women of color

The Waiting Women

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A photograph I took at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It had a courtyard in the center that I liked.

The Waiting Women

The movement has no name, but she has pronouns.
She walks between the living and the dead,
a spectre, hand outstretched to catch the rain.
She is waiting in the corner of a courtyard.
The bottom of her skirt is drenched with mud.

The movement has no age but she has grace,
the messenger between spirit and flesh.
Her life is spent remembering past lives:
lovers’ names forgotten long ago
and children who have died in her arms.

Ancestors, like oceans, stretch before her.
“The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair.”
The people, all of them, they want to take her,
Change her, meet her, love her, and worship her.
They assume they know, but never ask.

She wants much more than what they want for her.
Her bruises and her scars are so apparent,
people must think she will never die.
The last being on this earth was not a man,
and when he left, she found some sense of peace.

~*~

It must be your lucky month. Two poems in two weeks. To be honest, there may be more on their way. I’ve been in a very poem sort of mood lately. I’ve been thinking about ancestors a lot, their constant presence and absence, that dichotomy.

I wrote this one while I was thinking of all the women I love, all the truth I know about them, that they know about me, and how often we seem to be waiting.

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On the Women’s March on Washington

What you’re about to see is an excerpt from several posts I made on Facebook in response to a status I posted. In the status, I posted a, more or less, rhetorical question. I asked “Did anybody march on Washington when Shirley Chisholm lost? When Patsy Mink lost?” (Leonie, personal communication, December 22, 2016). Someone responded to the post with a rather ahistorical argument about why a women’s march on Washington today is different from a march that would have happened in the 70’s (as opposed to a continuation and/or appropriation of historic events).

Anyway, they posted an article, to which I posted this response. The article link is listed below, followed by my response.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/women-march-on-washington-organizers_us_58407ee8e4b017f37fe388d1

My response:

Fair enough, let me back up for a minute. So I read the article you posted. The women of color who they are talking about are legit, have been doing community organizing for a long time, and the facts check out thus far. But I’m also noticing some inconsistencies. The article does a great job of articulating the exact concerns that I have mentioned, but has an interesting way of addressing them. It starts right off the bat by mentioning Mallory, Perez, and Sarsour. They go on to explain the perceived shortcomings of the march–the lack of inclusion, the appropriation of work done by women of color in the past. Mallory, Perez, and Sarsour are purportedly taking part to show that the march is inclusive of women of color, and they are fully committed. However, and here’s the first red flag for me, the writer never really specifies in what capacity. Are they included in planning? Are they speaking? Are they doing logistics? Are they planning the agenda? It doesn’t really say. In fact, the headline says the women are “leading”–not necessarily planning, and I don’t even really understand if they volunteered, or if they were asked to participate by others. The article repeats over and over again that they are great activists, but says nothing about what they are contributing to this march. Does that not seem a little suspect to you? Almost as if they were brought on board only to hide how white this group is?

I clicked on the link from the quotation “almost all white”. It takes me to a Facebook post from the March on Washington event page, written by one of the co-chairs (who is definitely white, btw) and she says their first step was “to engage” Perez, Mallory, and Sarsour. This was on 11/20. The article you posted is from 12/1. It’s just interesting to see how the semantics change in that period. They go from “engaging” the activists, you know, a friendly little inclusion thing, to having them “leading” the march. Maybe I’m reading into things, but this is what it sounds like to me: “yup, this was not started by 4 white women named Bob Bland, Evvie Harmon, Fontaine Pearson, and Breanne Butler at all. Not at all. We pinky promise. It’s all the women of color. All them.” Like, is that not kinda weird? Does it not smell to you like they are overcompensating for the overwhelming whiteness of the group planning this?

Furthermore, in the article, there is absolutely nothing about what these women hope to achieve, talk about, or envision for this march. Sure, it is a march for women. We get it. But what does that mean? Does it mean equal rights in the workforce? Does it mean economic equity? Does it mean protection from harassment? Does it mean communicating with law enforcement about protection for women? Does it mean reproductive justice? Does it mean building strong coalitions among women of all racial backgrounds? (Don’t give me that crap about “it’s about all of the above”. How many movements have we seen start like that? (I’m definitely thinking of the Occupy Wall Street movement) Every successful action has always stated clear and precise goals). And that’s the thing. Admittedly, my experience with community organizing is amateur at best. But from what little I know–and from what I know as a human adult, if this was an event that had a lot of intention behind it, it would have been planned a little more thoroughly. This does not seem like something that has been given careful planning and thought. In fact, later in this post, I’ve included a link to an article that says this march was started precisely because Hillary did not win the presidency, and is being held on Jan. 20 precisely because Trump is being sworn in that day [edit: It is being held on Jan. 21, to the same effect]. So I am going to have to disagree with you; this march is ALL about Hillary, and from what I’m seeing of an agenda, little else.

