December 31, 2011

Cheers for the New Year!

Happy New Year!  

I think I am not alone in welcoming a new year, as 2011 was often turbulent and filled with many global highs and lows.  2011 was, as People Magazine proclaimed, the year of "The Protestor." The Arab Spring was the watershed event that gave way to the Occupy Movement.  The global community rejoiced when the Egyptian people's voices were finally heard.  However, we learned that the price of freedom is high.   

The new year, however, brings with it possibility, hope, and maybe the change we've all been waiting for.  I am hopeful and vigilant.  

May you all find peace and happiness in 2012. 


December 30, 2011

Kinky Curly Paradigm

A year ago, I decided to cut off my locked hair of 8 years.  I blogged about my "Big Chop", it's significance, and the politics of black women's hair.  While I was reflecting on the past year, I stumbled upon Larry D. Rosalez-Lewis, a freelance photographer.  He was recently featured on BGLH (a natural hair blog), and he had something very profound to say about hair:
Wearing my hair natural was never an epic decision or affirmation of my blackness, but the way people respond has caused me to really examine my thoughts about natural hair, blackness and race relations, and the spiritual aspects of hair.
This is exactly what I have been pondering for the last year.  Both men and women of African descent have the same curly/kinky, Afro-textured strands growing from their heads.  Yet, until now, black women have been held to a separate set of standards for hair and beauty - a white paradigm instead of a black one.  I discussed the white paradigm of beauty at length in my blog post a year ago.  So I won't rehash it here.  I will say, however, that Black women who "go natural" are met with the most resistance from other black people.  There are still too many black people who believe that natural hair is "unprofessional," "unkempt," "unclean" and just plain "ugly."  However, naturals all over the country attest to the acceptance and even intrigue their hair receives from whites.  

Things are changing, though.  The new generation of natural haired black women are trailblazers in the quest for affirmative black female identity.  Bloggers like Curly Nikki, Afrobella, Kurly Bella, Natural Chica, and Vloggers like Kimmaytube, BeautifulBrwnBabyDol, and KinkyKurlyQueen have reconstructed black female identity (literally) from the hair follicles down.  I don't know which came first - the blogs or the changing attitudes about black women and natural hair.  Whatever the case may be, everyone is fascinated with kinky, curly Afro-textured hair.  I no longer get aggravated when people "just want to touch it."  I understand.   Hair that grows out and not down is like nothing else.  There is a spirit about it that is difficult to articulate.  

Although, there are some unenlightened black folks still lurking behind weaves, wigs, pieces, and lye, naturals represent a significant percentage of the black female population.  According to a recent USA Today article, "The number of black women who say they do not use products to chemically relax or straighten their hair jumped to 36% in 2011, up from 26% in 2010, according to a report by Mintel, a consumer spending and market research firm. Sales of relaxer kits dropped by 17% between 2006 and 2011, according to Mintel." Maybe one day we can put the "relaxer" folks out of business.

I feel a kinky, curly paradigm shift in the air.  

December 05, 2011

Drama in the Fitting Room

I think it's safe to say that every woman would like nothing better than to sachet into the fitting room with several, single-digit-sized skinny jeans and slip effortlessly into them without needing a crane, a vat of grease, or a few Hail Mary's.

We've all experienced stressful visits to the fitting room, when nothing that supposed to fit actually fits, and the mirror seems like a magnifying glass illuminating every lump, bump, and imperfection under the cruel and unforgiving florescent lights.    

I was talking about this to a colleague of mine who recently lost a significant amount of weight.  She was recounting to me how refreshing it is to go shopping for clothes now, and how she is no longer subjected to the "Women's World" suits.  She wondered why so many plus-sized women's suits came in obnoxious colors like purple, pink, and electric blue.  Having no other alternative, she would grab an arm full of these pink and purple nightmares and head to the fitting room hoping for a miracle.  There she stood looking like she was on her way to a Deaconess meeting.  For years, she said, the thought of professional attire was frightening.  

But now, after shedding so many pounds, she feels as though she is a part of entirely new world.  She had traded pink and purple for navy and black and elastic waists for buttons, belts, and "hooks and eyes."  

November 21, 2011


So many of us Writing professors care so deeply about our students, the academy, teaching.  That, I think, is the message that gets lost among all of the state and federal battles. 
Ultimately, teaching Writing is a labor of love.  The act of writing is so very personal, even for students who they think they are terrible writers, and especially when they think they are terrible writers (and most of them believe this at first).  The relationship between the Writing instructor and the Writing student is an intimate one.  Beyond the intimacies of the narrative mode of discourse, there is a sort of testimony that comes with all the other modes as well.  To be a witness to all of this spilling of human frailty is a special thing.  Most days, I feel proud to be a part of it all – to shape the imaginations, ideologies, and experiences of humanity is rare.  And I get to do it every day.  And somebody pays me (albeit meager) to do it.  For this, I am priveleged and thankful.

