By Guest Contributor Sydney Magruder; originally published at Elixher
I am 10 years old, sitting in a booth at Applebee’s, and my Dad is grilling me.
“Okay, last one. Who was the first Black woman ever to enter space?”
I am stumped.
“C’mon, Syd. I know you know it,” prods Daddy.
I turn the question over and over in my head like a smooth stone unearthed from a riverbed. Who was the first Black woman ever to enter space? I bite down harder on my lower lip, considering all of the trivia questions Daddy has ever asked me, and trying to remember if he’d asked this one before. He had not.
I remember learning about her in school, and I could see her smiling face on a picture from my 6th grade classroom. Suddenly, a moment of clarity. A flash of brown skin, a cumbersome-looking orange suit, and the NASA insignia above a gleaming white name tag: Jemison.
“Mae Jemison! The first Black woman ever to enter space was Mae Jemison!” I offer confidently.
“Atta girl, Syd!” Daddy offers me a single french fry as reward for my effort.
As was customary, we played Black history trivia every time we went out to eat together. For each right answer, I was given that crunchy, salty, coveted reward. I munch contentedly as I watched the gears turn in his head, forming another question.
“Now…who was the first Black woman ever to be President of the United States?” he raises his eyebrow mischievously.
“Daddy, that’s a trick question. No Black woman has ever been President of the United States. It’s a fact.”
(I was a serious child—a very bossy, know-it-all, matter-of-fact little girl. Imagine Angelica, of Rugrats fame, with afro puffs.)
“Ah, not yet!” he shakes his finger at me. “It could very well be you, Sydney Magruder!” he bellows in his full, rich baritone. I laugh at him, and reach for another french fry. He reaches for one too, pretending to fence with his. I best him, splitting his fry pitifully in half with my own. I chew triumphantly.
“Ready to go?” he indicates the door with his eyes.
“Mom’s gonna make me go straight to bed when we get home,” I gripe. “I’m not sleepy yet!”
I always begged to stay longer whenever we went out. Bedtime was the ultimate hindrance to our intellectual adventures.
Sydney and her dad (right)
“Even geniuses have to sleep, baby” he retorts rationally.
In the car, the raindrops race each other across the window. I follow them with my index finger as the Washington, D.C. skyline hung in the distance. Daddy sings along to Crosby, Stills & Nash. Out of nowhere, he turns down his favorite track. As “Southern Cross” plays faintly in the background, he turns to me.
“Y’know, I think you’d make a great president one day,” he beams. I smile at him, believing his every word.
And just like that, Daddy put roots in my heart. Roots that would one day grow into feminism.
As a child, Dad constantly reminded me that I was not limited by my gender, or by my Blackness. He celebrated them to no end, constantly praising my intellect, my wit, and my good judgment. He made perfectly clear to me the plight of women and of people of color in this country, and stressed the importance of knowing our history — my history.
The trivia games we played at restaurants when I was a child have reinvented themselves into an expected text message from him to me every April 4th and November 22nd, asking me which two famous men died that day. (Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, respectively. Nailed it.) He still promises me french fries for correct answers. While my mom demonstrated the strength, poise, grace and tenacity of women of color in her everyday actions, Daddy proclaimed them in his words.
On Sunday night, four of my friends and I—all people of color—watched a YouTube clip of Miley Cyrus’ performance completely prepared to laugh and joke about it by its conclusion. We were expecting something that would fit neatly in the long line of ridiculous and yet mostly entertaining awards show performances. Instead, as the YouTube clip reached its end, the room fell completely silent. Even as a writer, I don’t quite have words to describe what that moment felt like. Using academic lingo to explain why cultural appropriation is problematic is one thing; the feeling in your gut when you actually watch parts of your identity being used as props is another. As is true with so many shockingly specific traumatic black experiences, this is a feeling we all recognize immediately, and a feeling we all have no words to describe. In the hours and days following, the critical feminist response was, yet again, a reminder of the ways in which my blackness—even as it exists in concurrence with my femininity—is still actively being othered.
