What It’s Like to be a [blank]

I was at a Slam Poetry workshop the other day with Cyndey Edwards. As a prompt to get us writing poetry, she share Patricia Smith’s poem “What it’s Like to be a Black Girl (for those of you who aren’t).” Take a look at the poem below.

What it’s Like to be a Black Girl (for those of you who aren’t) by Patricia Smith

First of all, it’s being 9 years old and
feeling like you’re not finished, like your
edges are wild, like there’s something,
everything, wrong. it’s dropping food
coloring in your eyes to make them blue and suffering
their burn in silence. it’s popping a bleached
white mophead over the kinks of your hair and
priming in front of the mirrors that deny your
reflection. it’s finding a space between your
legs, a disturbance in your chest, and not knowing
what to do with the whistles. it’s jumping
double dutch until your legs pop, it’s sweat
and vaseline and bullets, it’s growing tall and
wearing a lot of white, it’s smelling blood in
your breakfast, it’s learning to say fuck with
grace but learning to fuck without it, it’s
flame and fists and life according to motown,
it’s finally have a man reach out for you
then caving in
around his fingers.

_______________________

What I enjoy the most about this poem is that it reads like a ‘how-to’ guide and is  instructional as well as personal. Here’s the prompt so you can write your own poem and share it with others!

First, we created a list of ways we identify. My list included everything from being asexual and homoromantic, to being a tea lover and a comic book reader.

From that list, we generated our own “What it’s like to be a [blank]”. The idea behind writing this poem is for us to define ourselves and claim ownership our identities and experiences.

Below is my first draft of “What It’s Like to be Asexual and Love Women.”

It’s not a Freudian lack no

Penis envy but a

Filling like the dentist’s

Hands inside your mouth the whir of

Metal drilling into bone under

Gum and enamel so your teeth grow

Strong so you grow strong.

Fixed.

Drink your tea.

Fill those silent mornings evenings wondering

How long can Single last

Before your Aunt, your Grandfather, the dentist (who

Goes to your Synagogue), the airport security agent begins

To ask

Questions about

Where your man is

(maybe) where your woman is

And why you want to shear your

Hair to your scalp and

are you gay and

“a little” does not answer

Cannot provide sustain the

Fullness that is romance

Without sex.

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MLK Day: Celebrate with Peace

The conversation around Martin Luther King Jr. tends to stop with race. The popular understanding of his contributions, cultivated in public schools, Black History Month, and text books say two things:

  1. Martin Luther King Jr. was a great and peace loving man who brought equality to Black Americans through the Civil Rights Movement
  2. His work is complete today

Pieces of the first statement is true: Martin Luther King Jr. was a great and peace loving man, but he did not bring about equality. We do not live in a post-racial world when people of color are murdered by police, murdered by white supremacists like Dylann Roof, when people of color are imprisoned and treated as criminals.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King’s legacy, we must understand three very different truths than what we are taught:

  1. We have much to do to continue Martin Luther King’s work through active nonviolent, anti-racist lives where we do not allow ourselves to be divided by color lines
  2. Martin Luther King spoke out against more than racial injustice

He fought for an end to poverty for people of all races. And he understood that race and war and poverty are intertwined. At the time of his speech: “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” (1967), the United States government spent approximately ten times more killing enemy soldiers than they did helping poor people. As he said further along in the speech:

I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such.

War becomes a matter of race because:

We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

The issue is the same today. We continue to send poor people–vulnerable people of all races–to fight overseas, when they are not guaranteed basic liberties in their own neighborhoods. One of the increasing number of Americans who cannot afford a college education? Through programs like the Reserved Officer Training Corps (ROTC) the military pays for your schooling and you join the military then as an officer. Our government and our military continue to exploit poor communities by denying them the basic right to education, and then (in one of many examples) paying for said education through an easy point of recruitment. Students become fodder for the war machine and are too busy learning military training to become politically active on college campuses.

To celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy we must stand against poverty in all its forms and against war and military recruitment. Only then can we march forward to equality.