October 29, 2011

The First 'Black' Lady: Re-Constructing Black Womanhood

Michelle Obama
Vogue 2009
Photo by Annie Leibovitz
I often update my Facebook status with whatever random theoretical thoughts happen to come up.  Today I posted the following:

Ok, so this just occurred to me (I know. I'm late). For those of us who've been immersed in Gender and Race Studies in America, how deliciously ironic is it that the first lady is an unambiguous black woman?
Several posts later, one of the commenters asked:

What do you mean by unambiguous?

To which I responded:
Unambiguous-as-in-she-could-not-be mistaken-for-anyone-except-a-black-woman. She couldn't be biracial or Hispanic or Asian or Indian or anything else but African/Black/Negro/Colored.
Although he understood my meaning of the term "unambiguous," I had the feeling that the full meaning and implications of the post were lost on him.  And if the irony was lost on him (a pretty astute, well-educated, progressive-minded guy), then quite possibly the full significance of the post had been lost on many others.  The remainder of this blog post is my attempt to find what has been lost.  

In 2008, the entire world paused for a moment of deep reverence when America elected its first Black president.  The historical, cultural, and socio-political significance of that moment was apparent to the entire global world, even though many white Americans attempted to disavow the watershed event of America electing its first African American president - America - the same country who just 145 years ago defined Africans as subhuman accidents of evolution bound to the yoke of chattel slavery irrevocably.  No, this moment was not lost on anyone.

However, another watershed event simultaneously occurred when Barack Obama took the oath of the highest office in the land.  Michelle Obama became the "First Lady" of the United States of America.  

So, here is where I return to my Facebook post.  I said that it was "deliciously ironic that the first lady is an unambiguous black woman."  Here's the irony.  The office of the "First Lady" (and it is an office) was, of course, constructed and shaped over the years by powerful first ladies like Dolly Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jackie Kennedy.  If the President (the first man) epitomizes the power, masculinity, and patriarchy of an entire nation, then the first lady epitomizes the purity, femininity, and domesticity of that same nation.  We could debate some of the latter descriptors; however, the point is that the first lady is the paradigm of Western womanhood.  Historically (in spite of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd wave feminism), Western womanhood equals "white womanhood," and in 1966, Barbara Welter defined this "cult of true womanhood" as piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.  Although Welter was defining white womanhood in the nineteenth century, her definition lingered well into the twentieth, and I would venture to say, the twenty first century.

Historically, black womanhood was the antithesis of white womanhood.  During and well after slavery, black women were defined as the binary opposites of white women.  Of course these definitions were not their own.  If white women were viewed as "naturally" pious, then black women were deemed "naturally" evil.  If white women were pure, black women were "jezebels."  If white women were submissive, black women were unpleasantly aggressive.  And if white women were "naturally" domestic, black women were "naturally" cut out for hard labor and toil.  Granted, there are contemporary progressives who will debunk all of this theorizing.  However, these racist stereotypes, although historical relics, have found their way into contemporary American society.  Just scratch the surface of any pop culture icon.

Michelle Obama
Vogue 2009
Photo by Annie Leibovitz
Enter Michelle Obama - a black woman - and now the paradigm of American womanhood.  And she has charmed the hearts and minds of Americans (white, black, and other).  She has turned the "cult of true womanhood" on its head.  More importantly, however, she has deconstructed pejorative images of black womanhood and re-constructed a new black woman for all the world to see and emulate.   

Unlike her husband, her poise, grace, intellect, and beauty cannot be accredited to any other race except African American.  Not that it isn't wonderful that President Obama is biracial.  In fact, I think it's absolutely fitting that the first African American president is half white and half African.  And I think it doubly fitting that the first African American First Lady is unambiguously black.  She has no cafĂ© au lait skin or European facial or body structure.  Mrs. Obama, for all intents and purposes, is a black woman - a little sugar - but no cream.  Indeed, this is deliciously ironic.  

October 15, 2011


As an individual, Rudyard Kipling was probably a real SOB.  He was an imperialist, a racist I'm sure, and author of the infamous, "White Man's Burden."  However, there is one poem, to which I will pay tribute here, that I think he got right.  It's beauty can not only be found in it's content, but it's form which represents the perseverance and tenacity about which it speaks.  Embarrassingly enough, I get choked up and verklempt each time I hear it read or read it myself.  I have lived my life by it for years and will continue to do so.  If you have never read it, enjoy.  If you have read it yet never liked it, read it with new eyes today.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream---and not make dreams your master;
If you can think---and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings---nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling

September 27, 2011

My Plant Based Diet Cured My Hypertension

I'm writing this post as follow-up to a post I wrote earlier this year singing praises to plant based diets.  And now, I decided that I would "testify" (keeping with the tradition of the Black Church).  As a result of my change in lifestyle, from a Western, meat based diet to an Eastern plant based diet, I am completely bp medicine free!

