On Annie Lennox and erasure.

(Morgan Jerkins graduated from Princeton University with an AB in Comparative Literature and is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at the Bennington Writing Seminars. Follow her on twitter @MorganTheScribe or her Tumblr blog, “Black Girl in MFA.”)

When I initially heard that Annie Lennox was promoting a new album, I, like countless others, was excited about it. Annie’s a living legend who has been in the music industry for nearly 40 years, and she’s a well-known social activist, raising money and awareness for marginalized communities affected by HIV/AIDS. So it was safe to assume that interviewers were going to ask her about feminism, right? After all, feminism has been a hot topic, and Annie was alive during the earlier waves of feminism.

In an interview with Pride Source, Annie is specifically asked what she thinks of Beyoncé in the context of feminism. She says that Beyoncéas well as a few others—are “feminist-lite,”calling their brand of feminism “tokenistic,” “cheap,” and shallow since it does not delve into the depths of feminism wholeheartedly. The crux of Annie’s argument lies within the polemic relationship between a woman’s body and her agency to use it however she chooses. More than that, her thoughts become complicated when we consider the polarizing relationship between black and white feminists.

Now, I cannot blame Annie for talking about Beyoncé because the interviewer, Chris Azzopardi, geared the question in that way which elucidates a point: the mainstream media is fascinated with Beyoncé’s feminism. He didn’t ask what Annie thought about Emma Watson’s feminism, but Beyoncé’s in particular. It’s not enough that Beyoncé said in an interview with British Vogue that she calls herself a feminist, believes in equality, and advocates for women to be whoever they would like to be. It’s not enough that Beyoncé included Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous “We Should All Be Feminists” speech in her song Flawless. It’s not enough that Beyoncé had a huge neon sign with the word “feminist” behind her during a MTV Video Music Awards performance. It was not enough, because Annie took it a step forward. In a later interview with NPR, Annie praises Beyoncé and says that her critique was centered on the singer because she was asked about her, which is fair. But she then goes on to say that twerking is not feminism.  Granted, Beyoncé’s feminism may be debatable to some because of her sexualized dance moves and her Bow Down lyrics, but whose feminism isn’t? What about Miley Cyrus, who popularized twerking for mainstream audiences, and proclaimed that she was one of the biggest feminists in the world in a 2013 BBC Radio 1 interview?

I don’t know what was going through Annie Lennox’s mind during either of these interviews. I don’t believe that she intended to maliciously single out Beyoncé, even though she and her interviewers know that Beyoncé is the biggest black female pop culture icon of this generation. However, we mustn’t forget how often Black female artists are challenged for their forms of feminism with a degree of severity. For many Black people across the globe, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna are feminist role models; but to others, their feminism is not feminist enough.

This inability to see eye-to-eye on how the black experience is oftimes misunderstood, neglected, or condemned revealed itself once again in a recent interview with Tavis Smiley, during which he asked Annie about her decision to cover Billie Holiday’s iconic song “Strange Fruit.” Annie was right in saying that “Strange Fruit” was a protest song but then fell down the slippery slope of political correctness when she said, “This subject of violence and bigotry, hatred, violent acts of mankind against ourselves…it’s a human theme that has gone on for time immemorial.” The song’s subject is the lynching of black people in the American south. It was not a violent act of mankind against ourselves, but a systemic and almost carnivalistic practice of lynching Black people that was carried out by racist whites. This song was specifically tailored to this “cultural sport,” which is why her words are so hurtful. One should not make the words of “black bodies swinging in the breeze” a universal issue.

Was it her intent to minimize the black experience in this country under the huge umbrella of universality? Perhaps not. But that’s the thing with words: you have to mean what you say and say what you mean. She’s a highly intelligent woman and I, as well as others, expected her to say outright what the song was about. It’s not enough for us that the song is not metaphorical even in the slightest. It would have been nice if she acknowledged what the song was truly about.

Shortly afterwards, Tavis Smiley rushed to Annie’s defense, arguing that those who were upset with Annie’s explanation of “Strange Fruit” because she did not say “our word of choice” were arrogant. Yes, lynching is bigotry and violence, but that is not the point here. What we seek is acknowledgment. The song is specifically about lynching. Lynching was racialized bigotry and violence.

How many people, especially Black men in media, have ran to the defense of Beyonce or Nicki Minaj whenever they were being attacked for their views, sexuality, or song lyrics? T.I. threatened to assault Azealia Banks, but rushed to rapper Iggy Azalea’s defense when Snoop Dogg lambasted her looks. These conversations about feminism and intersectionality seem circular because the same things keep happening: black women continue to be criticized for their choices, and left unprotected. Historical components of the black experience continue to be sugarcoated or ignored. When will there be a change?

