08 November 2007

An Open Letter to Tyler Perry

Dear Mr. Perry,

Do you like women? Not "like" as in gay or straight, but "like" as in respect. I have seen a few of your films now - Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea's Family Reunion, and Why Did I Get Married? And increasingly, I find myself questioning whether you truly love, respect, and appreciate women in their own right.

Don't get me wrong. I have found your films entertaining and thought-provoking, even if a little over the top. I have laughed, groaned, and mourned along with your characters. And I have truly appreciated your attempt to portray black women in roles that expand beyond the skimpily dressed, booty shaking figures that we see on MTV and BET. In your latest film, Why Did I Get Married?, you made a point of depicting professional, highly educated black women. And as woman with a few graduate degrees, I saw part of myself in your characters' struggles to balance work, family, and self.

But at the end of every film, I was discomfited despite having had a good laugh. And when people asked me whether I liked the movie, I struggled to express the conflicting feelings within: I was entertained and glad I saw it but I'm not sure that I liked it and perhaps I could have waited for the DVD.

Leaving the theatre after viewing Why Did I Get Married?, my husband and I did our standard check in. "What'd you think?" he said. "It was entertaining but…" I paused before continuing, "I'm starting to wonder if Tyler Perry likes women."

You see, Mr. Perry, I have noticed a disturbing pattern in how you resolve your films: the solution to the woman's problems is always located in a man. You seem to think women incapable of standing on their own, being happy, whole, and successful outside of a relationship with a man.

Let me assure you that I am not one of those "I don't need a man" sisters. I have been married for 10 years now and my husband's unconditional love and support has helped me to become who I am. However, I have also learned that my ability to truly love my husband is only made possible because loving him is a choice which I freely make - over and over again. I am not with him because I am afraid of being alone. I am not with him because I think that life would be meaningless without him. I am not with him because I feel otherwise incomplete. I am certain that I could live - and thrive - without my husband. But I choose to share life without him because he makes it richer. I've come to think of my marriage as the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae: the sundae is good by itself, but the cherry makes it different and better (and Mr. Perry - I really like cherries).

But your idea of "happily ever after" always involves a woman finding happiness in a new relationship or becoming a "better wife." Your female characters transfer their emotional dependency from one man to another. (Really, couldn't Helen have at least gotten an apartment of her own before investing her happiness in Orlando? Couldn't Sheila have done the same before marrying Sheriff Troy, less than a year after her divorce from Mike?) Professional women sacrifice their career aspirations in order to accommodate their husband's desire for more children. (Dianne's concern about pregnancy jeopardizing her career was a valid one held by many women. Rather than trivializing it as "selfish," perhaps she and Terry could have had a discussion about how to accommodate her professional aspirations as they raised their family, instead of her "I'll do whatever it takes to keep you" speech. I'm not saying that marriage should not involve compromise. I'm just asking for a little reciprocity). And sisters who seem to have it together, including supportive husbands, turn out to be emotionally repressed. (Why couldn't you at least let Patricia be emotionally balanced, given the fact that you portrayed three seemingly healthy men? Do you really think we're all screwed up?).

I'm worried because I've seen a lot of women like this - in my personal life and in my career as a psychologist. I've seen women who sacrificed their educational and occupational dreams because their husband's job required frequent moves or forced them to take on a disproportionate share of family and household responsibilities (in addition to their jobs). I've seen women who have denied themselves to take care of the needs of everyone around them. These women have ended up in my office - depressed, anxious, overweight, and just plain stressed out. And all the while feeling like they had no right to complain because "at least I have a good man."

I really appreciate your emphasis on forgiveness in your movies. But I wish you'd also emphasize the importance of reciprocity as well as individual health and fulfillment. I know that you're trying to do something good, so I want to push you to do more. Because ultimately, I believe that you do like women, that you love women. You just don't know how. So right now all you're doing is replacing one stereotype - the sex-craved jezebel - with two others that are slightly better - the needy, victimized woman or the superstrong sister. You're pulling the rug from beneath us even as you give us legs. And unfortunately, because many of us are so battle weary from the assault on our images, we don't realize that we should expect better. But we deserve better. And I have faith that you can - and want to - do better.

07 November 2007

A Chance Encounter

I just had an interesting encounter. Sitting in the campus coffee shop at Duke University, where I teach part-time, a woman approached me.

