.

And what I see most often is a purposeful acceptance of ignorance that flows as mightily as the Mississippi. Sure, there’s some up North too, but Yankee know-nothings are more frequently confronted with the manifestations of their ignorance. It’s more difficult to degrade a person or a group of persons when you have to interact with them on a basic level everyday. It’s difficult to assume that all Arab-looking people are terrorists when one has invited you to his family’s home to celebrate a special occasion. It’s more difficult to conclude that all Spanish-speaking people are “Mexican” when you work with a gang of Guatemalans.

On the other hand, it’s easy to be against something that you don’t already know or understand. It is both easy and cowardly to convince yourself that you’re protecting tradition by discriminating against people who practice life differently than you.

Yet, not understanding or not knowing is never the ultimate offense; life is an exercise in trial and error, and triumph. The true crime lies in the South’s prideful incredulity about change and progress. There’s an undercurrent of “this is how we do it down here; this is how we’ve always done it; this is how we’ll always do it.”

The former governor of Alabama echoed a similar refrain in 1963. George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama blocking the path of progress, both literally and figuratively, for Black Americans and for Southerners. I imagine that Wallace hoped to prevent Black students from integrating the University of Alabama, and White social psyches by proxy. Because it’s difficult to perpetuate the “lazy,” “stupid” narrative about Blacks when they sit right beside you in Chemistry class — when they have the same opportunity as you to succeed just as much as you. As soon as just one of “them” graduates with honors and just one of “y’all” doesn’t, then the superiority and entitlement you’ve grown so comfortable toting around, has holes in it. So does your superiority narrative.

Racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-elitism — these are but one aspect of the issue. I mentioned decency earlier, and I believe that’s the common delusion about southern hospitality. It’s not unconditional; you get it unless and until who you are is something different from what they (the majority) have deemed “normal,” and therefore acceptable.

Yesterday, voters in North Carolina voted to amend their state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. And to be fair, North Carolina isn’t the first state to pass a constitutional amendment discriminating against ordinary Americans in this way. There are at least 30 others. But we expected more from the Tar Heels. From a state that boasts pillars of higher learning and advancement like Duke and Wake Forest Universities, the University of North Carolina, and from a state that grows increasingly culturally diverse with metropolitan areas like Charlotte, we expected better from North Carolina.

Amendment 1 is not only disrespectful of human difference, it is unconstitutional, make no mistake about it. Reverend William J. Barber II, a pastor in North Carolina and head of the local NAACP, laid it out beautifully. “However you feel about same-sex marriage, ” he says, “religiously or personally or morally; you can be for or against, you should always be against division and hatred and discrimination being written into the constitution.”

The intolerance for difference in the South is a tradition, as is the comfort with not knowing or caring about what an amorphous “they” do wherever “they” are. In my view, the South goes kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and to its own peril, as it lags in virtually every indicator of intellectual, social, and cultural upward mobility. There are pockets of progress, but Atlanta simply isn’t synonymous for Georgia, neither is Houston for Texas, nor Charlotte for North Carolina.

Honestly, how much more “organizing,” hand-holding, pandering, and there-thereing do we need in the south before we just say ‘you are wrong’? Your traditions, like marching a Confederate flag across the football field at halftime (which I experienced in high school), are wrong. Can you imagine how it feels, as a Black woman, to be immersed in a celebration of the Confederacy when your intention was to show up for a football game?

I can’t keep giving out passes for incredulity about growth and social maturity. The south consistently votes against its own interests. “They don’t know no better” doesn’t work as an excuse in this case; these are conscious choices. If you’ll drift with me down memory lane, you’ll remember that Eddie Long and T.D. Jakes sure did lead Black folks to the George W. Bush promised land in 2004 precisely because G.W. was an avowed opponent of marriage equality. Bush wasn’t saying much about the dwindling prospects for middle- and lower middle-income Americans, but that was neither here nor there. At least he would ensure that the gays couldn’t marry. Unclouded by the haze of religious rhetoric, folks might have seen that GDubs’ ideological perspective would also ensure that they couldn’t marry either — because they couldn’t afford to once the economy tanked while they marched in opposition to a matter that had absolutely no bearing on their own lives.