This is not a gimmick.  I am not advertising for any group, doctor, or pharmaceutical company (LOL!).  I am hoping to change a few lives - lives of people who, like me, want to take their health in their own hands and free themselves from the escalating bondage of prescription drugs.  Let the church say, "Amen!" 

While taking blood pressure meds (for the past 10 years), my sistolic ranged anywhere from 125 to 130.  My diastolic lingered around 80 to 90.  All of you who are hypertensive or pre-hypertensive know that these numbers are considered borderline.  No matter how much I exercised, even when I was running 6 miles/day, I still "needed" the meds to maintain a 120/80 reading (and 120/80 is no longer considered normal).  For someone who was at the pinnacle of fitness and already taking blood pressure medicine, these were scary numbers.  These are numbers that make physicians grab the prescription pad.  And of course, one new medicine necessitates another new medicine to manage the side-effects of the first medicine and so on and so on.  Then, pretty soon, you wake up in the morning to a cocktail of medicines to "manage" your "condition."  I decided that I was too young and too smart to let this thing beat me.  As I explained in the previous post, my doctor not only supported this effort, it was her idea.

Now, my sistolic ranges anywhere from 105 to 117, and diastolic from 56 to 64.  I know what you are thinking.  No, I really don't exercise much.  Yes, I should.  And, yes, I need to.  But, between work and family, I (like you) have little time to be a slave to the gym or a weekend warrior.  I run about 2 miles every other week.  This miraculous cure that I have experienced lies solely in what I eat, or what I don't eat (depends on how you choose to perceive it).  Most days, I am a vegan.  This means, I eat no dairy products (and of course no meat).  Dairy consists of eggs, butter, dairy cheese, and dairy milk.  No, I don't deprive myself of these things.  I simply eat plant-based versions of them.  I drink coconut milk (yum!), and I eat vegan butter and soy or rice cheese.  Other days (when I am eating at restaurants without a vegan menu), I am a vegetarian.  This means, I am eating food cooked with eggs and garnished with dairy cheese.  However, I never consume animal flesh (yes, that means fish too).  I stay away from junk food.  I do eat too many potato chips even though they are usually organic and vegan.

I never feel deprived or hungry.  Quite the contrary, I feel satisfied and happy.   I changed my thinking and my grocery list, and I learned how to cook all over again.  And, no, I do not miss steak, hamburgers, chicken, pork chops, or fish.  For me, eating meat would be nothing short of suicidal.  Some may consider this dramatic (in true "tree hugger" form).  But what I have experienced is dramatic.

Ultimately, my doctor did not do this for me.  I did this for myself.  And so can you.

September 04, 2011

The Taming of the Shrew: The Struggles of the Alpha Female

The dialectic of how women would function in positions of power began, of course, during second wave feminism when women broke through the professional glass ceilings that had heretofore prevented them from competing with their male counterparts.  

As Rebecca Walker so famously stated, "I am not a post-feminism feminist.  I am the Third Wave."  Although I am among the generation of women who have enjoyed the fruits of their mother's labors, I have come to realize that there is still a deep abiding sense that women don't belong in power, or at the very least, they are ill suited for positions of power and therefore must be "tolerated" and placated.  Since the second wave, women have held some of the highest positions in government, education, and the private sector.  But so many still believe that their presence in these high ranking offices has been a big social experiment gone wrong.

For the past few years, I have occasionally been faced with subtle male resistance/combativeness in the classroom.  And now, as the head of an academic department, the resistance has taken on a more insidious form.  In the classroom, I have always handled these situations like Hemingway would have said, with "grace under pressure."  And by the end of the semester, said male combative student would be eating out of my hand, drinking whatever Kool-Aid and blue pills I offered.  Later, I would dismiss these incidents because some part of me empathized with students like this.  After all, it must be difficult to have one's Alphaness challenged by an Alpha female who is the ultimate authority figure in the room.

Or is that just it?  Do Alpha females face more resistance when they are in positions of power than Beta females?  Are both men and women uncomfortable with assertive, strong-willed women?

As we know, gender (like many other aspects of the human condition), is socially constructed.  Therefore, we expect men and women to remain in their respective corners with regard to "performing" gender.  When a woman steps outside these social mandates of gender, she has transgressed a boundary, she is "trying to act like a man," she is (when all other adjectives fail) a "bitch."

The situation becomes more complex (of course) when we consider race and gender.  Not to diminish any other women's struggles, but it seems that those of us who are female academics experience this kind of gender resistance in a very immediate and confrontational way.  The front of a classroom is a very visible and constructed place of power.  Those of us who are black, female academics experience both gender and racial resistance.  

