Happy Birthday to Us

One year ago, January 2, 2010, I started this blog. A week or so before, I’d put out a clarion call on facebook for mothers of color to start a group blog about being, well, mothers of color, because I was appalled by the lack of brown mommy representation on the 2009 annual list of the best mommy blogs.

I’m looking through this list again, for 2010, and sadly, not much has changed.

But CocoaMamas definitely made a splash amongst our own – we were nominated and in the running for a Black Weblog Award in the Parenting/Family category this year  – a huge honor for a blog as young as ours. And although we didn’t win, we made a name for ourselves as a well-written, highly timely, blog-to-know-and-read. For our first year, I think that’s fabulous.

So what have we talked about this year? Our most popular post was from just a few weeks ago, written by Carolyn in “Can Fathers Just Walk Away?” , a story about a father who is struggling to maintain a relationship with a son that seems to not want the same. Another post that generated a lot of discussion, written by ORJ in “Too School for HomeSchool”, focused on black parents and the homeschooling option in the face of failing public schools. I wrote, in “Dude, You’re a Fag” about the tragedy that is occurring in the country when children are taking their lives because of bullying for being who they are, which is gay. Benee wrote a provocative piece, in “Father’s Day is For Fathers. Period.” in which she spoke out against single mothers who claimed father’s day as their day. Salina wrote, in “First Day of School Blues” about how she still, in 2010, has to coach her son about the realities of racism as he attends his predominately white and Asian high school. And Tanji brought us to tears in “The Architecture of Violence” with the devastating story of baby Dalaysia, her second cousin, who was brutally raped and murdered this past summer.

But we’re just getting started, folks.

Continue to follow us, and I guarantee you will not be disappointed. If I have my way, we WILL not only win a Black Weblog Award, we WILL also make our way onto one of those best mommy blog lists. You must conceive it to achieve it.

Peace and Blessings in this new year, this new decade,


When Women Write . . .

When women write there are a number of walls that surround them. It calls into question not only the established science of geometry but also all the aesthetic parameters and creative possibilities of architecture. Because women live in so many rooms at once, including their homes, their jobs, their schools and their very bodies, the interconnectedness of these spaces defies necessarily separate designations.

I once lived in a room in Philadelphia, a one-bedroom apartment, with my son, my former fiancé, my books, my bed, and all of the odor and noise and silence of inner city high rises. I didn’t know it then but I very much lived inside my body, with everything I did, and thought I was, sort of layered on top of it like winter clothes. This is including the room.

I was raped in that room, lying, forced down, on a bed with no sheet, with my jeans ripped open and a torn Princeton Day School sweatshirt. I met him when I was just a baby. He was five years older then me and I had only just graduated from high school. He forced a pillow down over my face. Our son was screaming in the middle of the dining room. I remember him holding our son upside down by one ankle. I remember praying.

Yvonne Vera remembers,

“I learned to write when I was almost six and at the same time also discovered the magic of my body as a writing surface . . . Using the edges of my fingernails or pieces of dry grass broken from my grandmother’s broom I would start to write on my legs. Here we wrote near the bone and spread the words all the way to the ankles. We wrote deep into the skin where the words could not escape. Here, the skin was thirsty, it seemed, and we liked it.”

Although Vera insits elsewhere in this same article that the “best writing” is “ungendered,” I would argue that her own early experience with writing, outlined in the passage above, is dependent upon her arriving into girlhood and her discovery of her feminine form. Just as she learned as a girl to write her own history on her body, black women map their lives, single and collective, onto their body through writing and other forms of artistic expression. Film, is one of these forms, that is interconnected with writing and the body, particularly in the case of black feminist works. The black female body is a template for ideas, hidden and exposed, documented in diverse mediums.