Since I left home, I’ve been asked many times if I would ever move back, and the answer has consistently been no. I can’t. I don’t want to. I can’t live in a place where my personhood, the way I love, and the relationship I’ve built isn’t protected; where discrimination is tolerated because the majority is comfortable with it. I don’t begrudge anyone who has the courage to go back and fix what’s wrong where we’re from. However, the first step – the most important one – is acknowledging that there is a problem.

The challenge and triumph of diversity allows to you to see objectively. You’re able to measure who you are and what you think against something different. And while you may not always agree, at least the experience of meeting someone who looks, speaks, or thinks differently than you has opened you up some. It makes clear that how you do it, and how it’s always been done isn’t the only way to do it, nor is it always the right way.


Am I My Brother’s Keeper? Maybe…

Yes indeed. Do respect loyalty.

A friend of mine recently went through a bad break-up. As is often the case with friends and lovers, friends’ lovers become your friends too. And unfortunately, if and when the lovin’ goes sour, friends get caught in the middle and are left to choose sides.

In the break-up melee, I got a message that was like: it’s sad to see friendships dissolved because we are loyal to one side or the other. That got me thinking about this term, loyalty, and about the things and people to which we pledge our allegiance.

You should know that I’ve learned everything I ever want to know about the streets from The First 48, and a few colorful characters I’ve encountered on life’s journey. The cats who get caught up in shemminy sham in the show’s featured cities are but a sampling of the derelicts that probably lurk in the nooks and crannies of all cities. And it seems the constant is this: it never occurs to said derelicts that the principles to which they adhere, and the loyalties they display are probably the reason the popos showed up at their mama’s door in the first place.

To be sure, there is no honor among thieves. It took me forever to understand that conceptually, and to process its implications. There is no honor among cats who don’t respect honor, dignity, or life. Folks try to rob you of your good sense every day, insisting that you be “ride or die,” or that you don’t snitch if they snatch an old lady’s purse and accidentally develop itchy trigger finger while the caper’s in progress. Fuck that brand of loyalty. I got a Granny. What if it was her purse, and she who was on the receiving end of the “accident?” The truth is that derelicts don’t care whose Granny is whose; to them, a mark is just a mark.

So then, how can I trust you around anything that means anything to me if all you respect is street logic? How can I be loyal to that?

I wonder how many families and communities have been torn asunder because a Ray-Ray decided to do some foul shit, and then expected folks to just let him cook. His daddy aint around; he don’t get enough attention at home; a motherfucker looked at him funny; a girl broke his lil heart; he lost the last fight. Whatever the excuse, in Ray-Ray’s mind, it entitles him to pillage and terrorize. And everybody else should just deal – in silence – until he feels satisfied. To whom are we loyal in this case? How did we all end up in a ride or die relationship with Ray-Ray? And is there some sort of waiver of responsibility? Because if I know Ray-Ray’s raggedy whereabouts, I’m tellin’. I don’t really do fear and intimidation. And I’m averse to setting precedents for accepting ridiculous behavior.

What’s worse is that Ray-Ray types stay emboldened by some perverse sense of respect that they claim to be protecting when terrorizing folks’ communities and daring the neighbors to speak up about it. But when the damage is done and the dust settles, where is Ray-Ray?

Cowering. Hiding somewhere. On the run. Under the radar. Low key for a lil while.

How does such a bitchass move follow one so brazen, one which is supposed to be viewed as a frightening but impressive display of power, prowess, and principle?

Upending someone’s world and then running and hiding is a precise mark of gutlessness. And who’s comfortable being ride or die for a coward? And loyal to a menace? If you answer “me! me!” then what does that make you in the end?

***

I responded to the break-up melee message, asserting my understanding of the word loyalty. I’m loyal to people who respect and honor the dignity of life, and those who can handle emotion like adults without resorting to sandbox resolutions – pulling hair, kicking dirt on shoes, and destroying our toys. I’m loyal to actions and principles which are motivated by love. And yes, by survival too – within reason and reasonable context. For example, in parts of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the options were steal or starve. If ever the exception is to become the rule, then the matter of survival, in my view, is a reasonable impetus.

So yeah. Am I my brother’s keeper? Sure. Absolutely. I got your back, bro.

“…now don’t fuck it up.”