09 November 2009

On Being an Icon

"That's a ghetto name!", he said. I didn't have time to respond. His classmate, another teen court-ordered to participate in an intervention program for juvenile gun offenders, immediately admonished him: "Don't call people's name 'ghetto.' That's rude!"

Over the past two decades, I have grown accustomed to my name - Chanequa - becoming the iconic ghetto name - used by comedians, singers (remember Oran "Juice" Jones: "Shaniquaaaa...ya got me whupped"), and celebrities who mistake themselves as intellectuals (remember Bill Cosby's 2004 speech to the NAACP?). Whenever someone wants to evoke the image of a gum-popping, neck-wagging, eye-rolling, hand-on-hip-placing, lower class African American woman, Chanequa (and all its variations: Sheniqua, Shaniqua, Shenikwa, etc.) becomes a common target.

I was born in 1972. As Lisa Jones would say, I am a movement baby whose Mississippi-born mother reached back to Africa for some sonic inspiration when naming her first-born. She had no book of African baby names to draw upon, just a deep longing to give her baby girl a name that would mark her as special, as touched by the ancestors. Pulling from a rich family heritage of unique names (Laquitta, Lunetha, Sarita, and so on), she sat down one day and started putting letters together.

I find it ironic that my name has become identified with some of the worst stereotypes of African American women. As far as I know, I am the original Chanequa. While the name has become increasingly popular over the past three decades, I have never heard of a Chanequa who is older than me (and trust me, I always ask). So until someone proves otherwise, I am the prototype.

And just to be clear about what the prototype looks like: I am a highly educated (Mr. Cosby - that's 3 graduate degrees, each of them earned, not honorary), sophisticated, ambitious woman. Happily married for 13 years, I live in the suburbs and drive a mid-sized SUV (the last two are not necessarily points of pride, just counterpoints to the prevailing image). I am a voracious reader of theology, cultural criticism, historical fiction, fantasy, and memoir.

I love documentaries and hip-hop. I make my own granola and can cook up a mean pot of greens. I love being among the folk, but I'm also comfortable in environments where I am the first, the only, or the youngest. I am grounded in what I believe to be the best of my culture even as I try to transcend and transform some of its worst elements. And I love seeing the looks on people's faces when they realize that this icon of all things "ghetto" is capable of deconstructing the classist and racist assumptions behind the term with minimal intellectual effort.

In other words, my name is Chanequa and I am the ish. So stop taking my name in vain.

14 October 2009

Rethinking the StrongBlackMan

About 2 years into my (now seemingly endless) project on the StrongBlackWoman, I realized that she had a male counterpart. Because I don't presume to be an expert on men's issues, I figured I'd leave writing about the StrongBlackMan to folks who were much better equipped - folks like Mark Anthony Neal (who takes on the subject quite well in New Black Man) and Kevin Powell (who doesn't use the term explicitly but is certainly evoking the concept in Who's Gonna Take the Weight?). But after passing the buck for a few years, I've decided to enter the fray, especially since, as far as I can tell, the fates of the StrongBlackWoman and StrongBlackMan are bound together. Be gentle - it's my first time.

If I were in the classroom right now, I'd begin this story on the west coast of Africa, talking about how the circumstances of the European encounter with the African set the foundation for centuris of racist depictions of black men. Then, crossing the Atlantic into the American slaveocracy, I'd narrate how these depictions were further codified into the Tom (the obsequious servant) and the Buck (the violent, aggressive brute). Next, I'd take a leap to the nineteenth century, when newly freed blacks began crafting the archetype of the StrongBlackMan as an ideological response to these negative depictions, using as raw material the inherently flawed icons of the Self-Made Man and the cult of black genius. But I'm not in the classroom so I won't start there.

Instead, I'll start by echoing a caveat made by others: being a StrongBlackMan (no spaces) is not the same as being strong, being black and being a man. The StrongBlackMan, like the StrongBlackWoman, refers to a specific way of being in the world - a particular set of psychosocial characteristics that are strongly rooted in racism and sexism. These are not people; they are costumes. Whereas the StrongBlackWoman is characterized by the triumvirate of strength (specifically expressed as the capacity for silent suffering), independence, and caregiving, the StrongBlackMan revolves around the three "cardinal virtues" of dominance, self-control, and pride. These three virtues are interconnected, but I'll try to parse them out as much as possible.