Remembering writing, as Vera demonstrates, is an exercise intimately tied to the body. It involves imagining the body of the writer, and this is how race, gender and class become imposed on writing, as well as digesting writing inside your own form. I remember the writing of James Baldwin first; the forcefulness of The Fire Next Time, compounded with the eloquence of perfectly flawless lines and logic wrought from the body of an intensely marginalized, courageous man. I remember Krik? Krak!, the collection of short stories by Edwidge Danticat that I found in a high school book fair, right before she became my second-favorite writer. I re-mem[ber] Beloved and Toni Morrison, the kind of academic I want to be, like Lorene Cary and Toni Cade Bambara. I remember these writings/writers in a roll call that reflects our shared cultural heritage. This is in fact how I write.

On the pages of their writings, or “bodies of work”, I find my own. “Word!” “I don’t know if it’s that deep!” “So he does believe in God, he just believes that God is White and that is why Blacks have been given the shit end of the stick.” “My point exactly!” “Can I write like this someday?””If I ever write something major to be published I am going to use “she” as my pronoun throughout.” “memory.” “history.” “history + memory.”

My earliest memories of writing are set in my elementary school librarian’s castle, a maze of wooden bookshelves with a rectangle of desks and chairs in the middle, adjacent to an office, covered in frogs. I remember writing “L.E.V.E.R.E.T.T.,” while reciting it in a singsong, over and over at the front desk; so proud to be the early reader and expert speller Mrs. Leverett pegged me to be. I remember Frog and Toad and Little Miss Bossy, and that my current investment in teaching, first, before any other occupation, has everything to do with a history of exemplary educators, fully committed to seeing me reach my full potential, starting with Mrs. Leverett.

In and between these memories is the realization that writing, even more so than speaking, for black women, gets at that intricate dance that black women do in order to negotiate their private and public selves. If silence, as Katherine Dunham, has noted, is a necessary component for achieving a total self, then my work has to both speak and listen, and in this sense it is not only a platform, but also a conversation. “We need to be able to be quiet too.”

Being silent as a writer is enabling, and here is where my other self, as a documentary video and photography artist enters in. The experience of standing in rooms, behind the camera, opening up the opportunity for subjects to share their own voices is a valuable experience for a writer/educator. I see this as my opportunity to be totally silent, to pull myself out of the room and into my body in order so that others can speak, uninhibited.

I do not know why the experience of witnessing is similar to the one that both myself and others have lived through during rape, but I know it must have something to do with this paradoxical need that black women have for being silent and finding a voice.

Survivor, Salamishah Tillet, recalls in NO! that during her rape,

“[She] became emotionally numb. [She] withdrew from the experience. [She] didn’t want to be there, and [she] didn’t scream. [She] didn’t know how to scream. [She] was just there, kind of numb, dead, watching it happen to [her].”

I prayed during my rape because I was afraid of being killed. I thought that if I was silent I could not make him any angrier. I probably thought that to a certain degree my mouth had gotten me “into that trouble in the first place.” I was silent because if I stayed alive then I could make sure my son stayed alive also. I was silent because I feared that this might be the night that he decided to silence us all for good.

Writing this, right now, means that I have learned as a black woman to voice myself, even when no one is listening because while our voice should not ever have to be confined to the body or walls we have surrounding us, we have to know that we can speak there too, always.

“for colored girls”? Nope.

I really had/have no intentions of critiquing “for colored girls” by hurling the usual at Tyler Perry. How he hates black women, has mother issues, is a closeted homosexual, etc. Other folks can and have done so. I also really don’t intend to write a review of the movie, which I saw this afternoon. What I do want to do is reflect.

When I first read “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” I was 16 years old. I wasn’t a lady in blue or red or green or purple or orange but a precocious black girl who

usedta live in the world / now i live in harlem & my universe is six blocks / a tunnel with a train / i can ride anywhere / remaining a stranger

except my harlem was philadelphia and my train was the broad street subway. I’d never left my city, except for a girl scout trip to Savannah, and my knowledge of the world outside were through books like “for colored girls.”