"Are you a graduate student?" she asked.
"Actually, I'm a professor," I replied.
"Oh! What department?"
"Women's studies."
"What class do you teach?"
"Black Love."
"Wow! That must be explosive."
"It's quite enjoyable. I've just come from there." Indeed, I was still unpacking my computer.
"Well, I'm from the Caribbean and you want to know what I think of black men in America?" I nodded and she proceeded to gesture from the tabletop to the floor.
"I'm not sure what that means," I said.

She clarified by giving a thumbs-down sign. I wasn't quite sure how to respond.

"Really?" I finally said, hoping the lift in my voice would encourage her to say more.
"Black men in America are no good. Every now and then you find a good one here or there. But most of them are no good."

I wondered whether I should tell her about my husband, my brothers, my brothers-in-law, my cousins, my uncles, etc. - all the good black men in my life. I was tempted to invite the young brother at the next table to join our conversation. I wished that some of my students were around.

She continued. "Then again, I'm not a feminist. Are you a feminist?"
"Yes, I am."

She gave me that look, the one that sisters use - no matter if they're from U.S., the Caribbean, or Africa - when we're sizing you up. She announced that she was going outside to smoke. But as she turned to walk away, something caught her eye - the gleam from the ring finger on my left hand.

"You're married?!" she asked incredulously.
"Yes I am," I said.
"And you're a feminist?!"
"Absolutely. They are not mutually exclusive." I found it ironic that the woman with such a dismal view of black men was surprised to discover that a feminist liked men.

She went outside for a few minutes. Coming back in, she grabbed a chair and pulled it up to the table.

"Are you religious?" she asked.
"Yes, I'm a Christian. In fact, I'm a minister and I teach at Shaw Divinity School."

Her mouth fell open. We talked for nearly an hour before exchanging telephone numbers and promising to keep in touch.

Ironically, my class today was about the way in which our imaginations are shaped by popular culture such that we hold judgments about each other based upon what we think we know. Many of us walk around with scripts in our head that tell us what to expect from other people based upon a label. Black man = no good. Feminist = hates men. Christian = not feminist. These are a few that my conversation partner seemed to hold at the beginning of our encounter.

With rare exceptions, most of us have some sort of script in our head. And for those in the United States, these scripts are heavily tainted by the legacies of racism and sexism. And these scripts, in turn, poison our romantic relationships. They are the walls that box us in. They limit our imaginations in terms of who we see as romantic partners, how we function in relationships, and how we expect our partners to function. And quite often, they prevent us from seeing the truth about ourselves.

People are usually more complicated than labels. At the risk of sounding cliché, it's time to think outside the box.

14 September 2007

The Burden of the Strong Black Woman

A single disorder is causing a health care crisis among African American women. It is not one that you will hear about on the news. It is not recognized by the medical establishment and few health care professionals would diagnose it. Yet millions of African American women are affected by it in some way and have been for centuries. The symptoms of this disorder can include stress, fatigue, headaches, poor dietary and exercise habits, obesity, hypertension, chronic pain, emotional numbing, and pent-up anger. The name of this disorder? Strong Black Woman syndrome.

You are probably wondering how being a Strong Black Woman can be bad. After all, the Strong Black Woman is resilient, assertive, strong-willed, independent, dependable, and persistent. She is capable of overcoming adversity with poise, confidence, and style. No matter the odds stacked against her, she presses on without a complaint. She is the sister who will come through when friends and family are in a pinch – serving as counselor and caretaker for all those around her. Her strength and determination have enabled her survival and inspired others to endure under conditions of extreme oppression and abuse. Her crucial role in the survival of Black people in the United States is undeniable.

But such strength comes at a cost. In an effort to protect herself from the overwhelming and paralyzing pain in her daily life, the historical Strong Black Woman learned to repress sadness, grief, and anger. The experience of repeated disappointment and shattered dreams taught her to dampen hope and happiness. Rather than living and enjoying life fully, she operated in survival mode, coasting through in a numbed emotional state, with just enough hope for the possibility of a better life.

While circumstances have changed, the Strong Black Woman has not. Unable to show any signs of weakness, she cannot ask for help when she needs it and buries any sign of emotional distress in an effort to look as though she has it together. Her fear of vulnerability causes her to be closed off to others, incapable of expressing her full humanity or experiencing emotionally intimate relationships. She sacrifices her own happiness for that of others and lives a life full of unfulfilled hopes and resentment. The perpetual caretaker, she spends most of her days caring for the needs of others, promising to reserve the leftovers for herself. But usually there are no leftovers. So she ends up taking care of the needs of others at the expense of her own spiritual, physical, and emotional health. She becomes tired, unhappy, not living up to her full potential, and stressed out. She experiences feelings of guilt anytime that she does something for herself and instead fills her days with constant activity. She loses her sense of connection with the Creator and suffers from stress and lifestyle-related health problems, including obesity, hypertension, diabetes, chronic pain, migraine headaches, and ulcers.