The virtue of dominance might be portrayed in terms of three sets of dichotomies: the StrongBlackMan wants to be seen as a master, not a slave; as a leader, and not a follower; as a producer, and not a hired hand. He is not to be owned, ruled, controlled, or influenced by any outside force. He must maintain the appearance of being powerful, tough, and right at all times and at all costs He is competitive, aggressive, and in charge of the resources that he has at his disposal, no matter how meager they may be.

The second cardinal virtue, self-control, has to do with the StrongBlackMan's need to be in charge of his self - his emotional, moral, financial, and physical self. Within the constraints of racism and classism, he tries to embody the American masculine ideal of rugged individualism. He is a master of his own fate, allowing no outside person or institution to influence his choices, behaviors, feelings, beliefs, or values. He is an achiever, a doer, a producer, a performer. He is active, not passive; a giver and not a receiver. He can never allow anyone or anything to get the better of him, especially in matters of the heart. Above all else, he must never be punked.

The third cardinal virtue, pride, concerns the StrongBlackMan's need to always be seen as responsible, self-confident, successful, and persevering. He takes pride in livign up to the mantle of black manhood and shuns anything that might make him appear weak, vulnerable, or unsure. He takes pride in his accomplishments, his family, and his racial heritage. In his dealings with persons of other races, he strives to be seen as a "credit to the race." One of his greatest fears is embarrassment. He can never appear weak, vulnerable, or unsure.

The three cardinal virtues of the StrongBlackMan - dominance, self-control, and pride - are bound by an underlying theme of defensiveness. Ultimately, the StrongBlackMan is not a real persona. It does not reflect the authentic nature - the true thoughts, feelings, personalities - of the men who wear its garb. Rather, it is a defense against a society that deems black men to be unfit as anything other than entertainers, athletes, and criminals.

The StrongBlackMan is black men's best effort to stand up straight against the enormous weight pressing down upon them - racism, classism, heterosexism - and to say, "I am a man. I am not a boy, a clown, a body to be exploited for profit. I am not a problem to be solved, re-solved, or locked away. I am capable of greatness that you cannot begin to fathom. And I am part of the same species as you so take me off that endangered species list."

At least that's my (very preliminary) analysis. I'd like to say that I get it, that I understand the plight of the StrongBlackMan. But of course, that's not true. Black men and Black women both have issues, but as the saying goes, "Your blues ain't quite like mine." Yet the more that I learn about black men and women - about me - the more I realize just how similar our struggles are.

As a black woman, I know a little something about wearing a mask, especially one called "strong." The problem with that mask is that if you wear it enough, you forget that it's not really you. It becomes fused onto your being, twisting your appearance into some exaggerated form of what you were trying to be, just like Jim Carrey's character in the 1990s film, The Mask. No one can get inside the real you, not even your loved ones. And worst yet, you can't get out. Your joy, your pain, your love - it's all tucked deep behind the mask, inaccessible even to you.

This is not to say that being strong is bad. It has its place. Dominance, pride, and self-control each have their place. But so, too, do vulnerability, intimacy, openness, receptivity, silliness, and tears. Being whole means having all these things in balance. StrongBlackMen and StrongBlackWomen are way off-balance. We are far from whole. And two half-lives do not make a life.

Five years into this project and I still have no clue what the resolution is. But I have come to the place where I understand that the healing of the StrongBlackWoman is dependent upon that of the StrongBlackMan. Perhaps the best way to start is for all of us StrongBlackWomen and StrongBlackMen to show one another our pain, without judgmenet, without criticism, and without trying to prove whose pain is worse. And then maybe...just maybe...we can really get this revolution going.

26 September 2009

The Week in Review (09-26-09)

In my daily wanderings around the internet, I usually run across some pretty interesting articles, blogs, and essays that are related to issues of race, gender, relationships, sexuality, and parenting. Some of these are certainly worthy of sharing to like-minds. So from time to time, I'll post them here as a sort of "week in review."