When I read “for colored girls” the first time I cried. At 16, I’d established myself as a singer with a voice. I’d performed in assemblies, choirs, solos. But when, at 16, I had my first major depressive episode, “for colored girls” voiced my

black girl’s song / bring her out / to know herself / to know you / but sing her rhythms/ carin/ struggle/ hard times / sing her song of life / she’s been dead so long / closed in silence so long / she doesn’t know the sound / of her own voice / her infinite beauty

In high school, I was passionate about women’s sexual health issues. I chaired our peer health group, which provided peer counseling and peer sexual education. I remember meeting at a Planned Parenthood downtown for a workshop on sexual violence; all of us teenage girls learning about sexual violence and sharing our stories of sexual violence. At the time, we all learned that

a friend is hard to press charges against / if you know him / you must have wanted it / a misunderstanding / you know / these things happen / are you sure / you didnt suggest / had you been drinkin / a rapist is always to be a stranger / to be legitimate / someone you never saw / a man wit obvious problems

yet that date rape is real and we must protect ourselves and almost all of us in that room in the mid-1990s had been a victim of some form of sexual coercion by someone we knew. I remember that session vividly, for the tears and support, the hugs and the empowerment.

I even remember thinking I was one of a few virgins left in my group of friends, and feeling this pressure to not be a virgin anymore. Sexual tension is so high in high school, it threatens to overwhelm. And it’s not just social pressure – I had a boyfriend for which my body exerted physical pressure. So the summer after high school graduation I was

doin nasty ol tricks i’d been thinkin since may / cuz graduation nite had to be hot /& i waz the only virgin/ so i hadda make like my hips waz inta some business / that way everybody thot whoever was gettin it/ was a older man cdnt run the streets wit youngsters /martin slipped his leg round my thigh / the dells bumped “stay” / up & down—up & down the new carver homes/ WE WAZ GROWN WE WAZ FINALLY GROWN

At 16 I learned about abortions when a friend called in the early morning hours about how she couldn’t go through with the procedure because of the

tubes tables white washed windows / grime from age wiped over once / legs spread / anxious / eyes crawling up on me / eyes rollin in my thighs /metal horses gnawin my womb /…./get them steel rods outta me/this hurts/this hurts me

and while I sat in Planned Parenthood waiting rooms trying to get birth control so the same didn’t happen to me.

While I can’t go through what all the poems taught me and left a lasting imprint on my life, what I can say is this: Ntozake Shange’s original poem was truly “for colored colored girls.” The ladies in their various colors were meant to symbolize the many colors of the diaspora; the namelessness of the characters (with notable exceptions) to symbolize the universality of the experience. The title suggests that the concepts are aimed at colored girls – aimed at telling colored girls stories, from their point to view. For colored girls can be described as a healing safe space to share their pain, without any shame, without any further infliction of pain. For colored girls was for us, by us, in a language that only our souls could understand.

Yet this movie destroys this concept of being a safe, healing space for colored girls to share their pain without having to consider other people’s pain, to be a mother, sister, friend, without having to take care of others without having to consider others without having to take responsibility without having to be the superwomen that others think is a compliment but that is really killing us with the weight of the burden.

Without “giving away” the movie, in typical Tyler Perry style, he wants colored girls to “take responsibility” for their condition, understand the men in their lives and why they do the things they do, to explain some of the complexity of black relationships. And that’s al well and good. But that’s not what “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow was enuf” was about. Because understanding the complexity of colored girls and their pain is enuf. Its enuf to say that I’m in pain because

i stood by beau in the window/ with naomi reachin
for me/ & kwame screamin mommy mommy from the fifth
story/ but i cd only whisper/ & he dropped em

without having to also “consider” beau’s pain and why as an abused partner and mother she didn’t leave him before. Its enuf to be in pain because I was date raped in my home without also visually suggesting that my clothing was actually suggestive. Its enuf to be in pain because my husband sleeps with men without having to also understand the “plight” of black men on the DL.

