Who Will Help Black Women Win?

“won’t you celebrate with me

what I have shaped into

a kind of life?

I had no model

Born in Babylon

Both nonwhite and woman

What did I see to be except myself?

I made it up

Here on this bridge between starshine and clay,

My one hand holding tight

My other hand; come celebrate

With me that everyday

Something has tried to kill me

And has failed.” ~ Lucille Clifton

Being a black woman always means having to offer context for your humanity.

It has always meant this. Before Doug Jones’ win. Before this administration. Before hip hop. Before the Black Power movement, the civil rights movement, the Harlem Renaissance.

You get my point.

Being a black woman means that even though you are hypervisible, the intersection of racism and sexism renders you invisible.

As we march toward 2018, it means that unless black women continue to do the important work of contextualizing and elevating our own stories of how we survive, how we win, in the face of continued aggressions and microaggressions, no one will know anything about what we have faced from our perspective.

Earlier this year, the National Domestic Workers Alliance published the State of Black Women in America to zero fan fare at all: “Black women consistently work for a better country, but our country is not working for them,” the report says in part. It details facts that you might suspect but are still tiring to see in the aggregate:

  • More than 80 percent of black women are the primary breadwinners in their families
  • Over 60 percent of black women participate in the labor force — among the highest of any ethnic group, despite the fact that our earnings lag behind that of most everyone else, male or female
  • Nearly 17 percent of non-elderly Black women lack health insurance, though we suffer from higher maternal mortality rates and a host of other health disparities exacerbated by the stress brought on by racial discrimination. (If you missed it or want to know more about the extent to which health disparities are killing black women in particular, this piece co-published by ProPublica and NPR is important and astounding.)

I think about these statistics and many others that aren’t listed above but I just know from my lived experience and from working for much of my life and I wonder how to reconcile this with the continual dismissal of black women’s lived realities. Because even when there has been a legacy for hundreds of years of black women fighting for the survival of each other and everyone else, the work of centuries can be reduced to relevance only for a single moment, a single victory in service of a single man of any race from anywhere in the world.

And then that becomes the narrative that is the most important about what black women are, and what we are good for. That the presiding narrative of being a black woman at the end of 2017 is that we are good at being of service and helping other people win is discouraging. It also begs the question: Who will help us win?

The day that Doug Jones won over Roy Moore in Alabama was a busy one for a lot of reasons, but that’s not why I wasn’t celebrating as hard as everyone else. I was still stunned by news footage of Roy Moore on a horse at the polls, almost certain that the imagery was meant to be as racially intimidating as the underreported voter suppression, and that image stayed on my mind all day.

I turned on my television for approximately two minutes to look at the exit poll data before polls closed. Moore was ahead at that point, so I turned the television off.

Of the effusive love poured on black women in the aftermath, 98 percent of whom voted for Senator-elect Doug Jones, Marcia Chatelain sums it up best writing for Dissent Magazine:

Those who are concerned about black women’s votes may want to study the incredible history of black women’s political organizing in the South, as well as the current odds that are stacked against them across the country. The post-2016 election narrative about red and blue America fixated on the gulf between conservative and liberal whites. This narrative also mourned the loss of a robust, left-leaning white electorate that has shifted rightward because of the incompetence and indifference of the Democratic Party. This analysis, which often elides the importance of racism and xenophobia in predicting white voting patterns regionally, also ignores the complexity of black voters and their motivations. In this moment, perhaps observers should take a few moments to consider how black women in Alabama and Virginia are not that different from black women in California and New York — all are contending with the forces of racism, sexism, and class immobility. Yet local challenges and regional differences dictate both the strategies and the resources black women have to fight these forces. Therefore, appreciating, or simply noting, black women’s voting patterns cannot provide reliable information on ideological divides across region or class, nor can expressions of gratitude make up for the need to organize whites to do anti-racist work.

I want to underscore the very last point: “…Nor can expressions of gratitude make up for the need to organize whites to do anti-racist work.”

In the past year, this has been my main point to anyone who asks me anything about what it is like to be a black woman right now. I am in search of true allies. I am exhausted by the notion that I have to keep repeating that this is not the work of the marginalized to do and to continue doing. I am not sure why media narratives opt instead to focus on more trendy forgotten demographics and yet, it makes perfect sense.

Black women know the work that is ours to do, so we do it. It is now up to other people, people with privileges that we do not have, to work to divest themselves of the comforts that come with their privilege in order to experience even an iota of what it is like to be us by committing to doing the hard work of anti-racist, anti-sexist work. (My friends Courtney and John model what this looks like. Courtney just posted a great piece on organizations led by black women you should support.)