#WeNeedDiverseMedia for reasons….part 96464864 of a never ending list

So this interview with Mathew Klickstein about the Golden Age of Nickelodeon is up at Flavorwire. It should have been a fluffy little piece as part of the press for New York Comic Con. I’m pretty sure that was the intent, and I say this as someone who has written these kinds of pieces, and who will be on a panel at Comic con preceded by a similar interview. Instead Klickstein decides to talk about how hard it is to be a white guy, with a side of “diversity is exploitation” that…well I think he had a point somewhere in there that doesn’t sound quite so racist. But I had to dig to find it, and I’m 99.9% certain that he made it by accident. What was it? That having white creators present one of a handful of characters of color isn’t really diversity. And I agree with him. Diverse media absolutely requires diverse creators, show runners, and executives. But, where things fall apart is his idea that there needs to be a reason for a character of color to exist at all. Because some how it’s find for kids of color to have to identify with white leads, but if the lead is a POC then there needs to be a reason for that.

Yet, it’s already been established that TV is damaging to the self esteem of anyone that isn’t a white male. And I guess it is possible that Klickstein somehow missed all of the discussions before and after that study about media’s impact on kids. Maybe he even ignored #WeNeedDiverseBooks and their data on the impact that having characters of color has on a kid’s desire to read, though one wonders how none of these things penetrated. Of course, it’s also entirely possible, and in fact probable that Klickstein is aware of these things, and just doesn’t care. It seems much more likely given his response to Clarissa’s success that anything that doesn’t center white men isn’t important to him. Nothing anyone says or does is likely to change that, and frankly I don’t really want to bother arguing that same point again.

It’s just more proof of why #WeNeedDiverseMedia. It’s not enough to be a token character bringing diversity to a white protagonist’s story. Nor do we need white savior creators to speak up for POC as though we don’t have our own stories to tell. We have been telling our own stories to combat racist tropes for generations.We haven’t let our history, our cultures, or our stake in our creations be erased even when it was just this side of illegal for us to exist at all.

Now, the problem is avoiding tokenism in terms of creators. What Shonda Rimes has accomplished is amazing, but she made history by being a showrunner on primetime broadcast TV recently. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could stop having “The first Black/first POC to do X in media” because it wasn’t so hard for creators of color to get access to major platforms? Wouldn’t it be great if the demographics of people in power in publishing houses, Hollywood, and major cable networks reflected the populations they claim to represent? No one’s going to hand us seats at those proverbial tables though, so we create our own tables, and clearly when we do, we have to be aware that for some people we need a reason to exist, and we can’t afford to worry about what those people, all we can do is focus on the work in front of us.

Delux_vivens…my feminist icon

My first attempt to run an intersectional feminist community was sex_and_race on Livejournal. Delux_vivens helped me found it, run it, and in the process became a mother to me. To this day, I don’t know what she saw in me (I was a mess in my 20’s) but she was always there in email or on the phone, whatever to tell me I could have more, be more, and should not stop trying. Her feminism wasn’t about waves, or performance or publicity. She was incredibly private to be honest, so much so that we joked about her being a spy. But, she reached out to a lot of young people who were struggling to find a place for ourselves in feminist circles and in the world. Her feminism was literally about community, I have siblings now because she loved so many of us, mentored, nurtured, supported so many of us when we needed it most. And since we first got news of her death, we have wept, raged, and denied our loss in turns.

It is a little discussed fact in some feminist circles how important it is to have mentors who are there for more than theory. Folks who will invest in you, support you, love you and be willing (when necessary) to check you or defend you. Delux did all of those things, and so many more as each person she cared for might need. She asked for very little in return (almost nothing to be honest), and always managed to guide you in the right directions without seeming at all preachy or overbearing. She’d probably hate that I wrote this post, but it has to be said that every day feminist icons exist and are all around us. The work isn’t just focused outward on larger issues, it’s focused inward on building up the people doing it so that they can keep doing it.

I won’t stop going. She would not want that and I will honor her wishes. But more importantly I will do more to honor her spirit. Try to be to others what she was to me. I may not be any good at it some days, but Delux was a voice of reason when I needed it. She kept me from making some big mistakes, supported me through others, and I was just one of several people who got the calls, emails, texts, you name it daily or weekly. Sex_and_race had a lot to do with the development of Hood Feminism, but more importantly Delux had a lot to do with my development as a person and a feminist. I only hope that I can do the same. Honor the feminist (whether they use the label or not) in your home and community who may never write a treatise, but who will always do the work. They’re the ones that matter the most.