For example, black male students perceive black females as either potential love interests or mother figures.  When black male students find that their professor is neither mother or lover, and that she is the authority in the room despite her genitalia, they experience a loss of context (to say the least).  On the other hand, black female students perceive their black female professor as sexual competition until they discover that neither is competing for quite the same resources.  It is my experience that white students, both male and female, initially perceive a black female instructor as somehow substandard and undeserving of the position of power in which she has been placed.  This set of assumptions, while racially motivated, creates a dynamic that most black women are more equipped to handle.  After all, we have always been forced to prove our intellectual merit, and we find ourselves quite comfortable doing so.

Of course, as with anything, there are exceptions to the absolutes that I have posited above.  I am still left with more questions than answers.  Does everyone feel as if they need to "tame the shrew?"  Are women in power a threat or an asset?  Are black women in power a double threat?

What do you think?

August 15, 2011

Bad Apples

If you've worked in any professional setting in America (corporate, education, government, non-profit), you've seen and taken a personality test.  There are the Jung and Briggs Meyers tests that attempt to tap into the consciousness.  There's the A B C personality typing, and the colors personality typing. I have always been intrigued by this type of occupational psychology.  The deep flaw in all of the tests; however, is the margin of error imbedded in the tests based on the "performativity" of the test-taker.  To what degree does the test-taker simply give answers based on his or her knowledge of the desired outcome?  In other words, people say what they believe the tester wants to hear.  People become who they know they are supposed to be.

At one time or another, we have all had the misfortune of watching employees behave very badly.  Most data attributes employee bad behavior to the stressors of the weak economy:  generally employees who are overworked and underpaid.  What about employees who are paid well?  What causes privileged workers to act out?

I think I have a few answers.

Incorporating some of the personality traits we already know from Briggs Meyers, Jung, and the like, I have created some additional more reductive types.

Enter The Producer.  The producer is, as the name implies, the task master.  She gets the job done or better yet gets many jobs done at once.  This employee is any employer's dream.  She is highly productive, deadline oriented, and self-motivated.

Enter The Slacker.  The slacker is a true sloth.  He wants to get paid for nothing.  This is the employee who is content to play on the internet all day or catch a nap when no one is watching.  He is exactly the opposite of the Producer.  The Slacker waits until the very last possible minute to complete any deadline.  In fact, he often misses deadlines.

Enter The Brown Noser.  The Brown Noser may double as a slacker, but most of all, the Brown Noser finds out whose ass to kiss and does so ad nauseam.  

Enter The Havoc Wreaker.  The Havoc Wreaker is bad news.  He finds a weak spot in any team of workers and monopolizes on that weakness.  This employee is dangerous to the employer and the other employees.  The Havoc Wreaker deplores rules simply because they exist.  He is a rebel without a cause.  He undermines and sabotages all authority figures a soon as they ask him to do something he doesn't like or want to do.  He is argumentative and never wrong.  The Havoc Wreaker is a master manipulator and will easily win over Slackers and Brown Nosers.  Slackers like the Havoc Wreaker because he likes to break rules - hence avoid work he deems pointless.  And we know slackers hate work.  Brown Nosers like the Havoc Wreaker because they see him as the next potential ass to kiss.

Inevitably Producers bump heads with Havoc Wreakers and Slackers.  This conflict could end in confrontation, workplace violence, termination, and even jail time.  And, indeed, it already has.  

I am quite sure that no employer thinks they have hired the Slacker, the Brown Noser, or worst yet, the Havoc Wreaker.  I am learning, however, that these employees seem to be in great supply.

Do interview performances hide these serious flaws, or are there early indicators of bad behavior?  And better yet, why do well-educated adults act out in such egregious ways?

July 20, 2011

Teachers Have Sick Patients Too

As the American system of education continues to decline, the grumblings of college professors all over the country rise to a rallying cry.  At every level of higher education (the community college, the technical college, and the university), instructors complain that their students are more unprepared, irresponsible, and insipid than ever before.  Those same instructors have developed an entire line of rhetoric surrounding this issue.  Ultimately, they throw up their hands in defeat, hold shorter office hours, and retreat into the safe haven of cynicism and apathy.

Imagine for a moment that you have been suffering for several days with a fever of 105°, coughing, and complaining of chest pains.  You finally muster up the strength to make an appointment to see a doctor and drive yourself to his office.  Once the doctor walks into the examining room to consult with you, he immediately begins to berate you.  "Where are all of these sick people coming from!" he yells, slamming his clipboard onto the counter.  "I didn't go to Medical school and spend all of those years in residency only to be inundated by all of these sick people.  They can't pay me enough to keep doing this!"  And with that, he walks out, storms into his office, and slams the door behind him, leaving you and the nurses silent and bewildered.

Of course, this scenario is absurd.  Doctors don't get angry with their sick patients for being sick, because it's their job to make them well.  Indeed, they went to medical school to find cures for diseases and to improve their patients' quality of life.  In fact, sick patients keep them in business.  There's capital in disease (but that's another discussion).  

