March 18, 2013
Okay, here I go, here I go again. Girls, what’s my weakness? Beyoncé, okay then. Beyoncé’s new track “Bow Down \ I Been On” is awesome. For several reasons. It’s just the kind of rap that we might expect from Her Highness: simple and melodic with a message of female financial independence and empowerment.
Sure the lyrics aren’t that clever; she’s always rhyming girls with world: “I know when you were little girls\ you dreamt of being in my world \ Don’t forget, don’t forget it \ Respect that \ Bow down, bitches.” But, that’s not the point with Beyoncé. Her message is that little girls shouldn’t give up on their dreams. Ever. Every young person has Queen-of-the-Mountain material inside. Her message is a product of a particularly American class-mobile ideal of independence and the free market narrative of merit-based value. Deal with it. She not only deals with it, never misrepresenting her comfortable, middle-class upbringing and loving and doting parents (see the picture of a young Beyoncé in pageant attire surrounded by trophies and awards on a suburban fireplace mantle that she included as the cover image for this track on her website), but she embraces her success within the capitalist music system.
In the “I Been On” section of the track, her revelling in financial success (and her Southern drawl) is loud and clear: “Gold every-thang\ Gold-ass chains \ Gold-ass rangs.” At least she is spending and recirculating her money, not psychopathically hoarding it. In the footsteps of many before her, she identifies as a Southern, Black, female, “self-made” millionaire, and she’s enjoying her lifestyle and using her fame to try to inspire others. She’s a straight-forward, non-subtle, mainstream, pop star. And mostly, we are missing out if we expect anything else from her. But, she delivers something more – her own brand of womanist feminism – anyway.
The opening rap subverts the stereotypical representation of women in relationship to other humans, most commonly as wives or mothers: “I took some time to live my life \ But don’t think I’m just his little wife \ Don’t get it twisted \ This my shit \ Bow down, bitches.” Her recent status as mother and the naming of her “Mrs. Carter” tour has been read by many as a loss of her independence. Motherhood has even made her a target of strange moralistic criticism. Considering B’s recent family-centered life choices, one womanist blogger was compelled to critique “Bow Down” for its lack of “age appropriateness.” What is this, Sunday School? Let’s also remember that marriage for Black Americans has a history parallel to the story of slavery and emancipation, so the fact of her naming her most recent tour after her legal, married name is a celebration of equality for Blacks. And, considering that she – Beyoncé – will keep every single penny of her earnings no matter what name she goes by or performs under is a marker of a significant historical feminist victory. Furthermore, the prenup signed by both her and Jay Z includes a clause that he is to pay her for every child she bears with his paternity compensating her for any lost income due to pregnancy, birth, or child-rearing. Um, paid maternity leave? Can you say feminist economic utopia?
Other bloggers, including Sarah Dean from the Huffington Post, read the repetition of the word “bitches” as a put-down directed at other women. Dean even claims that B is taking a cue from Jay Z and the like, using the word “bitches” to dismiss and degrade women. But I don’t hear the rap like that at all. I hear it as reclamation of the term that has been incredibly popular in the rap genre. I read Beyonce’s use of the term “bitches” as a direct shake-off of criticism, regardless of the gender of the person constructing the criticism, aimed at diminishing Beyonce’s woman-made, confident achievements. It is hip-hop hipster irony. Ironic because she, yes SHE, is posturing and swaggering in a traditionally male industry, in a traditionally white and male mega-wealthy club. She is taking the term from the men and re-associating it, not with women, but with critics. And, come on. She’s right: that’s what critics do. We bitch – about pop culture, about music, about film. Call it analysis and evaluation if you prefer, but it’s still bitchin’.