If you still don’t believe me, here’s the last point I’ll make. The Huffington Post article says the organizers STILL–as in, on 12/1, 7 weeks before this historic march thing is supposed to happen–don’t even have the permit that says “yes, these women are allowed to march at the National Mall”. Sure, this seems like a minor detail. They can march somewhere else. They might have gotten the permit by now. But doesn’t it seem a little strange to you that these women are putting together a serious action, calling women of color to their side to defend their actions, telling hundreds of thousands of women on Facebook–but they still don’t even know whether or not they can hold it in the place where they want it to be? Isn’t that a little careless? Doesn’t it seem as though they are using the labor of an awful lot of women of color for what seem to be rather flimsy ends?

And like, that’s not even to mention this group that supposedly was part of the planning for this march but has apparently degenerated into a joke: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/panstuit-nation-is-a-sham_us_585991dce4b04d7df167cb4d

Sorry, can’t resist, there’s just one last point I wanna make. Does it not speak volumes about the depth of white privilege that this white woman in Hawaii apparently called for a march, and then magically, one is happening? http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-women-idUSKBN13U0GW

So yes, Travis is probably right in saying the two situations are very different. But look, if you want to go to this march, and you think it will help women in America, and you think it is the right thing to do in this moment, then I absolutely support you. I hope it achieves everything you hope it will. I really do. I hope it is a great march. But if something goes wrong, and I cannot understate this next part, do you understand how awful–AWFUL–it will be? Do these women understand that they will be accountable for EVERYTHING and ANYTHING that happens during this march? That it will absolutely be on them? I just don’t think they do. That’s why I’m not supporting this thing. I’m not trying to scare you, but I hope you are thoroughly informed about the possibilities of what could happen. But if you honestly think the march will make a difference, then I absolutely support you, and I hope you are right. I hope you are right.

An Analysis of Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie

americanahIn the last two days, I have been opening the copy of Americanah  that I checked out from the library, expecting there to be more for me to read, and feeling disappointed that there isn’t. Chimamanda Adichie has a gift for creating familiarity in her writing through meticulous pacing.

This book was not unlike The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (which I recently talked about here), though Adichie pursues characterization with the approach of extroverted intuition–through dialogue among groups of people, as opposed to Lahiri’s internal thought processes. The main characters in Americanah, Ifemelu and Obinze, emigrate to Western countries, and the impetus to make these transitions comes from political unrest in their country of origin, Nigeria. Both novels also portray the ways in which insecurity from political unrest affects people on an individual level–in Americanah, the way Ifemelu’s father loses his job, and how Aunty Uju has a child by The General.

Adichie differs from Lahiri because she leans more towards emoting than intellectualizing. I am fascinated with the way she narrates with an omniscience about other characters’ personalities. Here is an example:

Her skin prickled, an unease settling over her. There was something venal about his thin-lipped face; he had the air of a man to whom corruption was familiar. (Adichie, 2013 p.242)

Adichie has barely introduced the man referred to in the excerpt, but we already have an idea of the kind of person he is. One of my favorite examples of characterization is the description of the hairdresser, Aisha.

Aisha glanced at Ifemelu, nodding ever so slightly, her face blank, almost forbidding in its expressionlessness. There was something strange about her. (2013, p.22)

The way Ifemelu talks about other characters tells us a lot about her own personality. In the course of the novel, Aisha is a recurring character with whom Ifemelu becomes progressively more annoyed and, much later, more understanding. Ifemelu reminds me somewhat of Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. She is a confident young woman who values genuineness from other people in her life. It is not unusual for her to be the most discerning person in the theoretical room. Thus, on the rare occasion when there is more to the story than what Ifemelu perceives, as in the case of Aisha, she is forced to revise her initial impressions.

The way Adichie writes about America brought up many thoughts for me. First, she does a great job of illustrating the ways that women of color experience microaggressions in everyday life, and how it simply isn’t possible to address all of them because that would completely drain any sane human being of energy. This is an example:

“What a beautiful name,” Kimberly said. “Does it mean anything? I love multicultural names because they have such wonderful meanings, from wonderful rich cultures”…”I don’t know what it means,” Ifemelu said, and sensed rather than saw a small amusement on Ginika’s face. (2013, p. 244)

This passage amuses me. Ifemelu receives her fair share of dumb questions from white people in the course of the novel. This one is self-explanatory. I have heard from a trusted source that even white people’s names mean something, though the significance might fade after meeting 9 or 10 people with the same name in one university department or one residence hall.

This reminds me of an incident that happened to me in first grade. After I told the class that I had gone to India over the summer, my white teacher asked me, “Is India very different from the United States?” In perhaps the first recorded instance of me being sarcastic, my response was, “No.”

I was also humored by Ifemelu’s stance on American health systems.