Why can’t I have a movie where being and feeling and living as a colored girl in this society is enuf, where I don’t have to consider everyone else’s feelings and being and lifestyle when nobody else is considering my feelings and being and lifestyle?

are we ghouls? / children of horror? /the joke?
don’t tell nobody don’t tell a soul / are we animals? have we gone crazy?

It’s a good thing that

i found god in myself / & i loved her/ i loved her fiercely

before I saw this movie. Because I feel sad for the multitudes of colored girls who will think this is what “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf” is about. For unfortunately, this movie is not “for colored girls.” Its just another way for TP to tell us how fucked up our lives are and how we need to take responsibility for it.

But I’m here to tell you that being a colored girl is enuf.  You don’t need to always consider others. Other people are sometimes screwing with you, and its NOT YOUR FAULT. If you’ve been date raped, ITS NOT YOUR FAULT. If your partner is beating you ITS NOT YOUR FAULT. If your partner is cheating on you, ITS NOT YOUR FAULT.

& this is for colored girls who have considered / suicide/ but are movin to the ends of their own / rainbows

All quotes from Ntozake Shange, (1977). “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf”

What the Holy Hell?!

When should you “know better”? How old is too old to lose innocence? I’ve been thinking about these things and the coercion that I feel was involved with the young men who were involved with Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Mostly because I know that those four young men are not the only ones harmed in this manner on a daily basis.

The summer after my freshman year in college my mother thought it would a great idea for me to volunteer at our church, helping out in the office. Since she’d already said I would, what choice did I have? I’d pledged my sorority during the spring of that year and the Sr. Pastor was a member of our brother fraternity. He was delighted with my neophyte self! We also had two junior pastors who were pledging grad chapter of his fraternity. Rev. Sr. took great delight in having my “little brothers” greet me and do little tasks. One of them took his pledging quite seriously; let’s call him Rev. Jr. – the youth minister. He was handsome and not too much older than me, funny and liked to flirt (in a church appropriate way of course). I didn’t take it too seriously but I was flattered and assumed his attention meant he was …interested in me. As a person.

We were in an office on the 2nd floor of the church that had a long countertop with selves above it. He asked me to sit on the countertop and talk to him. So we talked about school, being in the sorority, dating. I was sitting on the counter and he stood up, right in front of me, leaning on my knees. So I sat up straighter. In the movies, this is where the guy kisses the girl. But he didn’t kiss me. He moved my knees apart and grabbed my hips, pulling me forward.

 “What if your boyfriend did this? How would you react?”

I couldn’t move because there were cabinets behind me so I was stuck between him and wooden doors. I didn’t know how to answer his question or where to put my hands. I guess he read the confusion on my face, because he laughed as he let go and took a step back.

“I’m just looking out for you, little Big Sister… letting you know what men think about when they see you. You better get back down to the office.”

And so I was dismissed. And utterly confused. After that he took every opportunity to touch me when he saw me. I tried to make sure that I wasn’t alone with him upstairs anymore but he managed a hug or a squeeze quite frequently. I‘d had one boyfriend in high school, was a nerd to my heart (with great clothes, shoutout to my shopaholic mom) so my experience with dating and men was quite limited. I read a lot into the attention that was paid to me so when he said he wanted to take me to lunch for my birthday of course I accepted.

There was a Red Lobster near the church so we decided to go there. He wanted to stop by his apartment first, to get something. I didn’t want to be trapped there (ha!) so I followed in my car. We got there, he ran in then came right back out.

“Can you come in for a  second? It’s gonna take a minute to do what I need to do but we’ll still have time for lunch”

So I followed him in. He asked me to have a seat, went down the hall and was back a few minutes later. With champagne glasses in one hand and a bottle of something. Did I mention that this was my 18th birthday?

“Surprise! I thought we’d start celebrating here, and then get something to eat later”

“Oh, well…” and I didn’t know what to say. So I reached for the glass that was being offered and got pulled into a hug.

“Happy birthday to you…happy birthday to you…Happy birthday Dear Andrea…Happy birthday to you”, as sung in my ear.