Each of us has a Strong Black Woman in our lives – our mother, sister, grandmother, aunt, or ourselves. It is time to release her. Free her from the bondage of being a caretaker and allow her to devote time to some much needed self-care. Help her to do the one thing that she is not strong enough to do – take care of herself.

24 August 2007


Do you know what the basic building block for a healthy relationship is? Communication? Ability to compromise? Having enough money? It is neither of those. The key to having a healthy relationship –whether it is a romantic relationship, parenthood, friendship, or family relationships – is being healthy yourself. It is being emotionally balanced, mentally sound, and spiritually whole. A healthy relationship begins with a healthy you.

Here is an example. I know a woman who constantly complains of being lonely. She can not understand why she can not find a man. When she meets men, they are typically more interested in her friends than they are in her. If she manages to go out on a date, there is usually no second date. And the men who do stick around take advantage of her. This woman often wonders what she is doing wrong, why she cannot seem to find the happiness that other women enjoy. After all, she says, she knows how to cook and clean, dresses well, keeps her hair groomed and nails manicured, and is not interested in men for their money.

Like many men and women, she mistakenly believes that the key to a happy romantic relationship is what one does. So she focuses upon improving her household maintenance skills and keeping up her outward appearance, not realizing that it is her very desperation for a relationship that repels good men and instead attracts men who will mistreat her. Caught up in unresolved pain from her childhood and young adulthood, she is unhappy at her very core. And she wears her misery like a finely tailored suit. She starts every conversation with a complaint and frequently makes self-denigrating comments. She is jealous of other women whom she perceives as having greater success and happiness. Her conversations tend to be one-sided as she has little interest in genuinely listening to the stories of others and primarily uses others for her own emotional catharsis. Her anguish exudes itself in every interaction and in her deportment. Unwilling to accept responsibility for her situation, she blames God and men for her unhappiness.

Now granted, not every single woman is in the same predicament. There are plenty of intelligent, personable, successful, attractive, "got my stuff together" brothers and sisters out there who just haven't found a good match yet. And there are many others who prefer the single life. Yet, unfortunately, there are far too many women and men like my friend - people who remain depressed by their continued inability to be in a healthy relationship and who do not realize that they do not display the qualities that attract healthy mates.

Moreover, this situation is also not limited to romantic relationships. Many people experience problems in their relationships with the children for the same reason. Plagued by loneliness, they rely upon their children, and in some cases even have children, to fill the void in their lives. Desperate to be liked, they behave more like friends than parents and attempt to buy their children’s loyalty through excessive materialism. They become overinvolved in their children’s activities yet underactive in providing structure and discipline. Youth raised in such homes almost inevitably begin to display behavior problems, causing these parents to feel betrayed by having children who do not respect them and who take advantage of their overindulgence.

Alternatively, there are those parents whose internal pain and depression manifests itself through excessive criticism, lack of affection, and harsh punishment for their children. These parents use their children as verbal punching bags to express the hurt of old resentments. Often, these individuals grew up in unloving and abusive households, often marrying and having children early as a source of escape, consequently ending up in another unsatisfying relationship. Their children subsequently become the psychological stand-ins for abusive parents or romantic partners or unfulfilled dreams.

The connection between all of these cases is the absence of a good understanding of love. Many people view relationships and love as a mechanism for filling a void. However, truly loving relationships are only possible when we love ourselves, when we commit ourselves to nurturing our development as beings created in the image of the Divine. It is no coincidence that when asked to name the greatest commandment, Jesus Christ answered "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matthew 22:37-29, NIV). Jesus assumed that we would love ourselves!

Genuine health in relationships, then, comes when we are so happy in and of ourselves that, while we would like to experience the sharing of life that is unique to relationships, we also relish our experience of life without them. It comes when we view relationships as an enhancement to happiness, not a requirement. When we love ourselves, we model for others how they should treat us in relationships. We establish a standard of care and attract those who will uphold this standard.

13 August 2007

Advice for a Newly Engaged Family Member

After our wedding ten years ago, my husband and I received all sorts of unsolicited advice from people about how to remain married. Quite ironically, some of that advice came from those who had divorced. I never understood whether their admonitions reflected what they had done or had not done in their own marriages. Regardless, given that a much loved family member has recently gotten engaged, I feel compelled to offer some unasked-for advice as well, especially since I'm supposed to be something of an "expert" in this area.