“…And now you cheat on Curt because at some level you don’t think you deserve happiness,” [Ginika said.]

“Now you are going to suggest some pills for Self-Sabotage Disorder,” Ifemelu said. (2013, p.480)

While I think mental health is certainly something that should be talked about in communities of color, I also love the critique of Americans in this exchange. I absolutely think people in the United States are too obsessed with medicalization (literally, I see a study every day about new things that cause cancer) as well as labeling perceived illnesses. For example, a friend of mine who works as a kindergarten teacher firmly believes that half her students have ADHD, and the other half are autistic. Could it be that maybe this is just how children behave in the age of technology? Could it be that maybe my friend is just overworked and should really have an aide because one adult can’t keep up with 20 children?

Furthermore, I think Adichie makes some radical implications about relationships in this novel. During her time in America, Ifemelu has two boyfriends: Curtis, a rich white guy, and Blaine, one of those hippie Black guys who eat quinoa and care about yoga and shit. I’m sure you’ve caught on that I didn’t particularly like either of them, and if I didn’t know better, I would say Adichie meant for that to be the case.

Curtis reminded me of this asshole-white-guy I used to date named Jeremy Jay Baker (full name included here to warn goodhearted women to stay the fuck away from him). Curt is described as being “happy, handsome, [sic.] with his ability to twist life into the shapes he wanted” (2013, p.482). Curtis was the kind of person who was only ever happy when things went the way he wanted them to, which was of course, all the time. Or so he thought, until Ifemelu cheated on him, and he called her a bitch (p. 482). It actually made me really angry when he said that to her. It reminded me of my last conversation with Jeremy, where I told him it seemed hypocritical to me that any time I expressed any emotion or dissatisfaction, I was being “volatile” or “dramatic”, yet when something bad “happened” to him, I had to hold his hand and pretend his little problems mattered. He responded by saying something like, “I don’t have to take this from you.” Then he never talked to me again. Charming, that one. I should have said something disapproving sooner, if that was all it took to get rid of him.

Ifemelu, on the other hand, was distraught when Curtis left her, which he really didn’t deserve. Ifemelu belongs in the category of boss bitches who are going to Achieve with a capital A. Curtis is a boring white guy.

Blaine is not much better. From his description, he seems like one of those men who gets very hurt when you don’t take his advice to heart. He exerts his power through influence:

She did not ask for his edits, but slowly she began to make changes, to add and remove, because of what he said. (2013, p.521)

During the course of the relationship, Ifemelu starts to eat differently, picks up more academic jargon, and takes on a lot of Blaine’s behavior. Not all of the changes seem harmful for Ifemelu–she gains insight into race and being Black in America by conversing with Blaine’s friends. Still, it doesn’t surprise me at all when the two break up because Ifemelu would rather eat a good lunch than stand outside a building and protest with Blaine and his poisonous sister, Shan.

In comparison, Obinze, who is Ifemelu’s first and last love, seems like a mature, mellow human being. Even if Ifemelu ever cheated on him, I have a hard time imagining him calling her a bitch. Not that either of them seem inclined to cheat on each other.

The action in Americanah speeds up toward the end of the novel, when Ifemelu goes back to Nigeria and meets Obinze again. Adichie barely graces sex with a few words every time there are sex scenes, but there’s still something arousing about them. Unlike Lahiri, who leaves you with stark impressions of body parts, Adichie gives you feelings.

She propped herself up and said, “I always saw the ceiling with other men.” (2013, p,. 737)

The explanation, which is also the origin of Obinze’s nickname, simply conveys that no one else could ever compare to Obinze. I felt it was radical of Adichie to put Ifemelu and Obinze together in the end. Ifemelu, who has never really identified with Americanness, chooses her Nigerian boyfriend over the men she meets in America. America, the Great Consumer Capital of the world, where you can get anything your heart desires, is not where Ifemelu found love.

It leaves me with a foolish sliver of hope. Maybe if I go to Assam, I can also find a mature, mellow human who will not call me a bitch if I cheat on him? I suspect all the men I know will have to age considerably before they reach that level of sophistication.

Works Cited

Adichie, C. N. (2013). Americanah. Thorndike Press.

The next book I plan to analyze: The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour

The Idea of Bravery

I’d like to contest the idea of bravery as it is portrayed traditionally. Women of color can never be traditionally brave. We are encouraged not to hold positions of great responsibility. We are told not to deliberately put ourselves in danger. We are even told to keep our opinions to ourselves in case we anger someone more important than us who can then take away what little power we have over our lives.

We have historically been considered pieces of property, pets to be coddled. Yet thousands of us wake up every day, walk around in public spaces where we are traditionally threatened, get an education and work in environments that are barely tolerant at best and hostile toward us at worst.

That is not just brave. That is revolutionary.