Especially considering in the second portion of the track “I Been On” when she raps in an electronically male voice, this track is all about her having fun in a character and poking at the boys club that her husband inhabits. She has an all-female band and dance crew, she rose to stardom from an all-female group, and she attributes part of her success publicly and repeatedly to her mother: “Kiss my Mama \ Show that love.” She celebrates traditional, hetero femininity but while respecting women’s work and cooperation as non-traditional sources of power. Ultimately, the artificial deep voice that is really her own reveals gender as a mere performance just as much as rap is a performance. Her critique is of mainstream, over-masculinized, rap culture as a product of patriarchy, not at all of other women.
I’ve said it once, and I will say it again. Expecting Beyoncé to live up to a Yankee-made, college-educated standard of feminism is futile. Expecting Beyoncé to rap intellectual like Mos Def – hottie that he is – is just as futile. Nevertheless, she is a more influential feminist, and rapper, than most of us will ever be. So…
December 20, 2012
At the end of every semester, I have the chore of responding to student emails. Once students have received their grades, they email me in flocks to reconsider my grading standards because they really need an A to boost their GPA. Or because they can’t tell their parents the grades they earned. Or because they came upon some rough times this semester. Or because they only missed a few classes. And I respond with something (exactly) like this:
Dear Student X,
Your grade will remain an F (or C or B). You had over 5 absences, you were late multiple times, you came to class many times unprepared, and the work you did do was of poor quality. If you want to appeal this grade, you can write to the Director of the Writing Program.
But then. Lo! And behold! I get an email from a student, who earned an A, who wants to see my comments on his final paper entitled “Black Is Beautiful Until the Movie Starts: A Look at How African American Males Are Portrayed in Film and Television.” I know! It was amazing. He followed directions. He was smart and original in expressing his ideas. I wanted to hug him after I read it, but then he topped it all off with ASKING TO SEE MY COMMENTS. He cared and used what I say regarding his writing. He wrote, “As I continue my education, I would like to use this paper as a base and build on it. Seeing what you had to say about my writing would be helpful.” And I’m like “FUCK YEAH, DUDE.” I mean, “Absolutely! If you’re comfortable sending me your mailing address, I’ll mail it to you.” And so I did. And that’s how 1 student can make the entire semester worth low pay, no office, no benefits, and no job security worth it. I can die happy, in love with teaching and students and the higher education system and all of life.
October 23, 2012
“It’s the economy, stupid. ” Bill Clinton’s campaign coined the phrase back in 1992 and successfully defeated Bush 1 by focusing on economic issues. And judging by the 2012 presidential debates, American political players are still narrowed in on the economy. One blames China for a lagging economy, the other agrees; one blames the poor, nobody blames the mega-rich money hoarders.
All the attention paid to “economic recovery” this and “recession” that fails to consider a few things. Humans, more and more, are creating our own economies based not on how much money we can stockpile in the bank or how many 2-story houses and SUVs we can buy, but on how our earning and buying align with our morals. Humans don’t do things just to make money, like so many businessfolk and politicians seem to believe and would have us believe. There is a renewed interest amongst us human beings in bartering, reusing, DIY, repurposing, and recycling products that doesn’t give 2 shits who is or isn’t POTUS.
My friends and fellow humans truly interested in progress are going back to small-scale, in-house production for a variety of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with earning a buck. We are growing our own food when possible, turning our yard space into garden space, and brewing our own beer because it makes us happy. And then we share with our friends because that also makes us happy. We are repurposing grandma’s old dress into new baby clothes and pillows and stuffed toys because handmade is better than store bought. Always. Objects with a creation story last beyond the material expiration date and have value beyond a number.
What’s more is that humans care about the Earth. Because of our increased awareness of unresolved environmental problems, we are cutting our purchases of disposable crap. We are choosing, instead, to buy lasting or buy used, and we are returning to systems of trading and bartering. We are also buying local, so that we don’t use as much gas \ spend as much money on gas. We are looking up videos on how to fix stuff on our own or with our children, and we are helping other friends in our community with services they might need FOR FREE.
This black market economy has not been an accident. While we humans – my generation especially – were accused of being apathetic, uninformed and lazy, we were actually re-wiring an old economy to work better for us. And we’re not just employed\ unemployed workers or confident\ unconfident consumers because democracy is not a business. After all, this is ours. Call me idealistic but my vote isn’t about the economy, and I don’t even like the word ‘stupid.’