 

 

Dispatches from Ferguson.

A makeshift memorial for another black boy felled by a policeman's gun.

A makeshift memorial for another black boy felled by a policeman’s gun.

You don’t know how to write this story. It’s difficult, due mostly to the emotional proximity of it all. You feel everything, and at once. The heaviness of the air, the apathy of the authorities, the grief and frustration of the residents who deserve answers and not nightly tear gassing. When you arrive Friday evening, you note the feeling of relief at the Qwik Trip, where ash and rubble has given way to an outdoor community center. Messages etched in sidewalk chalk conveying support from far-flung places, people healing through laughter and dance. Despite being so blatantly lied to earlier, there is a glimmer of hope that justice will be served. Somehow. Someway. 

Later that night, you watch helplessly and in horror, as local law enforcement attack residents again. Friends and family caution you against going back out to help, reminding you of your parental responsibilities. But those responsibilities are what led you here. You are here because eventually, the four year-old who clutches his toy turtle every night will grow into a teenage boy. One who does teenage boy things. And he deserves to exist in a world where policemen don’t kill him for jaywalking, or fitting the description. 

Saturday morning you find yourself back at the Qwik Trip bowing your head in prayer to a God you don’t believe in, clasping hands with those who still do. You talk to people who have come from Atlanta and California and Florida, all of them black women. They have brought supplies and bodies. They march alongside you to the spot where Mike Brown was murdered. They listen, heads bowed, as Rev. Jesse Jackson leads another prayer. They take pictures and comfort one another. Later, they help residents hand out hotdogs and chips, and mind the babies running around as the bikers drive through. 

After a brief respite and another supply run, you are back in Ferguson by nightfall. Rain is beating the pavement, lightning strikes in the distance, but the people are undeterred. Despite the midnight curfew (and neighboring towns imposing earlier ones) they are out, and ready. You’ve just left what you thought would be a strategy meeting with organizers, painfully white organizers who flinch when they see you and your friends arrive. There are no residents present, and after your phones get a decent charge, you leave and hit West Florissant again. A friend wonders, aloud, if residents were given access to that space during the protests. Probably not, you respond. 

The trained journalist in you has so many questions. Why are residents continuously being punished for peacefully assembling? Why is the man who murdered a boy in cold blood allowed to flee the county? What the fuck is up with the local government? You push them aside. Besides, there will be a million thinkpieces by a million armchair revolutionaries/blackademics/concerned white people who will peddle their theories from a safe and comfortable distance while dismissing the power of “hashtag activism,” the same activism that made this concerted act of resistance possible. The power of “Black Twitter” is formidable, and you are seeing it firsthand. 

You leave for home today, not knowing what to expect in the days to come. You will get more supplies to share with residents, you will attend the scheduled vigil, and you will be back on a bus to Chicago by nightfall as residents once again fight for their humanity. You will think of the kindness and generosity of the people here, who hug you hard and feed you without knowing your name. You will continue to lend your support however you can, while you continue to fight for your own city five hours away. 

And you will remember Mike Brown, the boy who should have lived. 

 

 

Maybe it’s time for #MyFeministIcon

It seems like we can’t go a week without a thinkpiece or two about who is a “real” feminist icon. So let’s talk about who our feminist icons are, not just the people on the “approved” list. I mean the people who matter to you. They don’t have to wear the label to inspire you to great heights. Post pics, write blog posts, tag it with #MyFeministIcon. It’s time we re-frame this conversation. It’s not about the “right” kind of feminist icon. It’s about the feminist icons that matter to you. Come on down to Hood Feminism, your blogs, Tumblr, or Twitter and talk about who matters the most to you. Personally #MyFeministIcon list would include Stagecoach Mary, Josephine Baker, Maya Angelou, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Shirley Chisolm…I have a lot of icons. You get the idea.

The Case of 234 Missing Nigerian Girls & Apathetic Media Coverage.

While racist ranchers and missing airplanes have been dominating the news cycle for days, another story–a heartbreaking one–has received scant media attention. On April 15, 234 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped after being summoned back to school for exams. Boko Haram, an extremist group that opposes the education of women, has claimed responsibility for the mass abduction.

According to a Reuters report, Nigerian President Johnathan held a security meeting with 36 state governors to address the kidnapping and widespread violence that has plagued the country for several years. Officials maintain that it is oil, not religion, that is to blame for the conflict. It is unclear what action these officials plan to take.

Apart from a handful of wire reports and articles, there has been little media coverage stateside, which is surprising, because one would think that the disappearance of 234 schoolgirls would make international headlines. So, it’s time for some action.