Here are a few that caught my attention this week:

"Good Luck Raising That Gender-Neutral Child" by Tracy Clark-Flory @ Salon.com

Many of us so-called progressives attempt to live out our commitment to gender equality in our parenting, trying to avoid gender stereotypes as we choose our children's toys, friends, clothing, etc. But a common refrain heard among such parents is that once children enter the preschool years (around ages 3-4), they begin to exhibit traditionally gendered behaviors that may run counter to everything the parents have tried to instill. In other words, gender is not just a social construct (or performance). In this article, Lisa Eliot, a mother and neuroscience professor, discusses her recent book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Big Gaps - and What We Can Do About It, in which she reviews the research on gender differences and similarities. She also weighs in on preschoolers' gender stereotypes, the "boy crisis," and South African runner Caster Semenya.

"The New Generation of the Young, Gifted, and Black: What Are Their Responsibilities to the Black Community?" by Max Reddick @ soulbrother v.2

This is an older post that I just discovered this week. Max Reddick raises some really good questions. What responsibilities, if any, do the beneficiaries of the civil rights movement have to "the race" in our so-called "post-racial" age? And is it possible to feel any sense of responsibility to the race without also carrying the burden of representation?

Black Men and Boys Week @ soulbrother v.2

This week, blogger Max Reddick did a series on black men and boys, in which he examined the definition of black masculinity, the prison industrial complex, and whether single mothers can effectively raise black boys. He also provides several web resources for parents and educators of young black males.

17 July 2009

The Strong Black Woman Goes to the Doctor

"So you see, there's a pattern here," I said. "The women in my family wait until we're at the point of disability or death before we bring a problem to the doctor." My doctor buried his face in his hands as he laughed - at me and with me. We were finishing up a 45-minute diagnostic interview, which was laced with plenty of humor as we talked about parenthood, marriage, and my chronic failure to pay attention to health issues.

This visit should have happened a year earlier. But after a few rounds of calling the clinic to reschedule my follow-up visit last spring, I finally told the receptionist, "I'll just have to call you later." I was glad to have finally found a primary care physician who practiced holistic medicine (and accepted health insurance!). But the clinic hadn't seemed to catch on to that fact; they kept scheduling his patients for 15-minute slots. There was an inevitable backlog in his daily schedule. I'd wait an hour in the waiting room and then spend another hour with him.

Now add the commute, which was 30 minutes in one direction and 45 minutes in the other. In total, a visit to the doctor took over three hours of my day. And I just didn't have the time. It was the end of the spring semester, crunch time for students and faculty alike. I had too much to do. So I just kept putting off the visit. Before I knew it, it'd been a year and my doctor had left the group practice to start a new clinic, still pretty far away. Plus, I was now a mother and I didn't want to spend my precious baby-free moments at the doctor's office. I had too much to do.

In retrospect, this seems really obvious - I had fallen off the wagon in a major way. I was back in the throes of Strong Black Woman syndrome - taking care of everyone and everything but me. But until that doctor's visit, as I realized the similarity between myself and the other women in my family, I hadn't known that I'd relapsed.

To be honest, I'd probably only made - and kept - this doctor's appointment because of my mother's urging. My mother and her sisters were worried. In the past year, two more family members in their generation have been diagnosed with degenerative and debilitating neuromuscular or neurological conditions. This brings the grand total to five - out of fifteen. It's more than scary.

As my mother told me about the latest diagnoses, she also told me of the worries that she and my aunts had for my generation. She urged me to get back to my doctor soon and let him know that we needed to be on the lookout, especially because the most recent relatives were not diagnosed until they reached the point of disability. Most likely, they've had symptoms for years but didn't notice them, didn't take them seriously when they did notice them, and decided to worry anyone about it once they suspected it was serious. Now, I haven't asked whether this is the case; I'm simply speculating as to what might have happened. But I feel pretty secure in my speculation. After all, I am the women in my family. I am my mother's daughter and my aunts' niece.

That point became all too obvious just minutes after ending the telephone conversation with my mother. When I related the information to my husband, he immediately asked whether it might have anything to do with the muscular problems that I've had, and largely ignored, for at least six years now. Quite frankly, the thought that there might be a connection had never occurred to me.

So yesterday, I - a Strong Black Woman in recovery - went to the doctor. After that lengthy diagnostic interview, I thought I had given an exhaustive list of my ailments. But the physical revealed my tendency for minimizing my problems: "Your allergies are nowhere near 'under control.' You've got all kind of swelling up there." I guess that would explain the pressure that I'd been feeling in my head and face all morning. "Wait, do you have back pain? I feel tenderness here, and here, and here." Had I failed to mention that? Oops, my bad.