Privilege, of course, is the elephant in all of these organizing spaces that remains unchecked and unchallenged. It is the economic engine that allows for progress. But it is not without its drawbacks if privileged progressives cannot be confronted about their blindspots.

Privilege means not having to confront the uncomfortable truths that black women have to live with, have to breathe in and don’t get to exhale, every moment of every day.

Privilege means knowing that significant swaths of women across economic classes have internalized misogyny and, often, problematic, racist views that allow them to justify it but instead of interrogating them or this trend as it relates to specific candidates, looking on the bright side, and thanking black women for saving you once again.

Privilege is understanding full well that words have power and meaning; remembering that the U.S. Holocaust Museum in November 2016 reminded the world that “the Holocaust did not start with killing but with words” — and still deciding to be complicit in the use of the vague, soft language of bigotry, coddling profiles of hate-mongers and homegrown Lone Wolf terrorists of the like who murder Christian patriots in their own churches simply because they are black, by supporting institutions and people who do not call racism by its true name and are not explicit about the very real, imminent dangers of racism to our democracy.

For our part, it is clear to black women that outside of standing in (surprisingly, occasionally) as a kind of avatar for the moral conscience of state and national electorates, if only because the narrative above feels so distasteful, generally we are the only ones who come to the defense of one another. I’m thinking specifically here of Rep. Maxine Waters, April Ryan, Jemele Hill, Rep. Frederica Johnson and Myeshia Johnson but they are not the only ones, unfortunately.

In one way or another, an attempt was made to silence or bully each of these black women this year — from the President of the United States, no less, or members of his administration — simply because she was a black woman in possession of herself and her voice and for nothing more.

The first and loudest voices coming to their defense, every time, were other black women. For a culture and society so polarized, it is understandable, though it is one of the more troubling ongoing paradoxes of our democracy that we have reached a moment of reckoning against some sexual predators and institutions under the banner of a movement started by Tarana Burke, a black woman, made more visible by well-known white actresses and erasure of working class people who continue to face the fall out and repercussions of unchecked power and manipulation because they cannot afford to come forward without the protections that privilege affords.

Like icons Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, who aggressively, actively and strategically organized against antilynching laws, and the many unsung women of the civil rights movement, of feminist movements of yesteryear and present day, I vote in my best interests. I continue to organize, write, read and amplify voices that are in my best interests and therefore, in the best interests of other black women in our nation, because we are the only ones, apparently, who are invested in us winning.

There’s a lot wrong with that, but the biggest tragedy in that to me is that whatever happens to black women ultimately happens to other women. Being both black and woman, at the bottom of the skin and gender hierarchies, our trajectories are bellwethers for everyone else.

I don’t mind being part of a tribe trying save everyone else. It would be nice, though, if other folks would actively decide to take on some of the responsibility for doing some of the saving. If 2017 taught us anything, it is that there is more than enough work to go around.

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She’s Gotta Have It

In 2004, when She Hate Me came out, I was assigned to write a story about Spike Lee for the San Francisco Chronicle, where I was a young features reporter at the time. The movie’s tagline was: “One heterosexual male. 18 lesbians. His fee…$10,000 each.”

Like a lot of Spike Lee’s work, I thought the concept was interesting, but I was worried about the execution. I missed one screening of the film, possibly two, and felt like my spirit was subconsciously trying to protect me from seeing the thing all the way through. (Roger Ebert, bless his soul, was probably the only person who wrote anything nice about the movie, which included animated sperm. )

The best thing about the movie was that it provided an opportunity for me to interview Spike Lee in person. His Malcolm X biopic is one of my favorite movies of all time. I wouldn’t see them until later, but When the Levees Broke and 4 Little Girls are two of the most important and beautiful documentaries ever made about black people in our country.

I respect Spike Lee because he has fought for and maintained against all odds complete and utter control of his artistic vision. He is not afraid to take risks, which makes me love him loyally and even more, because there is perhaps no bigger challenge for black artists in America than to take risks.

In the realm of creativity and imagination, black art is always cast as political, created in response to or because of oppression. Black art, like black genius, that is beautiful on its own merit, absent of political sensibilities, is not a concept that is understood, which is why most critiques of black cultural products that are not composed by people of color miss the mark. They cannot conceive of a blackness that is not self-conscious, reactive and that exists for its own sake or to encourage more of the same.

