More importantly to what I’m going to speak on here, however, is that I am a mother. Of a daughter. A black mother of a black daughter. That’s really all the expertise that matters.
But in case you’re wondering, I am a black feminist. A young, married, heterosexual, highly- and elitely-educated, black, middle-class mother feminist. I own all of that. Please do not get that twisted as you read what comes next.
“I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did.”
There is not a black mother on Earth who has not said those words to her daughter. They are said in anger, resignation, frustration and guilt. We, like any and all mothers, want the very best for our daughters. We want them to explore every possibility and to experience things that were beyond our reach. We also want them to avoid the pitfalls, the traps and the trick doors that we befell us. Instead of imparting to our daughters wisdom, we often give to them our shame and regrets. We tell them if only we had listened to so-and-so, not gone to that place, stayed there, or hung out with those people, our lives would be radically different. We are so quick and so sure that the blame lies entirely with us despite many of us being aware of our unique position at the intersections of gender, race and class. If we had turned left instead of right or had looked up instead of down, life as we know would not be so hard.
We say these words to our daughters knowing that both black and white spaces endanger a black girls’ journey to self-fulfillment. We know we are judged by a different set of rules. Our actions, whether positive or negative, acquire a supernatural ability to exalt or demote the entire black race. We are also keenly aware of the pervasive double standard that still in full effect in our own communities regarding the actions of black men/boys and black women/girls. Black respectability politics have placed black women as the gate keepers of our culture although many of us resent it. While teaching our daughters how to navigate a world that has a morbid fascination with our degradation, we seem to follow one of two paths; hanging our heads in shame or distancing ourselves from our pasts.
“I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did.”
What are those mistakes? More often than not, they are sexual in nature. We feel that we gave it up too soon, too easily, to the wrong person at the wrong time. We tell our daughters’ we were hard headed, naïve, foolish, stupid and spiteful. We found ourselves in a position where our private vulnerabilities became public shame. We are so quick to assume and claim responsibility; we ignore the other very real circumstances that lead to make those choices in the first place. It is painful to even remember that we had to have sex for survival, that those were in positions of power and authority took advantage of our lesser position. If we had just listened, we never would have been in that car, in that room, at that party, with that boy, with those men. If we had just listened, everything would have been ok.
If we are not using our shame to deter our daughters, then we are holding up as an admonition to our daughters those who seem to shamelessly embody the loose morals and decay of our culture. The baby mamas, poor women, junkies, and the sex workers are plentiful and disposable warnings to keep our girls on the straight and narrow. We point to them to illustrate what will happen if they don’t heed our warnings. We may have pity, arrogance, condensation, disgust in our voice but the end result is that for our daughters these women and girls cease to be complex and complicated people and become caricatures. Their “mess” highlights our accomplishments, refinements, education and position.
It is tempting to believe that if you just follow the rules, somehow you will be protected or at the very least buffered from the sexualized racism that is so omnipresent now. We see the billboards stating that we are a danger to our children, read the “studies” that declare with authority that we are not desirable, hear at any given time “hoe” and “bitch” out of thumping cars, while walking down the street, or as a “joke”. We feel the pain, hurt, confusion, and helplessness though we do our best to be as dignified as possible. We have to be dignified because we know that we are always being watched. We look into our daughters’ eyes and see sweetness, innocence, intelligence and curiosity. We watch them as they run and laugh impervious at the moment to the harsh realities of the world. We as mothers want nothing more than to let our daughters have those moments but we also know the world will not allow such frivolity. We don’t mean come off as harsh. We don’t mean to be so judgmental or to suck our teeth at the girls who we determine to be “ghetto”. We really don’t mean to hiss that “she” is a “fast ass” and predict she’ll end up in “trouble”. When communications between ourselves and our daughters is at its worst, we yell out in frustration “You want to end up like her?!”
The reality is that no matter what we do or don’t do, black women and girls will continue to be under attack. Although Mrs. Obama is accomplished in her own right, she continues to be exposed to some of the most vicious racist and sexist attacks. A maid who was recently sexually assaulted in New York by one of the most powerful men in the world, bravely reported the attack, and underwent an invasive exam afterward has had her honesty questioned, her identity and that of her daughter exposed in French media and her role as the victim questioned. Even where she resides has been tarnished as an AIDS building. Even in death, black women and girls have to prove our worth to have justice served.