“Let me pour you some bubbly”

I guess I looked at my watch one time too many, or sat too stiffly on the couch. At some point it became apparent that I wasn’t going to lunch and he wasn’t getting what he’d anticipated either. I declined the second glass and made a hasty exit. Now my mind was occupied with going back to work (at the church!) with alcohol on my breath and whether I would still smell like it by the time I saw my mom.

So nothing terrible happened, thankfully. Just some confusion, a little anger, mixed with the hopes of an 18 year old girl thinking she’d being pursued by a handsome older man. I never told anyone about it, went back to work that day, then school later that month. I skipped church for a few years (maybe a decade, don’t judge). But imagine that my relationship had become physical. Imagine that I’d known Rev. Jr. for more than a few months, shared intimate talks of hopes and dreams, fears and wishes. Imagine that he told me how special and chosen I was, showed his concern and support by listening and buying gifts…how devastating would it have been to learn that I was disposable?

This is what I thought of when I saw the young man talking about taking showers for hours, never being able to forget the scent of Long’s cologne. How alone and confused and heartbroken he must have been. Just as I’m confident that others knew of Long’s activities, I’m sure Rev. Jr. showed his “special interest” to other girls. What do you do as a teenager or young adult, charged with making your own decisions, being mature…when those you respect and admire give you terrible choices?

I owe my Twitter BFF @aaw1976 another round of drinks for her editing help 🙂

Private Parts

“Billy, what are you doing?” She says this to her son as he gets dressed in the morning. His four-year-old body is naked, but instead of putting on the clothes right next to him on the couch, he is instead enthralled with that extra-special body part that it seems all little boys are enthralled with – his penis.

Again she asks, “Billy, what are you doing?” She’s trying to be patient, but this is a daily occurrence, and she’s getting tired of it. She’s trying to bring it to his attention instead of saying something directly to him. “Billy!” He finally lifts his head, looking at her with a questioning, and frankly annoyed, expression. “Yes, mama?”

“What are you doing? Didn’t we talk about only touching your penis when you are alone, in your room? Don’t you remember that your penis is private?” Silence. “Well, do you remember?”

Billy gives a long sigh. “Yes, I remember.” He turns and begins to put on his clothes in his particular way, inspecting each item to make sure the sizes are correct (only 4 or 4T) and the tags are in the back. As he works, he speaks: “But when I’m in my room, I can touch my penis, right mama? I can do it then, right mama?”

“Yes, Billy. Now please finish getting dressed.” She tells his three-year-old sister, Bonnie, who has been dressed for hours, to sit on the potty. As Bonnie does so, she joins in the chorus. “Billy can touch his penis in his room, right mama? And mama? I have a vagina like you, right mama? And I can touch my vagina in my room, right? Mama? MAMA!”

She starts to feel a little dizzy in all this talk of penises and vaginas. She knows it was a good idea to teach them the real names of their parts, to not make the words or their actions negative or taboo, to supplement that talk with the notion of privacy, to let them know that no one was to touch their private parts but themselves, mommy and daddy, and the doctor, and even then, only with permission. But she can’t shake…

“Come on in here and let me see. I’m your auntie, just like your mother. You can show me.” She didn’t want to show Aunt Mo. She didn’t want to show Aunt Mo the breasts that were just beginning to appear, she didn’t understand why she had to. Her auntie made her take off the blouse she was wearing, the training bra too, and her auntie touched her chest, feeling the new growths. Her hand traveled downward. For the second time in her young life, she felt like not just her body was naked, but her soul too.

“Yes, children, you can touch your private parts, your penis and your vagina, when you are in your rooms, by yourselves. But remember, no one else is to touch your penis or your vagina, you understand? Not mommy or daddy or anyone, unless you say it’s okay. And no one should even be asking to touch you unless mommy or daddy is there, like when we go to the doctor, you understand? And if someone does, you yell and say NO as loud as you can, you hear me? And you come and tell mommy or daddy, okay?”

What kind of talks do you have with your children about their penises and vaginas?