A few weeks have passed since the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag first surfaced on Twitter. The subsequent conversation about the lack of representation and further marginalization of women of color by white women in the feminist movement (not at all a new conversation) seemed suddenly reenergized. Women of color have always talked about the subtle racism that happens within the feminist movement; just because you haven’t heard it, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been said—especially considering which narratives are allowed space and which ones aren’t. But with this hashtag, their voices suddenly had a stage. And some white women listened. Some critiqued their own privilege and pointed out the ways the feminist movement has historically dismissed women of color and their experiences. But now, it seems that even those well-meaning white feminists have yet to turn their articles into actual actions.
Most of the responses following Cyrus’ performance have been a conversation of the unconventional way in which she expressed her sexuality on the VMAs stage and the slut-shaming that ensued. Many feminists have since rushed to her defense and appropriately prompted us all to question our immediate negative response to Cyrus’ choice sexual presentation. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a valid stance—in the sense that slut-shaming is certainly a habit that supports rape culture and demanding that society recognizes a woman’s sexual autonomy is hard and necessary work. Back when Cyrus was being sexual without involving the appropriation of my blackness, I was totally on board. Now? Not so much.
Here’s where the racial fissures in feminism come out: by all means, defend a woman’s right to govern her own body; it’s great that white feminists have that goal at the top of their lists. But meanwhile, as a woman of color, I’m still defending my right to actually be considered a body at all and not decoration. Expressing your sexuality at my expense isn’t okay. You don’t get to claim sexual freedom while simultaneously perpetuating the oppression of another body. When you feel the need to express your sexuality by turning my body into an accessory, the black feminist in me—two identities which I refuse to separate—can’t have your back anymore. The feminist struggle is a struggle for autonomy. It’s a fight for recognition and full-body respect. But in Cyrus’ search for and exploration of her sexual identity, she limits my autonomy as a woman of color. She appropriates it. She cheapens it. She effectively uses the identity and lived experiences of so many women of color as a crutch for her career. Continue reading →
Just got this last-minute invite to a really great event going on in Harlem, if you’re in town later today.
Picture The Homeless (PTH), a grassroots social-justice organization founded and led by homeless people advocating around the issues of housing, police violence, and the shelter system, reveals their new mural based on those themes today at 4pm at 138t Street and Adam Clayton Powell. The mural is on the side of Epiphany Bar. (More details here.
According to Shaun Lin, one of PTH’s community organizers, the mural was a 6-month collaborative effort of people of all ages living in the community.
“This mural itself is actually the conclusion of a 6-month collaborative process between Picture The Homeless, Peoples Justice, and artist Sophia Dawson. We started with a few study sessions–of “Broken Windows” theory, “quality-of-life” policing, and resistance/organizing around these policing practices–which guided a collective visioning process in which particular images drawn directly from study and conversation. And finally concluded in the painting of the mural, which included 2 community painting days and over 80 volunteers [sic]. The mural itself is beautiful in itself, but the process of creating and painting the mural has been one of the most engaging, collaborative, and community-oriented projects I’ve personally worked on.”
One of my favorite Tumblrs, black beauty, featured photos submitted by Tumblrer Indigo, who dressed in an homage to legendary artist Frida Kahlo. (The headline comes from the caption she wrote to describe her picture.)
Growing up as a black gay boy in Youngstown, Ohio, my mother always said “Son, you must operate in this world intentionally, you must treat others with respect, and you must keep your hands to yourself.”
My fellow gay men, I want the best for all of us. We are not automatically granted access to a woman’s body. This letter is even for me as a reminder of my male privilege regardless of my sexual orientation. This is why I humbly ask for you to examine how we operate in this world and how we utilize the space of others.
We cannot touch a woman without her permission. We are not the exception and her permission to us is not implied. We, too, can promote rape culture. We do not get a “pass” to touch her hair or her body or her clothes. We do not have an automatic right to critique her weight or texture of hair. We are still men, and women will always deserve our respect. Despite the cultural context, women still speak for themselves. We must learn this, and we must understand this. Women have autonomy over their own body. For those of us who consider ourselves feminists, we cannot constantly promote feminism and women’s ownership, then be bent out of shape when she decides that she does not want to be subjected to touching, feeling, or unwanted contact.