Our daughters will be the next generation that will be under attack. They will be the ones who march, speak, protest, write, dance, paint, sing, and pray in creative protest. They will have at their disposal their own talents that will enable future generations of black women to reclaim their narrative. What will not help is shame or separation from their sisters. When we insist that the fault was all ours, they internalize our shame. When we use those who are the most vulnerable to as a deterrent, we make those girls the other. What our daughters need is for us to be tender with ourselves. When we look at our past with soft eyes, we do the same to others. Our daughters will see that and not accept debts that they did not incur. When our daughters are witnesses to our healing, they in turn will learn to do the same for themselves and others.
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,
The other day my father-in-law (never-before-used term) and I shared a little secret regarding how private my husband is. We were neither menacing or overly critical at the moment we were just candid as we casually arrived at the same conclusion about my husband’s inability to open up with us. I have to admit, I am frustrated by the reality that I do not have a truly intimate relationship with Jaron, my partner. At the same time that I relish the ability we have to unite around common interests, the ease at which we “flow” around our household, and how we manage both a new co-professional and familial relationship, I wish that there were ways in which we could communicate better, more deeply and more often.
It’s quite crazy to me how with children this bond is generally taken for granted. I do not have to massage, manufacture or labor over my relationship with my children. They are “natural” fits. Or at the very least, a mother and child are socialized (in many cases) into a bond that is predicated upon the former nurturing the latter. In return, we get an unconditional love that is (in many cases) “easy,” and genuinely fulfilling.
Unlike with my children, I feel like there are times in which my husband and I are not “family,” a word that was lovingly thrown around at my in-laws as a way of making me feel welcome and at home, in a space where of course we only infrequently visit, or else they would not have to remind me that we’re “family.”
All I mean by this is that I have to work much harder to create a sense of intimacy with Jaron than I do with most others.
I am a teacher and I truly believe that there is a solution to every problem. I also subscribe to the good-old-fashion-inner-city-public-school teacher ethos of “rolling up your sleeves and getting dirty” with a problem. What do all the Cocoa Mamas out there do to get “close” to a partner, particularly black male partners who are arguably the most “guarded” men there are?
I recently read an article about breast ironing, a practice that is increasingly common in Cameroon. Mothers there, concerned about the early sexual maturity of their daughters, use hot stones to compress the developing breast tissue of their daughters, hoping to curb breast growth and, thereby, the attractiveness of their young girls to men who might impregnate them. Video accompanying the article featured a girl crying and running away from her mother, who had ironed her breasts before. At best, the practice physically violates. At worst, it results in serious mental and physical damage, ranging from permanent physical deformities and burns to negative body image and unhealthy attitudes about sex and sexuality. Breast ironing, and other practices like it, doesn’t teach girls agency, failing as it does to acknowledge that girls should be taught to make their own decisions about their bodies and exercise choice over whether to engage in sexual activity. Moreover, breast ironing shames and blames girls for their sexuality, even as it fails to hold men and boys responsible for their role in premature sex and teenage pregnancy.
It’s easy to dismiss the practice as the product of a culturally backward society; not the type of thing that would be done in a “civilized” Western society. And yet, the themes that underlie the practice in Cameroon are alive and well in American culture. What else but a refusal to recognize female agency in sexual encounters informs the myopic “no sex before marriage” ethos in the United States, which, when applied under a double-standard—as is often the case, to the disadvantage of young girls—is not only ineffective (thank you, Bristol Palin) but also fails to teach girls how to either make well-informed decisions about their bodies or regulate the physical interactions that can lead to sex?
What else but a cultural exemption for men from sexual responsibility could be informing the lectures given to female college freshmen about how to prevent sexual assault: (1) never leave your drink unattended; (2) do not drink excessively in the company of men; (3) always go out in groups with other females, etc. Where, in all of this, is the list for young college men?: (1) do not put something in somebody else’s drink, ever; (2) do not mix sexual encounters with alcohol; (3) if there is any confusion at all as to consent, cease all sexual activity immediately. Lest we be fooled into thinking that men already know this, the evening news regularly reminds us that even grown-ass American males do not understand that coercive circumstances should never serve as the backdrop for sexual engagement (thank you, Ben Roethlisberger).