11 July 2009

Curing Manhood?

A few months ago, I attended a continuing education seminar for psychologists on men and grief. At one point in the discussion, the instructor commented, "If you think of manhood as a sickness that needs to be cured, you need to work on that." With that one sentence, he gave voice to an uneasiness that I had been feeling in our discussions all day. Despite their biological sex or gender, those of us working as therapists tend to embody and value personality traits that are typically considered feminine. We like to listen, to process, and to talk about our feelings - about nearly everything. We place high esteem on intimacy, that is, feeling connected with others on a psychic level. And quite frankly, we think everyone should too.

Towards the midpoint of the seminar, I began to suspect that maybe we clinicians were on a mission to make men be more like us - to feel more, reflect more, relate more, and to talk more about all of it. More importantly, I recognized myself in the charge my by our instructor. In fact, I could easily imagine myself leading the campaign to have Hypermasculine Identity Syndrome (HIS) added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of psychiatric disorders. Gender identity is what I read, write, teach, and talk about. Thus, with one statement, I found myself charged, found guilty, and sentenced. So for the rest of the afternoon, I began thinking that maybe we...maybe I needed to accept gender differences as another example of "apples and oranges" and to let men be men.

But (you saw that coming, didn't you?) there was just one problem with that: our traditional notions of masculinity in America (which, by the way, have only been traditional for about 200 years) aren't working. Not for men, not for women, not for children.

Case in point: life expectancies. While the gender gap is decreasing, there's been a stark gender disparity in life expectancies. On average, women in the United States live 81 years, men 76 years. The gender gap is even greater among African Americans, with African American women living an average of eight years longer than their male counterparts. The earlier deaths for men aren't attributed to sex chromosomes or sex hormones. Rather, they're more likely resultant from behaviors like the way men handle stress (bottling it up, not talking about it, not asking for help), take unnecessary risks, and behave violently and aggressively toward themselves and others. Okay, you won't really find any of those factors on a mortality chart. But they are factors related to the diseases that account for some of the gender disparity. Anyway, I'm trying to make a point here, not write a research paper. The point is this - the fact that men die so much sooner that women indicates that maybe there's something wrong with the way they live.

But perhaps more compelling are the data on how our ideas about masculinity impact relationships. In fact, this has convinced me, more than anything, of our need to rethink manhood. A major theme in that continuing education seminar was the father-son relationship, particularly the issues that many men (of all races) have with their fathers.

I see this in my undergraduate classes, especially among male students, who talk about fathers who have never told their sons that they love them. During his segment on the Tom Joyner Morning Show last week, D.L. Hughley talked about this very issue. He described once asking his father whether he loved him and getting the response, "You ate, didn't you?" It was a tongue-in-cheek response, one which Hughley found funny at the time and one at which I chuckled even as I shook my head in sympathy when he told it on the show.

But as Hughley noted in his commentary, he later realized that the whole exchange wasn't funny at all. He, like all children, needed to hear that his father loved him. He needed a father who did more than provide for his physical needs and comfort, a father who did more than provide rules, structure, and discipline. As he said:
I don't know one black men who isn't broken in some way. Broken either by the relationship he had with his father, or by the relationship he wished he had with his father...It's a shame that you're a casualty if you have a father, and you're a casualty if you don't. Finding the blend, the right way to be a father, the right groove, the right tempo to be a father, is an amazing thing...We can break a family with our presence as easily as we make them.
Our understanding of fatherhood is bound with our understanding of masculinity. And as I begin to hear more stories about men's issues with their fathers - the ones who stayed and provided - I realize that there is some serious work to be done.

So no, we can't just let men be men, any more than we can just let women be women. We are all deeply broken, our divine likeness obscured - hopefully not obliterated - by our conformity to societal norms and expectations about who we should be. This includes our gender identities.

23 May 2009

Black Movies and the Myth of Relational Violence

During the media frenzy over the alleged incident of domestic violence between singers Chris Brown and Rihanna, I remained silent. Silent, but observant. I listened to the countless number of citizens who called into black radio stations to cast their pronouncement of guilt or innocence. I watched Oprah, Phil, and Tyra as they launched their special (and much-hyped) episodes about teen dating violence. I read the articles, commentaries, and blogs about patriarchy, victim's rights, and the potential impact on the careers of these two talented artists. And in the midst of listening, watching, and reading, I noticed a screaming silence. No one was talking about the glorification of relational violence in black film and how it might have impacted those two young people or the public dissection of their lives.