Fellow gay men, we cannot invade a woman’s personal space because there isn’t any sexual attraction. Regardless of us not wanting to be sexually intimate with women, we, too, must seek permission and be given explicit consent to anything on their body. We must realize that no still means no. It always will.
In Bitch magazine, Racialicious senior editor Tamara Winfrey Harris weighs in on feminist criticism of singer Beyonce:
Dr. Sarah Jackson, a race and media scholar at Boston’s Northeastern University, says, “The idea that Beyoncé being sexy is only her performing for male viewers assumes that embracing sexuality isn’t also for women.” Jackson adds that the criticism also ignores “the limited choices available to women in the entertainment industry and the limited ways Beyoncé is allowed to express her sexuality, because of her gender and her race.”
Her confounding mainstream persona, Jackson points out, is one key to the entertainer’s success as a black artist. “You don’t see black versions of Lady Gaga crossing over to the extent that Beyoncé has or reaching her levels of success. Black artists rarely have the same privilege of not conforming to dominant image expectations.”
Solange, Beyoncé’s sister, who has gone for a natural-haired, boho, less sexified approach to her music, remains a niche artist, as do Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, and Shingai Shoniwa of the Noisettes, like so many black female artists before them. Grace Jones, Joan Armatrading, Tracy Chapman, Meshell Ndegeocello—talented all, but quirky black girls, especially androgynous ones, don’t sell pop music, perform at the Super Bowl, or get starring roles in Hollywood films.
Black women (and girls) have also historically battled the stereotype of innate and uncontrolled lasciviousness, which may explain why Beyoncé’s sexuality is viewed differently from that of white artists like Madonna, who is lauded for performing in very similar ways.
Last week, Jennifer Lopez scandalized Britain with a “raunchy” performance on “Britain’s Got Talent.” Not only did viewers flock to social media (as you do) to complain about JLo dropping it like it’s hot in a French-cut one piece and thigh-high boots, but British TV regulator OfCom confirmed that it has received complaints about the broadcast and is assessing the matter, but not investigating it.
For helpful context, here is the performance–labeled “disgusting” and “shameful” by some critics–that provoked an “assessment” of whether a competitive reality show violated the bounds of decency.
In my humble opinion, the only thing indecent about that performance was the tepidness of the dancing and the awfulness of the song. (But, hey, maybe it’s not for me. I’m an old–actually the same age as JLo–and I don’t spend much time at the club lately.)
I suspect the assessment of Jennifer Lopez’s performance is influenced by both race, size and age bias. But you know I’m conspiratorial that way, so I asked Andrea, my homegirl and fellow editor at the R to weigh in.
Tami: When I heard all the crowing about this performance, I recalled Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance earlier this year., which also prompted cries of outrage.
Both of these performances seem astonishingly tame in the face of criticism. “Disgusting” is a pretty strong word to describe booty shaking in a body suit. Folk are generally cool with sexy (and sexist) Go Daddy commercials during the Super Bowl, but Queen Bey causes parents to “shield their kids’ eyes.”
I think the response to these performances is very much influenced by racial bias. Brown and black bodies are routinely sexualized. Latinas bear the weight of the “spicy” and “exotic” stereotypes. And those stereotypes have dogged Lopez throughout her career. The nickname “J. Ho”–a reference to the singer/actress’ alleged promiscuity and mercenary character–even has a spot in the Urban Dictionary. And I should point out, these accused character traits seem to be based on little but the skewed way this culture views Latinas.
Lopez herself told US magazine of the controversy: “I think people are so much raunchier than I am. I feel like I’m so tame. [I] wore it at Billboard and Britain’s Got Talent said they wanted exactly the same. So I thought I’d wear the outfit in black. No one complained at Billboard. I think people just like to talk. It was a bodysuit. A lot of performers wear that these days. It is standard stage clothes. I’m not going to walk down the street like that!”
JLo’s act does not seem markedly different from any other pop spectacle–no different Britney Spears’ iconic performance at the 2000 VMA’s or what this Britney impersonator did during an audition for…wait for it…“Britain’s Got Talent” in 2011.
Andrea: I agree, especially about the relative tepidness of Lopez’s performance and the non-scandalousness of her outfit.