Anyway, even though I was intimidated by Spike, it was still an honor to speak to him and a very young Kerry Washington (also a Bronx girl). I rambled and he was patient but I had two burning questions:

  • Would he one day find the discipline to end a movie properly? (I was thinking of the basketball launch from prison out into the world at the end of He Got Game; the montage at the end of X; Bamboozled, Clockers…I mean, there are 30 years of movies here to assess at this point, so you get the point. But it doesn’t matter because I never got the courage to actually ask this.)
  • What did he think about criticisms that he only wrote one-dimensional female characters? (I did ask this: “Some people say that one of your flaws as a director is writing realistic female characters.” It could have been my imagination, but I remember him rolling his eyes at the first part of that question.)

There are likely some exceptions in Spike Lee’s work — of mothers, or sisters or women who are based on real-life characters — but by and large, women in Spike Lee’s films are rendered as caricatures instead of complex characters like male protagonists. It is always the men who have full and complete narrative arcs in his films, motivations that make sense, pragmatic drive and passion. Maybe because he is closer to them, he understands what motivates them, what they desire.

The women, though, tend to be caricatures. Troubled beauties. Whiny plot devices with a good line or two, amazing bone structure. This is them as love objects, as wives and lovers. As with all cultural products that are not meant to be humorous, maternal respect protects black motherhood from the same kind of flat rendering. But all other women are mysterious and odd.

When I asked Spike Lee about critiques of one-dimensional female characters in his films, he said that his wife and some time collaborator Tonya Lewis Lee helped him flesh out the women in his films. He didn’t say it but the look behind his thick framed glasses after suggested his answer should quell any critiques.

I thought about that again when I watched the She’s Gotta Have It Netflix series this weekend, for whom Tonya Lewis Lee is the show runner and for which there was reportedly a robust women’s writers room. This is the part you shouldn’t read if you haven’t watched it yet. SPOILERS BELOW.

  • The best thing about She’s Gotta Have It on the small screen is that it is beautiful to see. The actors are lovely. The soundtrack is amazing. The art is also lovely. (I loved so much of the influence of Art Consultant and Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh). The homage to black musicians and artists and blackness in Brooklyn is incredible.
  • The second best thing about this is that Spike Lee is brilliant on the small screen. I think this has something to do with giving his ideas a container in which to work. Sometimes the best writing is short because it requires economy and discipline; I think television and documentary work help him refine his vision and rein it in in a way that is only positive in the end.
  • In the span of 10 episodes, it’s clear that we are in a Brooklyn that is very different from the Brooklyn that Spike Lee has loved and grew up in his whole life. That informs the backdrop of the series in a way that isn’t distracting so much as it reminds you, regularly, that even though this a remix, it is very much a Spike Lee Joint. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Is this about Nola Darling or is it about the male experience of Nola Darling?
  • To that point about who this Nola Darling/series is for, maybe I should have expected there to be a moment about Trump and the 2016 Election, but 1. I didn’t and 2. I wasn’t sure why it was wedged in here. It felt like Spike couldn’t wait for his next project to get it out — much like his feelings on gentrification in Brooklyn — so he amplified them here.
  • DeWanda Wise is wonderful as Nola Darling. She is beautiful and perfect and has great chemistry, especially with Anthony Ramos, who plays Mars, but really with each of her lovers. I appreciated the update for her as someone with a fluid sexuality. This is something that could have been a little more fleshed out.
  • There is an odd heavy-handed series of comments on her black dress that needed to be condensed, and a scene in front of her art with Me’Shell N’degeochello playing while she’s spinning around that goes on for too long.
  • Much has already been made and will be made about how delightful She’s Gotta Have It is for representation of black women and the complexity of it. I would argue that it is a good start (and even that is debatable because…it has been 30 years! Can you call yourself woke if you got up late?) but there are some pretty wacky missteps. The whole Shamekka/butt injection side plot and scenario leads to a narrative arc for that character that is obvious and literally messy on all kinds of levels. The whole time it was happening, it felt like a flashback, like a montage from another movie.
  • At some point Nola makes the point, paraphrasing another woman, that she’s found the man of her dreams and it is her. It creates a bit of cognitive dissonance for someone who is essentially queer — is this the language she would use, then, to declare her freedom? Besides, in the end, it doesn’t seem that it’s even true — but maybe that’s just a set up for the next season.

In the end, I enjoyed She’s Gotta Have It more than I expected, and I’m curious to see where it will go from here. If you’ve seen it, what did you think?

On Marching & The Performance of Solidarity

A version of this blog also appeared on Medium

On President Trump’s 100th day in office, I’m thinking still about a lingering, ongoing sense of being reluctantly invited to join a spectacle of social change. It’s not the only reason I’m sitting out the People’s Climate March – I’m also busy, tired and need to have some time in my life when I’m not losing sight of what is true for me, which is that writing is my activism and my self-care but sometimes that looks like being silent, reading a book or being unproductive for a change.