September 9, 2012
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
– Virginia Woolf
It was back in late Spring or early Summer. The first time my boyfriend cooked for me in his apartment – the first time a man had cooked for me in his home – I play the memory like a silent film except in color and with emotions and smells. Firsts are always memorable, I guess. I don’t remember many lasts, like the last time I ate with my dad before he died or the last time I ate with my grandmother before she died. Anyway, people are always writing and painting and making photo essays and going on and on about last suppers. But we can all agree on one thing, surely: There is more to each meal than the food.
The inside of his refrigerator, he shared with two roommates. He had his own section, I remember, the lower right-hand drawer as well as the right side of the bottom shelf. I had never had an assigned section of a refrigerator, even when I shared a kitchen with 8 other girls in college. I was impressed that 3 young men, all in their 20s, had such organizational creativity and discipline.
His vegetables were loved. Some were from the Farmer’s Market which had recently opened, some were from the grocery store. Others were from his mother who had recently gone on vacation and jettisoned produce that wouldn’t last until her return. All were in their own place, none were spoiling. Some were recently used and those were the ones he set out on the cutting board to chop up first. There were also the jalapeños from my garden, looking like shiny little green prizes.
Once, I did a peck of research on jalapeños. I learned romantic facts like that pepper flowers are a perfect union; I mean, they contain both female and male sex organs. The male organ, the stamen. The female organ, the stigma. Each flower usually has one large stigma and several smaller stamens, ready to share pollen and proceed with reproduction. Reminds me of a harem of ready women and a lone, steady man.
After the pepper pollinates itself, a fruit begins. Pepper gardeners watch small pea-sized blips yawn and stretch to full-size within 3 months. The placenta holding the seeds and the veins lining the walls of the fruit contain large amounts of capsaicin. It’s what makes the pepper taste “hot” to humans, and contrary to popular belief, the seeds themselves do not produce any capsaicin.
In one of nature’s amusing displays of reproductive tension, the sexiest part of the plant (the fruit) that is often evolved to attract animals, in the pepper plant, is also evolved to keep certain animals from getting too close. Most mammals – say, bunnies – find the capsaicin to be an irritating repellant. On the other hand, birds and their digestive systems are not bothered at all. And so, the secretion of capsaicin protects the fruit from consumption by mammals while the bright colors attract birds that will happily eat and disperse the seeds and potentially spread the glory that is the pepper near and far. Such a spicy tease.
He had good knives, in a drawer just out of his roommates’ convenient grasp, somewhere between communal and private. I asked him if I could help with anything, but I really just wanted to watch him. He took out spices from the cabinet above the island stove. He didn’t even have to stretch to reach them, he’s so tall. Mixed spices like lemon garlic pepper and taco seasoning and single spices like paprika. Reds and yellows and browns. Sautéed onion, garlic, and peppers are almost always a must, like foreplay to sex. The smell of them cooking is so familiar, in kitchens all over the world, I’m sure of it. It’s a smell that can get you in the mood to eat, no matter if you were in the mood before. It’s a smell that can convince anyone that the meal to come will be great. He cooked, and I watched from the barstool drinking my coffee, if I remember correctly. I hadn’t had food yet so it is quite possible that this memory is somewhere between reality and fantasy.
One of the roommates walked in, maybe the smell in his territory attracted him. Ridiculous how I was thinking of animals in a den. I started feeling self-conscious, that I might say or do something that would interrupt them. The roommate started preparing to cook, chopping vegetables and such. Have you ever seen two men cooking and sharing the counter space, the stove, the cutting board? It’s a sight. It may even be the spark needed to ignite global peace and harmony: two men cooking brunch in households the world over.