So if we (teachers) know this to be a kind of a priori truth about doctors, why then do we consider it an affront to our profession when those blasted high schools keep sending us unprepared, underprepared, and miseducated students?  If the job of the doctor is to heal his patients, then the job of the teacher is to teach her students.  Yes, the raw material sucks sometimes.  But it's easy to teach bright, insightful, intellectually fit students.  However, it is phenomenal to create bright, insightful, intellectually fit students.

July 13, 2011

A New Story by Sonya McCoy Wilson Appears in Phati'tude Literary Magazine

Check out my new story:
"The Test"in the Winter 2011 issue of Phati'tude Literary Magazine
"The Test"

As the teachers approached her, they could see that she was missing all 
of her front teeth.  Her hair was hidden beneath rags tied like a scarf, and she wore a pair of men's slippers, red sweatpants, and a sweatshirt that barely covered her distended belly printed with the
words:  I Love Jesus

         "You all must be the teachers," she said.

         "Yes.  Good morning.  I'm Mrs. Goodwin and this is Mrs. Lovejoy."
        "Morning.  I'm Brenda, Neesie's mama."  She rubbed her hand on her sweatpants and shook the teachers' hands. 
         When Mrs. Lovejoy thought no one was watching, she quickly wiped her hand on the back of her slacks then stuck it in her pocket.
"This is Neesie's Grandma," Brenda motioned to the other woman still sitting in a chair beside the front door.
"Hello," said Mrs. Goodwin and Mrs. Lovejoy.
To Mrs. Lovejoy's relief, the grandmother did not offer her hand.  Instead, she mumbled something unintelligible and smiled widely showing off a toothless grin.
"You ladies come in," offered Brenda.
The teachers obeyed and wished they hadn't when the smell of sour mop, vomit, fried pork, and pine sol met them at the front door.  Mrs. Lovejoy took out a bottle of hand sanitizer from her designer handbag, squirted an innocuous puddle in her hand, and rubbed furiously.  She then slipped it to Mrs. Goodwin who did the same. 
Mrs. Lovejoy looked around the cramped apartment, noted the grime along with the smells, and found it difficult to sit in the chair that Brenda had offered.  The teacher acquiesced after an agonizing fifteen seconds.  After doing so, she thought sure she felt wetness seep into her slacks.  She panicked, biting her lip, and imagining the long list of disgusting possibilities. But there was nothing wet in the chair, so she sat frozen, repulsed, and dizzy from the miscellany of odors.
Mrs. Lovejoy envied Mrs. Goodwin's wooden chair, for she had averted the risk of contagion – the filth, the banality, the poverty – she thought would surely infect them after a day with these people.  A carnival of the grotesque they were. 
The teachers had driven together, in one car, the two of them, barely acquainted before they were asked to do such a strange thing.  They talked a lot about nothing on the way there, just trying to fill the space – the silence that people think they have to fill with words.  They were doing more than evading the silence, though.  They were avoiding what they both later discovered they were both hoping they did not encounter.  So, as they pulled into the "The Oasis" apartments, they both exhaled ever so slightly when there were no crack heads greeting them at the entrance, and the hookers and pimps they had envisioned turned out to be a few middle-aged men and women walking home from the nearby bus stop.  But, they had not been prepared for the people who were now playing host to them in this cramped little room.

