Put on your dancing shoes

by cocoa mama contributor rlb08863/mamatiti

I know that seems like an odd title given the events of the past year. We are coming fresh off the state sanctioned murder of Troy Davis. The anguish, pain, frustration and rage are still right under the surface. There was the trial and conviction of Raquel Nelson* who was senselessly charged with the vehicular manslaughter of her son despite the fact she was not driving and did not even own a car. There were the racist anti-abortion ads that cropped up in urban areas across the country, with a keen interest in black and Latino neighborhoods. There was the day of national shame when our President had to produce his birth certificate to the nation to prove he was in fact born here, a real American and thus fit to serve in a position that he was elected to. Across our great, post-racial nation, there are laws that seem to be in competition to see who can be the most xenophobic, the most anti-woman, the harshest against the poor and working class, the most draconian against sex workers, all in an effort it seems to prove who is the most American. The year started off horribly with the news out of Cleveland, Texas where an 11 year old Latina girl was gang raped by at least 20 black boys and men. The response by that community, in particular the women, seemed to confirm that the world was in fact going to hell in a handbasket.

So it would seem frivolous at least and idiotic at the most to ask any of you to dance. For many of us, myself included, dance brings to mind images of joy, abandonment, of lightness and exhilaration. We think of proms, weddings, birthday parties, and summer barbeques. It is a time of celebration and validation. It is more though than just a good time.

Our foremothers and forefathers understood  this. They knew dance, movement whether in harmony with other bodies or swaying on its own, was a way of communicating with their homeland. It was a way of connecting with the earth, sky, smells and sounds that had been so cruelly and irrevocably taken away from them. When they got together with a drum, all of the day events, the degradation, the pain, the suffering, the blood, the sweat, the anguish was expelled just for a moment. So long as their bodies were in motion, no matter the amount of time, the dance was the spike in the eye of those who thought they owned their minds and spirits along with their bodies. As arms, legs, torsos, necks, breasts moved, they became birds, antelope, fish, butterflies, and snakes. For that moment, they were free.  Lest you think this is trivial, think to many black churches who still understand the power of dance – yes “a shout” is a dance. The transformative nature of movement still has a place after all this time.

We need to dance by ourselves, with our children, our partners, and our families. We need to put the good foot down so that our sons and daughters will see that the world has not defeated us, has not taken away our joy. We need to throw our heads back and lift our hands while we shake our tail feathers so that we can get it all out. All of the disappointments, inequalities, the setbacks, the downgrades and the layoffs. If the sweat gets in your eye, wipe it away and keep dancing. The world, the Tea Party, Republicans, those on Wall Street, the rich and elite, want us to be defeated so that we can’t fight. They do not know about our ancestors and the power of movement. They forgot – or never knew that slave revolts were started by drums.

When you dance, laugh, cry, shout, twirl. Hold your children. Be silly. Jump on the furniture. Do a conga line around the kitchen table. Do a dougie in the family room. Hell, do the Macerna.  Just don’t be still.

After you are good and worn out, rest. Eat. Laugh some more. Snuggle or meditate alone. Call someone you haven’t in a long time and tell them you love them.  Take a nice hot bath or shower.  After you put your children to bed, if you are able make love to someone you love. Sleep as much as you can. In the morning, you will be clear-eyed, determined, steadfast and most of all, ready to fight like hell.

* Because of the power of  black blogs,social justice blogs, Facebook, Twitter, other forms of social media and ordinary citizens who were rightly outraged by her plight, Ms. Nelson was offered a chance for a new trial.

I am here now

I was as they say raised in the church. We started going after my mother, sister and I moved to our small, upper middle class, mainly white town. I had spent the first 7 years of my life in the Bronx surrounded by various shades of brown and black. I played with kids who were mixed like me. There were no strange looks or questions. I woke up and went to sleep with the sounds of the city in my ear. You could be easily entertained just by simply looking out your window. If I was well behaved, I could sit next to my grandmother in the front of our building and listen to her talking with her friends. They would cackle, suck teetch and talk in low whispers over the latest news. After my parents split up, we left the city and headed for New Jersey. We ended up in a sleepy town where no one seemed to make any noise. It was a place where the ice cream truck did not visit and the night was terrifying because of the silence.

