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.
Tuskegee University – Tuskegee, Alabama
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.
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.