Start here by signing this petition. Use your social media networks to make #BringBackOurGirls and #BringBackOurDaughters trend. Contact your local media outlets. Let’s try to bring these girls home.

Many thanks to the bloggers, journalists, writers, and activists who have been working to spread the story. Check out Melissa McEwan’s post at Shakesville here.

Eldercare: The Forgotten Feminist Issue.

(This was written late last year; I pitched it a few places but received little interest. I’m posting it here because, well, it’s an important conversation.)

One of my favorite pictures of my mom.

Mom, back in the day.

 

As I write this my mother is fast asleep in a nursing home, her third stint in 15 months. It is a heartbreaking thing, watching your parent slowly succumb to her mortality. You try to prepare yourself for the call you’ll get in the middle of the night from a nurse reluctant to give you the news you’ve been dreading for years. But no amount of preparation will ready you for that call. No amount of alcohol will lessen the pain. Even writing about it is hard because it forces you to deal with an absolute, inescapable truth. She is dying, and you are powerless to stop it.

The woman I now visit several times a week is not the woman I knew five years ago, or even three years ago, when she bounded into my maternity suite with her walker, perching herself on the sofa while ordering my husband around. She is an entirely different creature, one who will ask me the same question in a five-minute span, one who is petulant and stubborn and scared. She is not the Joan who raised me, and it is difficult to reconcile this version with the one I knew. The one I miss. I watch my other friends in envy as they travel the world with their healthy, able-bodied parents, as those parents gift them with cars and weddings, top-shelf appliances and Maclaren strollers.

As a junior member of the Sandwich Generation, I’ve been my mother’s primary caregiver for the last several years, a responsibility passed on to me when my brother and his wife retired to Phoenix. A changing of the guard, so to speak, because they’d spent over 20 years juggling full-time jobs, mortgage payments and ailing elders. Statistics will tell you that the average Sandwicher is older, whiter and affluent, which makes my case somewhat unique (I suppose) because I am none of those things. Earlier this year, when my husband was laid off after 14 years of what should be considered indentured servitude, our financial situation went from “meh, it could be worse” to “oh, this is what abject poverty feels like.” If money wasn’t going to toddler care, it was going to one (or both) of our mothers.

But what I’m doing now is no different from what my brother was doing ten years ago, no different from what our mother was doing over 20 years ago when she moved my grandmother into our spartan three-bedroom apartment on Chicago’s south side. In fact, my situation isn’t a unique one at all, because growing up I was surrounded by women who lived as we did; three-to-four generations sharing 800 square-feet. For most poor/working-class single women of color, this is a familiar, albeit depressing, narrative. My mother was raising a 12 year-old and a 67 year-old on barmaid’s wages and public assistance. Her friend Mona was using her barmaid’s wages to provide for her college-bound son and a mother in a nursing home. Another friend, Sally, was raising a gaggle of kids and grandkids on Sunday dinners she’d sell from her window. Though they all made it work, there were doubtless physical and emotional strains that would manifest in the years to come.

As much as we love to pathologize the black inner-city experience, there was—is—a love that is real. Present. Corporeal. Etched in frown lines and callused hands. Displayed by women whose sense of love and obligation pushed them to their limits. According to this study on cultural diversity and caregiving, African-American caregivers had lower levels of caregiver burden and depression than their white counterparts. Given that depression is fairly underreported in the black community, I find this hard to believe. While some reports show Americans being generally averse to elder caregiving, others show just how ingrained it is in the black community, mainly because we cannot afford it. And we’re less likely to entrust the care of our Willa Maes to state institutions or private facilities because of the increasing number of abuse cases.

As writer Jane Glenn Haas pointed out, eldercare isn’t sexy enough to be a feminist issue. It lacks the naughty allure of reproductive rights, the seductive appeal of body image. It doesn’t even have a sassy Lean In-like catchphrase. But it should be a feminist issue, since the numbers show that women are most likely to shoulder the responsibility of looking after parents in their twilight years, and the most likely to live well into those twilight years. A lot of them have missed out on career and educational opportunities. A lot of them—like my mother and her friends—are doing this by the skin of their teeth, with scant to nonexistent resources. A lot of them will outlive their spouses (if they have them), exhaust their pensions (if they have them), and die alone.

All of this begs a stronger push for policy changes that no longer penalize women for making the choice to care for their elders, a push for making more resources available to help them. Innovative programs like CAPABLE can not only ease the burden of caregivers, but empower the senior citizens who need the care and improve their quality of life. But in order for this country to realize the importance of this issue, we need more voices—big and small—to amplify it.