It turned out the only other black family on our side of town was my sister’s pre-school teacher. Her family invited us to the church that would soon become our own. They also became a vital part of our lives with her parents becoming our godparents. That was important for two little girls whose family seemed and was so far away. All of the isolation and awkwardness I felt in school, the probing eyes, the constant questions (What are you? Do you speak English?)evaporated when I came to church. The brown faces that greeted me there made me feel safe. It took some time to become accustomed to the stillness and spurts of boundless energy but there was a lovely rhythm to it. Other than the library, church was where I felt safe. Our family became active. I continued to go throughtout my teens and early adulthood. I was married there. When my husband and I suffered a miscarriage at six months, our church family mourned with us. When our daughter made her way into the world, our joy was theirs. It was home and I assumed it was where I would always be. I thought I would be one of those sisters who would have been there for 50 plus years. As I type these words, I am smiling because I have good memories. Even now.

I no longer go to church. I have not lost my faith. I am not an atheist. I am not in a crisis. So why would I walk away from all that history, support, and safety? The question I have been asking myself is what am I getting in exchange for those things? What must I willingly or at the very least, quietly acquiesce to, lay down, ignore in order to have access to those things? Are they really worth it?

Is that feeling of community worth the sick feeling I have when I hear yet another preacher explain if only “these young girls would stop sleeping with every Tom, Dick, and Harry and having all these babies” our community would be so much better? Do the smiles and warm hugs hold their value when I hear that our young men need to take back their place as the head of the family, stop letting their pants drag – along with the dignity of the race -, that we don’t need psychiatrists, psychologists, and pills. If we only would pray harder and believe more fervently, we could get out of that valley. The fellowship that is real to me, something that I savor, that grace that stretches over the bad times, it pops with a loud bang when I hear gays, lesbians, trans, and queer brothers and sisters disparaged even as I know, the ushers know, the diaconate, hell the pastor knows the person who is hitting that note on the organ that helps him to find their rhthym during a sermon, is in fact one of those who are inviting hell and damnation. Is all that really worth keeping?

Sometimes I feel like those women who are posed the question, “How can you listen to music that calls you a “bitch” and “hoe”?” They respond, “They’re not talking about me.” Technically, the preacher is not talking to me. I am an educated, heterosexual, married mother. If I do not fit in those categories, then why do I feel so much rage, hurt and frustration? It is precisly because of my position that I am afforded acceptance. I am keenly aware that despite my privilege – education, skin, hair, class, being able bodied which allow me not to have to experience certain things – I am still a black woman and generally the person standing in the pulpit is not. Since they don’t know and/or choose not to educate themselves on the realities of our different experiences, they can’t know no matter how well a black woman is dressed, how crisply we may enuciate, how lovely our locs, no matter how smooth our edges, we are still black and female and thus vulnerable. From the pulpit, there is no talk of how domestic violence, sexual abuse, colorism, racism and all the other -isms affect black women and inform our “choices”. Our existence feels like a constant check to see if our slip is showing. The prevailing message no matter where we go is that it’s on us. We are the ones who have to contort ourselves to fit someone else’s idea of happy. It is also not lost on me that while it may seem that our brothers are the winners in the patriarchy games, the constant policing on what it means to be an appropriate example of a heterosexual, respectable and uplifting black male is just as detrimental.

This has been a rough year for black women. It seemed like the attacks were constant and each one was more vicious than the last. It was exhausting to yet again to put up the defenses, to stiffen your spine, to sign yet another petition to stop some bullshit. I need, like everyone needs, a safe space to lay down those burdens, to scream and cry, to gather strength, to gain wisdom so that I can go back out there. I just need one space where I don’t have to fight. I need that space so that I can love stronger and more fiercely than before. I deserve better. My children deserve better. Black women, men and children deserve better.

I am committed to finding a safe, intellectual, and thought provoking spiritual space. I am committed to finding a place that not only respects the uniqueness of my experience but also those whose realities may not reflect my own. Until I find that place, I will continue to pray, commune with nature, and give thanks for those who came before. I will sing and dance for no reason at all. I admit to being nervous about where the journey will take me but I will savor every stop I make. I am full of joy, hope and faith that our family will end up exactly where we belong.

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Color me stupid but I thought I was getting the hang of this parenting thing.