In the end, it is women and girls who are left suffering the consequences of cultural norms that frame sex as not only strictly for male pleasure, but also exclusively initiated at the behest of men, while placing responsibility for the sometimes negative consequences of sex strictly with females. Unfortunately, the effects of these norms go beyond mere unplanned pregnancy, extending into abused and shattered female minds and bodies, at home and all around the world.
Although class is conducted in front of a mirrored wall, my eyes are usually steadily trained on my instructor, not only because I am trying desperately to mimic her dancing, but also because I don’t want to see how awkward I look trying the new movements. After initial timidity, I embraced the mid-section baring “Is Your Belly in Motion?” T-shirt I had purchased for class. But it’s still hard to watch.
Sometimes while dancing, my mind wanders. I think back to the first time I ever wore a bodysuit, those ridiculous snap-at-the-crotch shirts that my friends and I started wearing in the eighth grade. My first bodysuit was purple, and although I had been excited to wear it to school that morning, I lost my confidence when I walked through the doors of my middle school. I made a bee-line for my best friend’s locker and said, “do I look like a slut in this?,” suddenly uncomfortable with the small breasts that the top was made to show off. “No!,” she answered; “you look really nice.” I was relieved, although it was several class periods until I was comfortable enough to take my jacket off. For many girls at that age, there is both a sense of shame and pride at burgeoning sexuality; you’re proud that you (finally) have breasts, but you’re also ashamed at the attention they attract.
In contrast, I’ve been more comfortable with my body in athletic settings. When my high school volleyball team moved to the short, tight, spandex shorts that had become popular for the sport, I didn’t bat an eyelash, even as my teammates bemoaned the way the pants molded to their hips, thighs, and butts. I was proud of my body on the court. I was not a natural athlete, but I had long legs and arms that made me a valuable team member despite my difficulty learning new skills. When I did master a skill, I felt powerful. There was no shame because the attention I attracted was on account of something I had learned to do, unlike my sexuality, the development of and attraction to which seemed largely out of my control.
This love-hate relationship with my body has continued into adulthood. I’m not embarrassed to wear tiny tanks and shorts when playing sports; the activity is less about what my body looks like, and more about what my body can do. In other parts of my life, I’m more conservative. It’s unlikely that I’ll play up my breasts with a low-cleavage shirt, or highlight my behind with a tight dress. My preferred skirt length is right at the knee. A large part of this is just maturity: at my age, I know that some things are best left to the imagination; that classy and sexy are not mutually exclusive. Admittedly, though, a part of it is still a lingering discomfort with this aspect of my sexuality. When my shirt is low-cut, or my skirt a little tight, I become that 13-year old girl again, wondering if I “look like a slut,” proud of my figure, but unable to shake the feeling that my sexuality is on display for others and out of my control. I realize that these conflicting feelings are the result of growing up in a society where women are taught that their bodies normatively belong to men, and the shaming that results when women either fail to perform as expected or choose to control and enjoy their sexuality for themselves.
Bellydancing, however, has been a different experience. Although it is undeniable that the movements celebrate female sexuality, the performance is not necessarily for men. Rather, bellydancing is a folk dance passed down from mothers to daughters, learned in the company of women, and often performed for other women. Bellydancing teaches that a woman’s strength is in her stomach and hips, not because these are the areas that are most attractive to men, but because these are the areas that house miraculous child-bearing abilities possessed only by women. In learning the dance, I am encouraged to embrace my body in a place other than an athletic court. Yes, I am baring my stomach, moving my hips, and rolling my body in ways that connote sexuality. And, people passing by may enjoy it, as the young men who often stop to peer into the classroom on their way to the bathroom do. But I dance for me, and for the women around me. I control this display of sexuality, and for the first time, I like it.
The words of my instructor snap me out of my reverie, and my focus returns to the studio. I steal furtive glances at myself in the mirror, and actually think, “not too bad.” For a second I see that 13-year old girl in the mirror as she confidently smiles at me, totally at ease with her body. Right before my eyes dart back to my instructor, I smile back.