Tag Archives: Home

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.

Advertisements

My Mama and Me

This Mother’s Day was a bittersweet one for me, as my relationship with my mother can best be described as “complicated.” And at worst, we are estranged — indefinitely. Last year for father’s day, I left my dad a you’ll always be the best man I’ve ever known message on my parents’ answering machine. My mother replied jokingly, but more seriously than she meant to let on, that I “never say that kind of stuff” to her. I never thought much about why I didn’t. In my mind, the bottles of perfume, and the iPod, and the shoes I’d bought over the years, meant the same thing I’d said to my father. But it didn’t to her. And in all honesty, it never occurred to me that she was receptive to sincerity in that way. As a matter of fact, when it does occur to me to describe my mama’s character, sincere just doesn’t come to mind.

Lest I seem too critical of the gorgeous woman that gave me life, I do acknowledge the sacrifices my mother made early on so that I could be anything and everything I dreamed I could be. I appreciate that she pushed aside her personal ambitions to ensure that I had the chance at a better life than hers. My parents nudged me gently, but unmistakably in one direction — up. They encouraged aspiration as opposed to complacency, and brilliance when good enough would do. I knew with absolute certainty that I was my mama’s “pride and joy.” I was her greatest accomplishment and her biggest investment. And I’m pretty sure she cheated on something to get me into Head Start early. But such is life — early bird catches the worm, right? Even if said bird is shady than a mug…

When I was little, my favorite books were The Cat in the Hat and Ferdinand and the Bull. My mom read one or the other to me every night. And although by about time 20, she was over Dr. Seuss and all his carryin on, she kept up our nightly ritual. In part because I was her little girl, and you can’t deny your little girl. And I mean, have you seen my little girl eyes? They really were undeniable. But also, my mom got a kick out of me memorizing the words, and “reading” to her like I knew what I was doing. I think she really just got a kick out of me too. She used to tell me that I used words way too big for someone aged in single digits. So you see, I talk fancy in spite of myself. I’s bo’n this way; can’t help it one bit.

My mom was always so proud of me. She cheered hard and loud at my basketball games, and boasted the way parents do when I excelled at the academic stuff, too. I know my mama loves and cherishes me. Because at 30 years old, I still have trouble saying goodbye at the airport without choking up. In fact, I usually lose my inner gangsta completely on the final embrace, just before we part ways at the security check-in. She may get on my nerves when I’m home, but that last look into her eyes before I leave gets me every. single. time.

But love and pride were never our problem, mine and my mama’s. Since I left for college, we’ve been stuck at acceptance. It’s been difficult for my mother to accept that I grew up, that I’m not the snaggle-toothed kindergardener on her wall anymore. And since I came out, we’ve really just been stuck. Now, I love women in a way that my mother doesn’t, and I’d be frontin with y’all if I pretended not to understand the massive weight of such a revelation. But my degree of gayness is merely part of our overarching issue, which can be defined quite simply. Fundamentally, my mama and I are completely different types of women. While I accepted that fact long ago, and although I suspect that my mother has always known it too, “coming out” as the polar opposite of who she is, has emblazoned our differences. And every day since August 17th 2010, she can’t understand them; she can’t overlook them; and she won’t accept them.

One of my very good friends often challenges my anger at my mother’s stubbornness. I may be oversimplifying his point, but it seems to me that he thinks it permissible to be “disappointed” and to lash out because the morals we cherry-pick are compromised in some way, or because of the romanticized aspects of our heritage. But I’m from the same place they’re from, and I managed to pull my head out of my ass. Is it really too much to expect that others could do so also?

But let me not pretend that “others” are who I really even care about. This is about my mama. And me. And why I didn’t call on Mother’s Day. I did send a card because, despite all that’s happened over the last year, I’m grateful that my mama still lives and breathes, and smiles a beautiful smile. However, I cannot escape the hurt and anger I feel that she can’t accept me as I am. And in my understanding of family, “home” is the one place where acceptance isn’t subject to if-then equations. If you are who I want you to be, then we cool. Home love is supposed to be unconditional, save some really exceptionally foul shit. And for me, being gay simply does not rise to that level.

It hurts that I haven’t spoken to my mama in nearly two months. I know she misses me because I miss her. The reality is, however, that she has dug in, and so have I. I can’t rationalize the things she’s said, the callousness she’s shown, and the choice she’s made to step out of my life. I am her only daughter — her only child. That alone should curry enough favor to get me a ‘I don’t understand, but let’s see where we can find common ground’ conversation. I mean, shouldn’t it? Life is short as fuck sometimes. It is a pity to waste time over issues so small. And we don’t get this time back. And we can’t take the words back.

This is the first time in my life I’ve ever had to stand up for me — in opposition to the folks who created me. I didn’t ask to be born into our family. And, as another very good friend would say, “but I got over it.” I didn’t shun my family fuck-ups. I don’t speak of my own disappointments with family folks who turned out to be, or to not be worth a damn. In my view, being in the world everyday offers enough criticism. My job is to provide support, to exist among the roots and branches of our family tree.

It took me a long time to understand why it was so difficult for my mama and me to connect. The compassion and reason that I give so freely has never really been reciprocated from my mother when I needed it most — when shit was hard, and when compassion was challenged by reality. When I totaled my first car; when her favorite photo from her first cruise flew out of my car window; and when I told her that I was gay. For this reason, I know for sure that my spirit is my father’s. He gives of his time and attention, and his talents because he believes doing so is the right thing to do spiritually, humanly, and universally. He is a good man — not just a great father, but a genuinely great guy. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve recognized how difficult it is to be genuine and sincere and decent in a world that thrives on something else. I respect my father’s ability to remember to extend a little grace. He isn’t perfect, and he’s certainly had his share of asshole moments. But who hasn’t? I’m not still mad about when he snapped, “don’t nobody care about your bullshit phone calls!” when I asked him for a pager in 9th grade. Yes, I am. He aint hafta say that shit like that.

So yeah, Mother’s Day was bittersweet for me. I can’t not love and appreciate my mama. But I can’t sacrifice my dignity, or my self-respect, or my confidence in the woman she taught me to be either. I’m so comfortable in my own skin. I won’t give that up. I can’t be who she wants me to be because that’s not who I am. My hope going forward is that one day who I am is enough for her. My work going forward, however, is accepting the possibility that that day may never come.

So yeah, this Mother’s Day was a bittersweet one for me.