In fact, with the exception of Kevin Powell, who was given very limited talk-time on one of Oprah's episode, no one was talking about the American fascination with violence at all. Just take a look at the slate of movies lined up to hit theatres in this year's blockbuster season: Wolverine, Terminator Salvation, Transformers, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (this series stopped being appropriate for children by about book two). Sure, there are lots of other good, non-violent films coming out too, but many of them won't do nearly as well as those about aggression, violence, and death.

But as far as it relates to black film, I'm talking about a different, more insidious type of violence. I'm talking about relational violence - physical aggression between two or more people who are linked together by kinship, friendship, or romantic intimacy, that is, spouses, romantic partners, parents and children, siblings, etc.

In my undergraduate class on black love, I require my students to watch a series of black popular movies that deal with romantic relationships. Our selections over the past two years have included Baby Boy, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Claudine, Love Jones, Jungle Fever, The Color Purple, Something New, Jason's Lyric, Waiting to Exhale, and Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married?. And after two years of watching and re-watching these films, I realized that very many of them contain scenes of explicit relational violence.

In some cases, this might be expected. After all, abuse - and liberation from it - is a central theme in The Color Purple. And Jason's Lyric and Baby Boy are dramas in which young couples try to form and maintain intimate relationships in the midst of violent, chaotic environments. But relational violence is often woven into films in which it really doesn't seem to be needed.

Take, for example, This Christmas. There aren't many holiday movies about African American families, so I was happy to see this one starring Loretta Devine, Delroy Lindo, Regina King, and ironically, Chris Brown. I didn't expect it to be Oscar-worthy; after all, it's a Christmas movie, a genre which usually includes a fair bit of cheesiness, contrived drama, and overly simplistic themes. But Christmas movies also tend to be heart-warming and family-oriented. And I expected no less of This Christmas.

What I did not expect was a scene of graphic, premeditated domestic violence. The eldest daughter in the Whitfield family (played by Sharon Neal) drenches the bathroom floor with baby oil and assaults her husband with a leather belt as he steps out of the shower. Wearing nothing but a towel, he is defenseless against the attack as he falls and slides on the oil-slicked floor. Apparently, the beating is supposed to be legitimated by the husband's infidelity (and in general, being a jerk).

That's the scary part about the depiction of relational violence in black film - in some ways, it is always seen as being legitimate. Over and over again, black filmmakers pay homage to what theologian Walter Wink names as the "myth of redemptive violence" - the idea that violence saves, solves, empowers, or makes whole. In black film, violence is often trotted out as the "fix" for wayward lovers, children, siblings, or friends.

But there's something even more disturbing than the way filmmakers use violence in black film - the way black audiences respond to it. John Singleton describes this best in the DVD commentary for Baby Boy. During an extended film in the scene, the main character, Jodi and his best friend, Sweet Pea, encounter a group of young boys who had earlier assaulted Jodi and stolen his bike. At gunpoint, Jodi and Sweet Pea line the boys up and punch them, one by one. Unlike his friends who cower before the punch, the last boy stares the "men" in the face boldly. So instead of punching him, Sweet Pea takes off his belt and beats the boy mercilessly.

In the commentary, Singleton said that he meant this scene to be a dramatic depiction of how violence and its valuation are transmitted from one generation to another in urban communities. He meant it to be horrifying. But he found that when the film is watched by predominantly black audiences, they - we - laugh.

It's not funny, people.

Now granted, black filmmakers hold neither the patent or the monopoly on televised violence. White filmmakers have issues of their own, especially the routine depiction of sexualized violence against women. But that's another post for another day. At issue here is the statement that is being made about African Americans' valuation of relational violence by its depiction ad nauseam in black movies and by audiences' response to it. What meaning does this have for our relationships? What meaning might it have had for Rihanna and Chris? Perhaps none. But we need to raise the question.

17 May 2009

Stay Tuned

I've been AWOL from this blog for much of the past year. Actually, AWOL isn't the best term...let's say I've been on maternity leave. But I think it's time to write again. So new blogs should begin appearing within the next week. In the meantime, blessings on your journey!