Books By Women: The Lady Matador’s Hotel

Suki Palacios is a half-Mexican, half-Japanese female bull fighter. Cristina Garcia‘s novel only gets more intriguing from there. The story chronicles the lives of a cast of strangers (or near strangers) for the few days they all live in an unnamed Hispanic country’s most expensive hotel. The country has recently come out of a long and violent civil war.

Won Kim is a failing Korean businessman, at the hotel with his pregnant mistress. Aura is an ex-guerilla, no working as a waitress in the hotel’s restaurant. Gertrudis is a German international adoption lawyer. Martin is a colonel behind gross acts of violence during the civil war. Ricardo is a poet who, along with his wife, are adopting a baby girl.

lady matador

I first read this novel for a course I was tutoring and couldn’t devote the time to it I wanted. I was in the middle of taking my own college courses. When I made the commitment to read books by women for a year, this was on my list as one of the few books I planned to reread.

There are a four things which automatically make this book stand out as an inclusive feminist text.

1. Suki owns her sexuality.

As I’ve noticed as a trend in Garcia’s work (I’ve since read Dreaming in Cuban and will post on it shortly), her female characters do not shy away from sex or taking their own pleasure. For Suki, this means that part of her ritual before a bull fight is to find a male stranger with handsome feet she has sex with. In the novel, he pleasure her in a beautiful jarring scene between Suki and a man from room service.

Throughout the novel, all the male characters want to have sex with her, but Suki is always the one in control of how she uses her body. Better yet, there is no rape or coerced sexuality at all in the text.

2. Garcia plays with gender roles. 

Each character subverts or works from a gender stereotype. Suki, for all her beauty, competes in the masculine world of bull fighting. Won Kim wants nothing more than to study butterflies. Ricardo desires to be a great father, but no one trusts him because he’s male. Martin is the epitome of masculinity and we watch it consume his thoughts and violent desires. Although there are no queer, trans or gender divergent characters, Garcia purposely uproots our ideas about simple gender roles.

3.  Aura.

Aura’s my favorite. Garcia plays on gender expectations (again) when “the ex-guerilla” turns out to be female. Her plot arc, one of the most action based in the novel, is a revenge story which does not rely a gun in a female character’s hand for her to be strong. Her strength comes from her morality and her decisions. As Aura seeks revenge for her brother’s murder she has to really consider the consequences of jumping back into a life where she is a murderer: a life she gave up and does not want.

4. Aura. 

Aura provides the magical realism of the novel, adding just enough magic and mystery that I was engaged with both the characters and the world. Is Aura really speaking to her dead brother on the roof of the hotel? Maybe. Probably. But maybe not.

Garcia is the master of this in-between, ambiguous space. What I love the most is that, like Suki’s mixed heritage, everyone is more than one piece of  their identity. Everyone is messy and struggling. Without straying into dark plots that could never reach a happy ending or even a conclusion, Garcia takes each individual’s struggle seriously even the despicable characters we want to hate. Writing this humanity for even the darkest and most awful characters is what makes this novel a must-read.

Up next feminist nonfiction essays: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Keep reading!

It’s not Mental Illness. It’s not Gun Control. It’s White Supremacy.

A 21 year-old white man shoots up The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, killing 9 innocent people and the country’s response falls into 3 categories.

  1. We say Dylann Roof is crazy and we need to place him and those like him in mental institutions.
  2. We argue about had better gun laws.
  3. We pick apart Roof’s background to uncover what could have ever brought this normal sweet kid to commit such an act.

Rarely do we see people attribute this domestic terrorist attack to racism. Dylann Roof is a white supremacist. He ran a website called lastrhodesian.com, a reference to the white-minority ruled African country of Rhodesia in the 1960s and 1970s (now Zimbabwe). His license plate is the Confederate flag. According to Kara Bolonik, in her article Dylann Roof Is a Racist and a Terrorist. That’s All You Need to Know About Him  for Dame Magazine, before firing his gun, Roof said:

“I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.”

It’s easy and ableist to say Roof is mentally ill. To do so is to say he is not like us. We would never do something like that. He is unstable, if he were neurotypical he would never have committed such an act. In one fell swoop we discount the evidence above and place Roof into a neat package that is easily digestable and separate from ourselves. By this logic, nine black people are dead because Roof is mentally ill.