I have managaed, despite a notorious reputation of killing all living things (a cactus died on my watch), to raise my daughter and my niece, ages 8 and 9.  They are not only potty trained – see I told you Mom – but also independent, use their manners, do well in school and are just magic on a stick.  I don’t want you to have the impression that I have it all figured out or that there have not been some really crappy days (and weeks) that I think I should have stuck with a dog.  I know that soon the girls will be in tween territory and then into the abyss that is adolescence.  As a mixed race woman who identifies herself as African American and a womanist, I am aware the girls need to be prepared to deal with the confusing and painful intersections of race, gender, class among other things.  The Steve Harvey’s, T.D. Jakes, Sotashi Kanazawa’s and thier ilk who want to constrict, control and/or coerce the girls to accept an image that is not of their choosing will be coming on strong.  I have at my disposal Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall, Delores Williams and Jacquelyn Grant.  I have mams, mamis, muthas, aunties, nanas, grandmas, mothers of the church to pray them up, plead the blood, light incense, to dance and shout, and to shield them from my own temper if the need should arise.  I am also blessed to have awesome men folk on my team starting with my husband who mended the eldest’s heart when she came home crying one day and ran into his arms telling him, between snot and tears, that someone had called her ugly.  The girls have their Uncle Moses, a deeply spiritual, openly gay man, who always has a joke and a tickle for them.  Bringing up the rear is my brother James, Pa, Pop Pop, Poppy and a host of men at the church.  So what, dear reader, has me lying awake at night, brow furrowed, and contemplating drinking in the daytime?

An avatar.

Like many parents, we monitor the quality and quantity of media the girls consume.  After trial and error, we found a few sites that were appropriate.  One came out a favorite between the girls.  Fantage is a website that allows children to make thier own avatars, play games for coins that they can use to buy houses, pets and other accessories.  They are also able to safely chat with other players.  The girls are always showing me some new pet or outfit they just bought.  Despite all the (safe) fun the girls were having, something kept bugging me and I couldn’t for the life of me figure it out.  Then it hit me:  Both of their avatars featured white girls with bright blue eyes and various neon hair colors.

I knew I had to handle this carefully. I did not want the girls to feel like they did something wrong or that I was angry with them.  However I was curious to find out why they chose to represent themselves in this fashion.

“You know, I love the pink hair and I think it would look great with your skin tone.  Do you want to see what it would look like?”

“We tried that already.  We didn’t like it.”

I asked them to explain to me what they meant.  With a sigh, they opened up the page with the hair, eye and skin color choices.  There were about 6 skin tones to choose from with 2 being darker than a biscuit.  While there were many eye expressions and hair colors to choose from, only a few of the hair choices reflected styles that many African American girls would identify with.

“See Titi, my skin doesn’t look like that.  I’m darker.”

“Yeah Mama.  I’m not that dark.  I wanted it to look like me.”

They said it so matter of fact I was speechless.  On the one hand it made me feel good they had themselves in mind when they were trying to be creative.  I could not help also feeling angry and sad they felt the choices available did not reflect them.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love that any and everyone can be a pink, pixie dust covered flying dragon that shoots rainbows out their butts if they so choose.  For children, it is a way for them to try out different personas.  They can whimsical, cool, powerful, fierce or anything else they might want.  For children of color, it just seems they can not be those things with themselves as the template.  What does it say to children of color when they can not be complex, nuanced creative beings?  When you can be anything within a white body but with a black body, not so much?

I was pondering the limits of ingenuity for black bodies (especially female) when a few weeks later news broke that the author of the popular blog A Gay Girl in Damascus who described herself as half Syrian and half American was actually a 40 year old white man living in Georgia.  By way of “apology”, Tom MacMaster explained “while the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground.  I do not believe I have harmed anyone – I feel I have created an important voice for issues I feel strongly about.”

So let me get this ish straight.  A white dude living in the South can drape on the oppression of a marginalized body for years like it’s a brand new coat because he wants to create a “voice” and my kids can’t be themselves online?

This is not the first or the last time white bodies have inhabited the “other” in order to prove a larger point.  This is just another stop on a long trip.  With social media becoming with each passing day a critical tool for social justice, how will the internet and the bodies who utilize it be constricted/restricted and freed by it?  With white bodies being able at any point in time able to be the voice of the marginalized and have an audience, it creates a dead zone for those who living those realities.  How will our own children be able to carve out spaces as artists, writers, dancers, teachers, intellectuals and the like when the path is so narrow even in a space as infinite as the internet?