What I think is at play here is Beyonce and Lopez are doing dance moves that are, whether done with Beyonce’s exuberance or with Lopez’s tepidness, sexy moves that they thought of and/or approved of. In other words, they’re expressing their sexual agency. However, that’s a major no-no in a society steeped in the sexist ethos of “I can touch you, but you can’t touch yourself,” which has a long structural history in the lives of women of color due to slavery and colonization.
And this “what about the children” reasoning as to folks’ disgust with the two women’s performance brings up not only women of color doing that stereotypical thing of ruining people’s sexual “innocence” but also something of–how shall I phrase this?–an unspoken notion of the influence of images not only affecting how a person will be “brought up” to express their own sexuality but also the kind of person their brain will be hard-wired to be attracted to. If the child–and let’s be really real, kids are indeed sexual beings–is connecting their erotic feelings to seeing a woman of color dancing like Lopez and moreso like Beyonce, the parents may be thinking that their child just may act upon that attraction and–gasp!–fall in love and–clutch the pearls!–bring “such a woman” home as a spouse.
Tami: And here’s the other thing: Jennifer Lopez (and Beyonce) are not only women of color, they are also women known for having curvy body types, which are often associated with Latinas and black women and are larger than the current ideal for celebrities. Unrestrained fleshiness and jiggle reads differently than hard and trim; Physical abundance is often mistaken for wantonness.
Media wrote about Lopez’s “bum-baring” performance, but the singer’s booty is covered; her outfit was less revealing than typical beachwear. Could the rub be that JLo’s rear is big and round vs. tiny and tight?
Andrea: I think Lopez herself has pointed out how her body shape get framed in this society: “People equate sexy with promiscuous. They think that because I’m shaped this way, I must be scandalous–like running around and bringing men into my hotel room. But it’s just the opposite.” To me, Lopez shouldn’t have had to say such a thing–her body, however it’s shaped, is hers to do with what she wants with nary a comment to the press. However, the burden of the stereotypes about Latinas and Black women keeps us defending our reputations in the public space in order to, as Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry says in her book Sister Citizen, keep our bearings in the face of the socially constructed crooked images of ourselves.
But we’re not only defending our reputations that folks assume comes with our bodies; we also need to defend our bodies, literally, as seen by the clip of Beyonce whipping around and firmly telling a white-appearing concertgoer in Denmark that she’d have him removed because he smacked her butt–and this happened last week!
This brings me back to what you said about our bodies being routinely sexualized. It’s not just that bodies of color are routinely sexualized; it’s that our bodies are furthermore seen–still–as public sexual property to be discussed and publicly contested to be the figures that people shouldn’t aspire to desire sexually, though I’ve heard quite a few non-Black and non-Latin@s say that Beyonce and Lopez inspired them to “love their curves” and/or “embrace their booties” in light of the contested reality that Beyonce’s and Lopez’s curves are seen as a physical and sexual ideal.
Tami: Lastly, I think age is a factor in this discussion as well. Western culture worships youth. Women past a certain age aren’t supposed to sexy; we are supposed to cover up. Madonna is routinely told to put it away. And, to hear some folks tell it, Janet Jackson’s biggest sin wasn’t showing booby on primetime television, but showing over-40 booby. Sexy dressing may be fine for the 20-somethings, but for women north of 40, it is unseemly.
Andrea: *Sigh* I think part of this is the association of age and motherhood. Lopez and Beyonce are both mothers. Forty-something women especially (Bey is in her 30s) are cast as matronly–whether or not we have children–and being sexually attracted to a woman of that age is seen as MILFing, which, as the phrase states, is all about desiring a woman old enough to be (some)one’s mom, who are always constructed as non-sexual beings in this society. (Thus, the porned-out “shock” of the attraction.)
No, it’s pop goddesses who are so deeply degraded when they aren’t meeting the physical ideals of youth, like, well, getting older. And it’s Black and Latina pop goddesses–like Beyonce, Jackson, and Lopez, who’s still fondly remembered as one of the Fly Girls for In Living Color–who are degraded so roundly and so publicly.
Race, Culture, and Identity in a Colorstruck World