No. Nine black people are dead because Roof is a white supremacist. Tell it like it is.

CNN’s coverage in the online article Shooting Suspect in Custody After Charleston Church Massacre makes references to a past arrest warrant in February and a possibility that Roof was addicted to opium or other drugs. This is another derailment tactic to keep us away from the issue at hand. Whether or not Roof was on drugs, had done drugs, or never touched drugs in his life is irrelevant. He purposefully shot 9 black people, with the express wish to cause terror.

The same CNN article diverts word space to whether Roof’s father bought him a gun for his 21st birthday, or whether Roof bought the gun himself with birthday money. Although our country needs stronger gun control laws, this is not a case about gun violence. Gun laws are not the issue.

We should be asking what culture he lives in and we contribute to where a young man can have a Confederate flag on his license plate and where the streets in his state are named after Confederate generals and where black men and women die every day at the hands of police brutality. We need to ask how we contribute to a world which supports white supremacy and masks our racism under ableism and issues of gun control.

And as we spend hours and days analyzing Roof, we cannot forget that he murdered 9 people and these people have have names and lives. Join me in mourning:

Cynthia Hurd, 54 years old
Suzy Jackson, 87 years old
Ethel Lee Lance, 70 years old
Rev. De’Payne Middleton-Doctor, 49 years old
Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41 years old
Tywanza Sanders, 26 years old
Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, 74 years old
Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45 years old
Myra Thompson, 59 years old

What we can do now is mourn the dead and change our behavior to create a country that is not dominated by white supremacy.

Books By Women: The Poisonwood Bible

There was no way I was going to read The Poisonwood Bible. I wasn’t going to read it. And if I read it, I wasn’t going to enjoy it. My friend who recommended it to me, read it in high school. Why would I read this book after I graduated from college?

I knew all I needed to know about the book from the title and the premise: a white Christian family of missionaries goes to the Congo in the 1960s. It would be a book of searingly blatant themes that THE WEST SHOULDN’T INTERFERE WITH AFRICA, and CONGOLESE TRADITIONS DON’T NEED CHRISTIANITY and LOOK AT THIS SYMPATHETIC WHITE FAMILY BLUNDER IN AFRICA BUT STILL BE SYMPATHETIC.

I was mainly right. The book was blatant about its themes. Yet, I enjoyed it when I promised I wouldn’t. I finished it when I thought I would hand it back to my friend with a shake of my head.

the_poisonwood_bible_cover_by_tomwright156-d3gufxf

The novel had its strengths, far more than I wanted to give it credit for. To start, the writing was very poetic and I kept a growing list of lines and quotes in a notebook to remember how Barbara Kingsolver molded language. Her writing is emotionally gripping and her details on Congolese culture and language highlight expertise I had not been expecting when the story appeared so simple and moralistic. The historical details of Patrice Lumumba’s  assassination and the ensuing struggle for Congolese independence under the meddling fist of the United States provides great background for readers unfamiliar with modern African history. Kingsolver even appeased the history major in me by including a works cited page at the back of the book. It also helps that Kingsolver grew up in a missionary family who went to the Congo.

I cared about the characters though I promised I would just read this book to make my friend happy (she had loaned it to me for over a year before I finally picked it up). As it turns out, I am a sucker for a well characterized first person point of view. I am a special sucker for stories with multiple first person point of views (Doctrine of Labyrinths). And The Poisonwood Bible fulfills my need to read books by women, but the story is also narrated by women. Five women to be precise. Orelanna Price and her four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May. Orelanna brings her four daughters with her when she follows her Minister husband into the Congo to bring Jesus into the lives of the natives. Despite a blatant hit you over the head anti-colonial message which knows no subtlety, this is a novel which does what not many other books think to do: give voice to a whole cast of female characters. 

Thank you Barbara Kingsolver for understanding that women do not need to be likeable but they need to be real and complicated which (for the most part) Kingsolver accomplished.