Mostly, that day, I felt honored that this man would cook a meal for me in an expressive and practical kind gesture. We ate and were happy. No struggle, no figuring out, no stress, no bad news to discuss, no confusion, no anxiety, no egos. We ate, and it was delicious. It could have tasted like circus peanuts and canned spinach, though. The point was made before I took a bite: He cooked for me, and I felt well loved.
May 13, 2012
Oh, Mama. Today I’ve cried, like, 47 times today about different stuff related to Mother’s Day. #1 My mom lives far away from me now, so I can’t take a weekend trip to see her except maybe a couple of times a year. #2 My kid isn’t with me; one of the consequences of divorce is that the dad’s weekend doesn’t always correspond to the times I really want to have my kid around me. #3 Thinking about my friends who have lost their moms is heart-breaking. And on and on and on.
So, then I just had to do something to get on with the day and honor the nurturing and creativity and love that I witness in the moms around me before I ended up eating a whole tub of ice cream pre-noon. I turn to gardening, music, and activism in my times of sorrow and need. And lo! I ran across this image while listening to my new Bessie Smith (one of my mom’s favorites) record:
Sweet, right? Especially in the wake of mainstream Time Magazine’s recent discovery of the Great Mommy Debate, I find it important to reiterate that, at least for me, activism and nurturing both come from a place of love. Both are about making some thing, place, life, or idea as strong as possible. Both are about investing time and energy into fixing what may have been broken. This applies to activism in local politics as well as to foster parenting, to caring for your own dog as well as volunteering with homeless dogs. Neither nurturing or activism are necessarily natural, nor are they easy or profitable. But we do them anyway.
Change is inevitable. Whether the change from your labor is lightning fast, like your baby going into Junior High, or slow like Oklahoma’s enfranchisement of women; change is a sure thing. Whether your mom lives next door to you or in a high-rise retirement center in Dallas, Texas, she thinks about you every day. Whether your child made you breakfast in bed this morning or it’s her weekend with her father, your mothering doesn’t stop. Head up. If your mom isn’t here, I’m sorry. I’m thinking about you today. Know that she left you all of her strength.
So, this is a pep-talk. Continue on with poise and confidence and a kick-ass spirit, folks. You are probably loved and appreciated, and even if you aren’t, the GoodLord knows you’re not alone.
February 20, 2012
“Activists have to have a spiritual practice in order to help them to suffer less, to nourish the happiness and to handle the suffering so they will be effective in helping the world. With anger and frustration you cannot do much.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh
”We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.”
– Pema Chodron
I’ve been trying to find compassion for woman-haters here lately. It’s not easy.
December 1, 2011
Last year in December, I tried to do one good deed a day in an effort to get over my holiday grumpiness. Honestly, it didn’t work. I was withering on the inside. I had a pretty insufferable episode of depression and anxiety that lasted about 3 weeks. Long story short, after taking better care of myself, I’m waaaaaay better now! Without getting overly gushy, I have felt more love this year from friends and family than I have probably ever felt. Today is no different.
I got a note in the mail this afternoon from a sweet, sweet, strong friend. She wrote to me, basically, to tell me that she loves me. Gosh. It brought me to tears. And she inspired me to write more love letters. So, here’s one for her.
How much healing has taken place in your presence, because of your presence? On your old porch and at your present comfortable country home, you have loved like a father penguin. Through you, I found my way to a meditation teacher who isn’t a hokey bullshitter but a hard worker committed to doing right. Fuck yeah.
It makes sense that we’ve grown closer over the course of this year. This year, I was searching the universe for solid and sincere and open people. When I was younger, I valued fun and likability and friendliness above all else. I, being a bit of a pagan hedonist, still worship pleasure. Don’t get me wrong. But now I appreciate honesty and perseverance and calm just as much. You, my love, are a woman who represents an eagle-eyed mixture of fantasy and honesty and strength that is rare.
It’s heartbreaking, at times, to watch you grieve and work to heal. It’s strange to watch you hurt. I know you are so used to being the tough one. The invincible. The fiercest. The thing is, you still are.
I love you,