Grandma, as the rest referred to her, sat in a semi-catatonic state, mumbling incoherent sentences to the others while a mixture of grits, eggs, and government cheese fell from her toothless mouth onto her makeshift bib assembled from an old dishcloth.   Beside Grandma was "Auntie," who periodically wiped the spittle from Grandma's mouth and engaged her in dialogue, which neither of the teachers could decipher.   Auntie wore a close-cut, mostly bald head, men's jeans, a Budweiser T-shirt, and no bra.  She had almond-shaped eyes, a flattened head, and a protruding tongue.  Occasionally, she blurted out a few phrases between the huge gap of missing teeth, but the teachers glanced quickly at each other as acknowledgment that neither of them could understand her.  Helping Brenda fry the pork and eggs and boil the grits in the kitchen was the other auntie whose name was Cynthia.  She walked with a pronounced limp, and one of her legs was much larger than the other.  The only man in the bunch was "Uncle" – as the others referred to him.  Uncle had a distended belly that matched his sister's.  He wore jeans and a sleeveless undershirt that had been white some time ago but now was covered in the same dingy film that covered everything else in the grim apartment.
Between all of the aunties and the deluge of clutter and filth, there was Neesie, the child that had been the reason for their visit.  She was "sick" – the teachers had been told.  They never received a straight answer when they inquired about her sickness, so they stopped asking.  They were told that her affliction prevented her from writing, or sitting too long, or coming to school, so they would have to test her at home.  One teacher would mark Neesie's answers on the answer sheet, and the other teacher would oversee the process – because there was always a scandal in the school district about cheating on state tests – because the teachers and the state and the whole country for that matter assumed these kids were too dumb to pass on their own anyway. 
Neesie stood up with the help of Brenda and Auntie, each on either side of Neesie as her support.  Hanging from her frail frame was a bloody T-shirt that read, Thomas Jefferson Middle School.  Neesie also wore a baggy pair of pants and no shoes.  Her hair was an angry mess on top of her head, but she smiled with a full mouth of teeth and greeted the teachers who had never met her.
The teachers followed behind as Brenda and Auntie took Neesie into a bedroom lined with clear plastic bags full of clothes the same dingy color as Uncle's undershirt.  The room had no furniture aside from the chair that was meant for Neesie.  Mrs. Lovejoy quickly eyeballed a spot on the floor that appeared dry and free of debris.  Mrs. Goodwin looked around agitatedly and finally found a spot on the floor near her colleague.
"Neesie be alright.  That girl – she smart," Auntie said to the teachers, tapping the temple of her own head.
Auntie didn't know much, but she did know, as they all did, that the test was more important than the Language Arts, Reading, Social Studies, Science, and Math that it "tested."  If Neesie passed the test, her school would get new computers and real books in the library that the students could actually check out.  If Neesie passed the test, her school lunch might consist of a balanced meal, and her school would get money to fumigate and rid itself of the hundred year-old roaches and rats that had called the place home since the turn of the century.  If Neesie passed the test, her district would get more money, and her school would be taken off the state's "failing list."  And if her school was taken off the state's failing list, housing contractors might be encouraged to rebuild the community, and if they rebuilt the community, people with families brimming with smart kids might buy houses in her neighborhood.  And if those smart kids came to her school, they could pass the test, and her school would get new computers, and real books in the library that students could actually check out…
During the testing, Neesie's nose kept bleeding through the tissues and dropping onto the same pool of dried blood on her school shirt.  Mrs. Goodwin couldn't bear to see her wearing that bloody shirt, but when she called Brenda in to change the shirt, Brenda said that she had been trying to get Neesie to change that shirt all day, but she wouldn't.  Neesie had wanted to show her school spirit while she took the test.
After six hours of testing, seven trips to the bathroom, two more nosebleeds, four cups of water, two bags of Hot Cheetos, and a Snicker bar, Neesie finished the test.  On the day the test results were in, the teachers received two phone calls.  The first one came in at 8'oclock that morning announcing that Neesie was the only student at Thomas Jefferson Middle to make a perfect score on the test.  The other came in at 9'oclock notifying them that Neesie was dead.  She had died of complications due to her illness, whatever that was, and she just stopped breathing some time during the night.  Neesie's perfect score was the only one in the district, and Thomas Jefferson Middle remained on the states' failing list.                                                   

June 19, 2011

On Daddy's Girls

I loved my father so much, I wanted to be him.  I wanted to run like wild horses, as fast as the wind, because my Daddy was a runner, and that's how fast he was.  I wanted to wear jeans and T-shirts and sweat suits and sneakers on my feet, because until I was 10, these were the only clothes my Daddy ever wore.  He gave the best horse-back rides in the world because he could bench press a couple of men his size, so I was just a lilliputian on top of his shoulders.  But up there, I could see the world.

When I got too old to sit on top of his shoulders or on his lap, I still remembered how fun that used to be.  I still thought I had the coolest Dad in the world, who had traded his track suit for a three-piece suit and a badge.  He was tough, no-nonsense, optimistic, and practical.  I was anything but.  I was an impractical, irrational, hysterical teenaged girl, and he did not understand me.  And I did not understand myself.

One day, I looked around, and I had grown up.  Strangely enough, I kept having little boys.  My father was so tickled about this, he was without words.  And I was tough, no-nonsense, optimistic, and practical.  I don't remember when it happened, but my Dad's words started spilling from my mouth:  "Never quit, ever."  "There's nothing to fear except fear itself."  "Get back up and brush yourself off." "There's no crying in baseball!" (He didn't really say that, but he would have if Tom Hanks hadn't said it first)

My Dad has become the best part of me.  I have survived the cruelties of life and come out on the other side with my sanity and sense of humor intact largely because of my Daddy.  God gives you the parents that you are supposed to have, and thank God he gave me my Dad.  If strength can be inherited, I know that my Dad gave me a little of his.

And now, as his dark thick hair has turned thin and gray, he has traded his rough edges for soft one's.  He is a sweet old grandpa to his grandsons and I love him for it.

Everyday is Father's Day in my world.  I love you, Daddy...