But back to the spectacles.

The Women’s March was the most popular of these to date and I sat that one out, too, for a number of reasons, including concerns I had around inclusivity and representation. I know we’ve moved on and we’re so much better than this, but I will never forget learning first about the Women’s March from other black women who noticed that it was first named after the march led by black women as if that first one had never happened. Surely, it was merely a generational misstep, right? But so what. Erasure is erasure. If people erase you once, they will do so again.

But despite my personal ambivalence about an ongoing and popular performance of solidarity — the notion that by simply showing up and being physically present with mission-aligned people, the important intersectional work of sustainable social change becomes inevitable — I ignored the same problems with diversity that plagued the March for Science by making it a point to get to the satellite March for Science in New York City on Earth Day last Saturday.

IMG_0460

The sense of resistance to inclusion resurfaced this week when I read about Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr.’s encounter with police at the D.C. March for Science, which involved him being slammed against a food truck. He told ThinkProgress: “For me to go through that amplified what a lot of people of color have told me — that they don’t feel welcome in the environmental movement, or they can be singled out. I’ve been in the climate movement for a long time, and for the first time, I felt out of place. At that moment, I was just a black guy who was stopped by the police, harassed, roughed up, and let go.”

Rev. Yearwood went on to say in his HuffPost piece that broadening the environmental movement in particular, in terms of numbers or diversity, will only happen when meaningful things are put in place to do so. That includes the empathy that comes with knowing what it looks like to march as a person of color for science, for climate or any issue, for that matter.

It will mean going beyond performing the work of social change and solidarity.

Because I believe this, even though it’s sort of at odds with my status as an outgoing introvert, I forced myself out of my comfort zone on Saturday.


Part of why I was so invested in attending the March for Science is because I spent the better part of a year and a half at the end of the Obama Administration with a group of people I affectionately refer to as “the science nerds,” working as a deputy press secretary in the Office of Public Affairs at the Department of Energy. With a team of brilliant appointees and federal staff, I helped connect journalists to subject matter experts on energy efficiency, cybersecurity, wind and hydropower. I led the Energy Department’s coordination with the White House on initiatives related to deploying solar to low-income neighborhoods, broader incentives for electric vehicle adoption and more.

But my favorite part of each week was preparing a news briefing for former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. Secretary Moniz is a tireless nuclear physicist, whose sharp wit and fast mind are as acute as his grasp and eloquence related to the vast auspices of energy — whether he is discussing coal, carbon capture technology, energy efficiency or nuclear fusion. He could — and did — hold court for hours on negotiating the Iran Nuclear Deal, the importance of investing in energy infrastructure — from the electrical grid to shoring up the country’s petroleum reserves.

What I knew about climate when I joined the Department of Energy would not fill half a page. But from the wise folks I worked with, I learned that simultaneously, the earth was warming and our energy infrastructure was falling apart, but there were ways we could mitigate these changes. We could be more mindful of how the ways we used energy contributed to harmful carbon emissions.

hurricane-katrina-4

From the Paris Climate Agreement to Grid Modernization, the work I was a small part of seemed meant to not only make a meaningful contribution to climate in the near-term by fending off catastrophes like Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina, but in the long term, too, by calibrating the energy efficiency of appliances (to name just one example) to make them both affordable and less damaging to the environment. It was cool to imagine a world in which our federal government would be as invested in harnessing the natural abundance of wind, solar and hydropower in an effort to keep us from the disasters that are inevitable from the impact of climate change.

It was there that I also learned about climate resiliency and the lack of attention to how environmental racism impacts people of color and low-income communities. I learned more about how African Americans have already been hardest hit by climate change. How global warming has led to a climate gap most evident in poor communities.

Then there is the inconvenient evidence that throughout history, science has been leveraged to exploit people of color. That made it all the more ironic that the powerful HBO film based on Rebecca Skloot’s bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, aired on Earth Day, the same day as the science marches were held. The film truncates Skloot’s recovery of the lost history of how the unauthorized use of Lack’s cells revolutionized science with a stunning performance by Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter.

I watched the film the day after the march, disappointed at the missing conversation around these two related events. I’m thankful that civic engagement and social change organizing continues to move forward, not just in North America but around the world. But the idea that performing solidarity simply by showing up with clever signs will change the fact that some bodies are protected and others are not (in theory or in practice) is flawed. As the People’s Climate March and May Day rallies approach, I wonder how this will begin to shift, if at all.