1. Make your wedding an event that reflects and celebrates the values that you and your beloved hold most dear. Perhaps what has gone wrong in many American marriages is that most weddings are showpieces of capitalist and consumerist culture. Many engaged couples spend more time thinking about decorations than about their vows and choose their guests based on who will give the best gifts rather than who will most support their life together as a couple. Unless you're really bound to the idea of increasing the profits of the bridal industry, I'd suggest keeping the wedding party small and foregoing the guest book and cake cutter (you'll never use them again), expensive invitations (they just get thrown away), and the decorations (really - who needs three candelabras and $1000 worth of flowers?).

2. Be intentional about nurturing your marriage. No one would hold onto a job for long if all they did was to show up. Every now and again, a furniture store near my house holds a big sale and has someone stand on the shoulder of a busy highway, holding a sign advertising the sale. Most of the time, it seems clear that the person holding the sign is not a permanent employee of the store but is rather someone that the owner or manager found on the street and invited to come make a few bucks for the day. Granted, it's not the hardest work - it mainly involves holding a large poster and occasionally walking back and forth. But still, it requires some intentional effort. The person can't just stand there and hope that the sign will hold itself. Marriage is no less. Simply having a wedding ceremony and living in the same house does not make or maintain a marriage. The wedding ceremony is not a magic trick that binds you irrevocably together for life. You've got to nurture a marriage as if it is a living, breathing organism. Like any living thing, if you don't feed it - or you feed it the wrong type of food - it will die. And by the way, watch out for pests - jealous friends, intrusive family members, jobs that sap your joy and energy, disagreements over money.

3. Learn the art of forgiveness. When I first got married, I couldn't understand when long-married couples warned me that there are times in marriage when you won't like your spouse. But it's true. Over time, what you now consider quirky idiosyncracies - or perhaps slightly annoying habits - will become the bane of your existence. Even worse, through the eyes of your beloved you will discover things about yourself that you never wanted to know. As a friend once told me, being married is like having a mirror held up that reflects your negative attributes. So you'll need to learn to forgive not only your beloved, but also yourself. By the way, the mirror's not all bad. When held rightly, it also helps you to recognize strengths about which you were unaware and it affirms the best parts of you.

4. Value the wisdom of others but discover the path that is best for you and your beloved. Several years ago, a colleague came to me and asked for some advice on marriage. Like my husband and I, he and his fiancée were young, black, educated, and had highly demanding careers. And neither of them was interested in being the type of couple where one is subordinate to the other. Yet so far, everyone had given them - actually, her - the same advice: "Remember, he's the head of the household so your job is to support him." Perhaps in desperation, he had turned to me, a person with only five years of marriage experience. There wasn't much I could tell him other than this: "Ultimately, you and your fiancée together will have to decide what kind of marriage you want. If it's a marriage that looks different from those of your elders, then they may not be able to tell you how to achieve it. So you'll have to figure out which of their advice suits the two of you. And you just might have to improvise."

5. Most of all, consider your marriage a journey. Even as someone who studies, counsels, and teaches about marriage, I find that my so-called "expertise" goes out the door when I get home. I'm not sure that anyone ever gets this thing really figured out. Even we professional experts are always personal novices. Life is always changing and new challenges are always just around the corner. What seems stable one minute can be topsy-turvy the next. At times you may have no clue where you are or how you got there. But as long as you consider such things to be ordinary bumps in the journey, you'll have a much greater chance of adapting and making it to the next bit of straight road.

Many blessings on your engagement.

19 July 2007

In The Beginning

This didn't start out as a project on love, at least not a project about finding love/being in love/making love with someone other than yourself. It was about black women. About healing the hurts that have been done and get redone to black women during our existence in this country. By racistsexistclassistheterosexist society. By the church, which is supposed to be a place for healing but has far too often also been racistsexistclassistheterosexist. By people who looked like us and who were supposed to love us, who said that they did in fact love us but were so scar(r)ed themselves that they didn't know how.

But the further I went into the mission of healing the sisters, the more I was drawn into the pain of the brothers. Because she can't love herself for the same reason that he can't love himself and he can't love her and she can only offer him a broken...wounded...battered love. Because the greatest commandment is love: love God love your neighbor love yourself. And if she/he can't love her/him, how can she/he love him/her and how can they love God?

And so this is a project about love. And about faith. And about the folk. About faithfully and joyously loving the folk in a world bent on making it impossible.