June 17, 2011

The Traffic in Black Beauty

Vogue Italia "Black Issue" 2011
Black women are the most beautiful women in the world (full stop).  But, of course, I'm biased because I'm a Black woman with a Black mother and Black aunties and Black children and Black family.  When judging female aesthetics, I tend to privilege dark skin, kinky curly hair, full lips, chiseled cheek bones, curvy hips, and shapely legs -- the features that make Black women's bodies so beautiful.  And isn't that the issue at hand with respect to beauty?  Beauty is SUBJECTIVE -- perhaps the most subjective concept of the human condition.  However, stupid and/or racist people keep trying to make it objective.

Vogue Italia
Apparently, there was a "boycott of Black models" on the spring fashion runways this year.  In short, there were no Black models.  In reaction to the so called boycott, Vogue Italia published a "Black Issue" (May 2011) featuring the most stunning Black women I have ever seen (many of which I feature here).  Vogue Italia's attempts to ingratiate itself with Blackness just became another cog in the machine that it was seeking to subvert in the first place.  Does it seem the least bit Jim Crowish that Vogue titled the May issue "The Black Issue?"  This is like saying:  Yes, we know you Black women are beautiful, but you still don't belong in the mainstream.  We still don't want to feature you in American Vogue (unless you're tangential), so we're just going to exoticize and marginalize you even further and throw you all into one big "Black Issue."  There!  We've done our political posturing, made a bit of noise, and given ourselves tons of publicity in the meantime.  When the smoke clears and the camera's stop flashing, we're still going to continue to keep the beauty industry white and discriminate against Black models (at least, that is, until there is another political agenda we can hijack).  

Vogue Italia
I was deeply disturbed by The Colour of Beauty , a documentary I recently saw, which illustrated this phenomenon of "Whites Only" in the modeling industry.  Yes, you read that correctly -- "Whites Only."  Apparently, this is the only industry in America left that can proclaim (out loud anyway) that Blacks need not apply.  And the reason provided (by the well-meaning white modeling agents in the film) -- "Black doesn't sell."  I guess the industry didn't get the memo.  Black has always "sold."  After all, the "Black Issue" of Vogue Italia sold out with break-neck speed.  

In a stupefied, incredulous state, I linked the video on Facebook, and not many folks had anything to say.  In fact, only one person had something to say.  My husband commented:
Interesting how "Black doesn't sell", but sun tan lotion, lip and butt implant surgeons, hip hop dance studios and tanning salons have been and, I dare say, will always be extremely successful business ventures. Hmmmm. Black does sell as long as they don't admit it, huh?
To which, I responded:
"Appropriating" blackness does sell. Just manufacture the black traits you desire and repackage them as desirable white traits to a white market. Don't you just love it when capitalism and racism collide? 
Vogue Italia
The modeling agents featured in the documentary admitted that if the industry decides it wants to feature a Black model (the token model) in a show or in a photo shoot, she must be "a black girl who looks like a white girl dipped in chocolate." The industry co-opts and appropriates Black beauty all of the time.  In the 90s, white women like Kim Bessinger and Angelina Jolie became beauty icons because of their big lips.  The same lips on a Black woman would be "too black" for the beauty industry.  The Stair Master and Step Aerobics and Shape Ups were all popularized to "lift" the gluteus maximums (the butt muscles) -- in essence, increasing the size and firmness of white women's butts, because we all know that Black women already have firm shapely butts.  The goal of the beauty industry is to appropriate Black beauty and repackage it for white consumers while Black women get deleted from the equation all together.

Vogue Italia
This is all very disgusting on many levels.  I am a Black feminist.  Therefore, on principle, I think that industries like modeling are grotesque and absurd.  They seek to objectify humans (primarily women until fairly recently), eroticize and exoticize their various pieces and parts, commodify them, and then sell them as product.  Having cleared the air, I must admit (of course) that I am a part of the machine.  We all are.  Once we buy a tube of lipstick, a pair of stilettos, a bottle of perfume, or a designer garment, we are a part of the capitalist agenda of trafficking beauty.  

But, have we bought into the blatant racism that comes along with it too?

May 23, 2011

Racism or Science: The Sins of the Father are Visited Upon the Son

I am teaching my "Composition and Rhetoric" students the art of argument.  For the past few weeks, they have been writing Rhetorical Responses and applying the critical reading and critical writing process to real issues.  From a pedagogical perspective, the primary intent of the Rhetorical Response is to hone the students' critical reading skills as well as help them to understand and dissect the structure of rhetorical writing so that they will be prepared to write a well reasoned, researched argument at the end of the term.   