If it wasn’t readily apparent, I still flip-flop on this book. The writing is strong but overbearing, especially when Kingsolver tries to use extended metaphors. I would recommend the novel to high schoolers as well as readers who have no background in colonial history or African history. It’s not something I would reread, but if nothing else, I’m glad I read it because of the sheer number and expression of plurality of female characters.

Next up: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina Garcia.

Keep reading!

Books By Women: Parable of the Sower

Writing is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyse yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it.

Octavia Butler

In my pursuit to read books by women for a year– and specifically women of color– I turned to Octavia Butler. Last summer I read books one and two of her Xenogenesis Series (also known as Lilith’s Brood) and her short story Blood Child–a pdf is available online.

download (1)  81PLW16UMUL._SL1500_

When I read Octavia Butler, I’m ready for three things.

  1.  science fiction with the understanding that the genre is perfect for commenting and critiquing our world and culture
  2. a detailed analysis of culture
  3. a diverse cast of characters and a female lead of color

Parable of the Sower lived up to these expectations.

435214 (1)

The book follows Lauren, a teenage black woman living on Earth after the planet has suffered ecological disaster and the United States has all but fallen into anarchy. Lauren lives with her dad, a Minister, and her family behind a walled city, one of the only ways to protect yourself from a world where walking outside of your gate almost certainly means being robbed, raped or killed. I loved the raw and brutal depiction of the United States because the danger was real and very plausible. The narrative brought up issues of modern day slavery where most jobs do not pay or pay in company scrip from company-owned cities and towns. The economic situation pitted the poorest people living on the streets against the less-poor but barely eeking out a living families who live behind walls, like Lauren. The story is a survival story: when Lauren’s walled city is destroyed, can she survive the danger posed by her fellow human beings?

Lauren also has a secret. Though her father is a minister and she was raised Christian, she doesn’t believe in a Christian G-d. Her understanding of G-d is a self-designed religion called Earthseed, told through poems at the start of each chapter.

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
is Change.

God
is Change.
Octavia E. Butler Parable of the Sower

I’m sure I missed many of the religious references because as a Jew, I don’t know the Christian Bible and often miss Biblical allusions, but someone with a stronger background in religion would, I’m certain, have endless entertainment parsing through the novel.

There were a few things in particular I loved about this book.

  1. Lauren is black but her race is not her one and only defining attribute.
  2. Lauren has sex and doesn’t apologize for it, demean, or demonize her sexuality.
  3. the main characters are racially diverse with multiple characters who are black, white, Hispanic, or mixed. One character never serves to represent their entire race.

I have not read the sequel, Parable of the Talents, but from the summary, it seems as if it will patch up a few issues of the story I struggled with. The novel is a brilliant text and a feminist text, but I wasn’t as invested in the characters as I wanted to be. Especially as the novel progresses and we have more and more main characters to follow I have difficulty keeping up and wished the story were more character driven and less plot driven (though the Xenogenesis series had the same issue). Still, I would highly recommend Parable of the Sower for your reading list to add more female authors of color to your shelf.

Next up: the Poisonwood Bible. Keep on reading!

Coloring While White

I was at an event at my college, hosted by the South Asian students association, the Black Student Association, and the Muslim Student Association and they had whole tables of pictures to color, most of which were of women of color. There was a brilliant picture of Princess Jasmine, from Disney’s Aladdin, waving a flag that read:

nobody’s free until everyone is free!

And when I went to color her in, I had to stop and think and remember to reach for a brown crayon to color her skin. I had never thought of this micro aggression against people of color before, but it’s so obvious now that I think about it. As a person perceived as white and benefiting daily from white privilege, regardless of how I choose to identify, even things like crayons cater to me. I can reach into a Crayola crayon box and pull out a “flesh” colored crayon, which tells me, even as a child, that this is the natural color of a person’s skin.

flesh

I feel oblivious and ashamed that I never noticed that until last week. But until we notice and address the micro-aggressions against people of color, we’ll never move beyond them to address the blatant issues of racism. Because, nobody’s free until everyone is free and nobody’s free while we ignore white privilege.