1953 Doctor injecting patient with placebo
I am very proud of the work my students are doing.  However, this week, I am challenging their intellectual fitness a bit further.  Quite serendipitously, several rhetorical situations have emerged in popular culture that are very closely linked with the essay my students are studying.  My freshman are reading Allan M. Brandt's Racism and Research: The Case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1978).  In the article, Brandt asserts that the Tuskegee Syphilis Study demonstrates the pathology of racism rather than the pathology of syphilis.  Brandt supports his argument by examining the historical context of the study, in which the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) initiated an experiment using 400 syphilitic, Black men.  The USPHS purposely deceived the subjects of the study, pretending to offer them treatment for their disease, while secretly withholding such treatment, and voyeuristically watching and documenting their slow deaths. Brandt provides data from 1932 through 1974 of physicians' anecdotal reports, records from the National Archives, reports from the Journal of the American Medical Association, and records from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).  The data reveals how the medical community, sanctioned by the various agencies mentioned above, used their racist ideology of the genetic inferiority of Africans as a justification to purposely deny treatment to 400 Black men, all while convincing them that they were being treated.  Brandt's purpose is to expose how racism shapes scientific inquiry in order to reveal that science is not an unbiased, value-free discipline.    

Although many of my students understand the 21st century relevance of the Tuskegee Syphilis study, some of them still believe that this kind of racism in medicine is a phenomenon of the-not-so-recent past.  They believe that there are safeguards and checks and balances in place like "informed consent" to protect them against the occasional rogue physician.  A recent article in Psychology Today may make them think again.

Satoshi Kanazawa, an "Evolutionary Psychologist," wrote a now infamously controversial article in the May 16, 2011 edition of Psychology Today.  I am not linking it here because the publishers of Psychology Today have since removed the article from their site.  In the article, Kanazawa claims that Black women are objectively less physically attractive than women of all other races.  He explains,

Vogue Italia

are many biological and genetic differences between the races....
For example, because they have existed much longer in
human evolutionary history, Africans have more mutations in their 
genomes than other races. And the mutation loads significantly decrease
 physical attractiveness (because physical attractiveness is a measure of genetic and developmental health). 
But since both black women and black men have higher mutation loads, it
 cannot explain why only black women are less physically attractive,
 while black men are, if anything, more attractive.
 The only thing 
I can think of that might potentially explain the lower average level
 of physical attractiveness among black women is testosterone.
 Africans on average have higher levels of testosterone than other
 races, and testosterone, being an androgen (male hormone), affects the 
physical attractiveness of men and women differently. Men with higher
 levels of testosterone have more masculine features and are therefore 
more physically attractive. In contrast, women with higher levels of 
testosterone also have more masculine features and are therefore less
 physically attractive. The race differences in the level of 
testosterone can therefore potentially explain why black women are less 
physically attractive than women of other races, while (net of 
intelligence) black men are more physically attractive than men of other 
Kanazawa's claims are absurd on many levels.  First, he predicates his assertions on a series of interviews he conducts over a seven year period with a group of Asian, Black, White, and Native American (number not disclosed) men and women.  This group is neither racially diverse nor numerically vast.  Kanazawa proceeds to survey their responses about attractiveness of so-called random photos of men and women of different races.  This factor analysis is the basis of his claim.  Next, Kanazawa never considers that most races are attracted to people who physically resemble them.  A discerning reader is left with more questions than answers.  How attractive were the people depicted in the photos?  And isn't attractiveness subjective anyway?  Did Kanazawa purposely choose photos of Black women that were slightly or considerably less attractive than the photos of non-Black women?  How many test subjects were there?  Were the test subjects all chosen from the same geographical location, discourse community, age group (in order to determine objectivity)?  Were the test subjects all Kanazawa's fellow "evolutionary psychologist" friends?  Did Kanazawa invent the whole thing in order to create more controversy and in turn more notoriety for himself?  Or did his personal racism shape his scientific inquiry?  We may never know.  But what we do know is that the subjects of the study could not have been looking at the photos of the beautiful Black women above.  

Kanazawa's brand of "evolutionary psychology" conspicuously resembles its 19th century predecessor - Eugenics - reshaped and repackaged for a 21st century audience of new racial egocentrics.  Eugenics, popularized in the 19th century, is the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding in order to achieve genetically desirable outcomes.  Just as the doctors in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study assumed that black men were genetically criminal, insane, sexually depraved, and moronic, so now do evolutionary psychologists contend that Black women are genetically ugly and Black men are aesthetically pleasing but still genetically stupid.  

In a May 20, 2011 article in the The Root entitled "Black Quarterbacks' Intelligence Still Scrutinized", we see the old tropes of Eugenics and racist ethnology rearing their ugly heads again.  In short, the article examines the racist theory that since the quarterback is considered "the brain" of a football team, Black men are not genetically intelligent enough to hold the job.  Nearly two centuries after Eugenics first gained notoriety and 80 years after the Tuskegee Syphilis study, men like Donovan McNabb and Cam Newton are still trying to prove that they are intelligent enough to memorize and execute football plays.

I challenge my students to examine the contemporary world around them, and how that world is shaped by old ideologies so deeply interwoven in the fabric of America that they are almost invisible.