What Does It Mean When You Leave Your People Behind

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from Inter-American Dialogue 

 

I never really understood when Black folks said that other Black folks who left communities…never came back to where they came from to help. Now, I am understanding the gravity of this critique as it is fact backed up by narratives of what happens when folks do not return to their communities with the knowledge that they have learned to help make their communities better.

I am guilty of this crime. I grew up in Cochran, Georgia, which is in located in middle South Georgia. I disliked Cochran with a fierce determination. I was discriminated against by White people because I was not White in the community. I was ostracized by Black people because I was not Black enough in the community. Because my family was like the Breedloves in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, we were not looked upon favorably from many White and Black people. There were some Black people and White people in the community who liked us, and they helped us out when they could. Yet, my mom was very insular and did not want anyone in the town to know her business even though they saw us around town. Basically, from my younger perspective, we were treated like circus celebrities. We were the freaks of the town because we were poor and Black. Black people shunned us because they believe that we were stuck up and did not want anything to do with them.

So, once I got my ticket out of Cochran, at the age of twenty, I left the town and thought that I was free. Yet, little did I know, I wasn’t free. When you are young, you don’t see the entire picture. You only see pieces of the puzzle…and you see some of the areas of the puzzle completed. I saw one area completed where people did not like us because they thought that we acted White (my peers did). The other area that I saw was that folks were jealous of us because we were good looking people. Another area I saw was that people took advantage of us whenever they could.

What I didn’t see is the large picture. The large picture was…Cochran was like The Bottom in Sula where Black people dwell in this place that White folks look down on them on. My family was also like the Peaces. We did our own thing, but we were punished for it in some ways. Yet, in other ways, the Black community also didn’t completely disown us, either. Really looking at it, mostly, my mothers’ peers and my peers shunned us…and because of that, my mothers’ peers taught their kids to shun us as well. Again, not all of them were like this.

So, I went away, thinking that I could escape the pain Black folks caused me in Cochran. From my disdain, I thought that they hated me so bad that they left me behind because I was too different from them. Later on, when I took a Whiteness and White Privilege in America’s Education, I found out that Black folks had disdain and dislike for me because I showed White characteristics. These white characteristics, especially from my Black peers’ eyes, were to be despised because it “threw in their faces” that I didn’t want to be Black. I was shunning our Blackness because I showed White characteristics. For me to emulate White characteristics possibly made my peers felt like they were not good enough to be Black. And/Or it could have been that I was throwing Whiteness in their faces…and their thoughts were…how dare one of us take the side of those White folks who cause us oppression? Who limit our education opportunities? Who don’t see us as being competitiv? How dare that family act like they are better than us when they are poor as dirt—on welfare, nonetheless?

There is a huge miscommunication in the Black community because of this. The huge miscommunication is that we don’t get to know each other in intimate ways to understand why we act the way we do. How can Black folks do that when we still operate under a legacy of dividing and conquering our group under the system of White supremacist capitalist heteronormative patriarchy? Even reflecting on my life in Cochran, Black folks were divided because of our own branded standard of how all Black folks should act. Instead of being united in deconstructing the system of White supremacist capitalist heteronormative patriarchy…we are taught to create our own system of oppression to survey and police our own selves. We shut out Black members from our Black community because they don’t meet the qualifications of class, sexuality, and gender. In two pieces I read, “America’s Hidden H.I.V. Epidemic,” and “Dr. David Malebranche’s Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey,” these writings show how Black folks continue the divide and conquer within Black communities concerning sexuality. I believe the Black community uses standardized sexuality and gender to maintain the little power that the race group has. Yet, what this continues to do is to destroy our race and help White supremacist capitalist heteronormative patriarchy continue to be the supreme system that dominates all Americans. When we Black people play into Black people not following a standardized sexuality, we ultimately play into the system of Whiteness. We perpetuate White dominance by believing that the system of Whiteness will award us if we pledge allegiance to it. Yet, by becoming a member, we don’t benefit from the system because we are not allowed access to the full membership package.

What I am saying is that a lot of young Black males and females are contracting H.I.V., and they are contracting it in outstanding rates in poor rural areas. Yes, Linda Villarosa and Dr. Malebranche are showing us that young Black gay males, bisexuals, and transsexuals are the ones who are affected by it. Villarosa is showing us that many young Black males in the rural South are affected by lack of health care and education concerning H.I.V. and AIDS to where they are contracting and dying from the illness at fast rates. Malebranche is telling Oprah…the dialogue needs to be more balance in showing more of a diverse range of narration concerning Black male sexuality—to show a more complete narrative.

As for Black folks like me who leave home, I had to face what I did. Yes, I needed to get out of Cochran and see different spaces and places that are unlike Cochran…and to see more experiences to align with the stories that I read as a kid. However, I have come to realize that Cochran is my home, and the very Black people in Cochran…who ostracize me are still my people. They still need for me to love them. A huge part of love is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a part of unconditional love for myself and for you, too. Black folks can’t do better if we don’t know better. Once we know better, I pray that we find the strength to continue the process of becoming better people under a system that don’t want us to. Every day I am challenge to not judge. It’s hard, and I get it right on some days. I get it wrong on others days. Some days it is neutral…but all that matters is having the drive to do right by folks the best I know how and can. I hope that for you, too.
S

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Respectful Spaces and Conversations

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Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own comes to mind after finish reading or viewing the four assigned pieces for my “Whiteness and White Privilege in America” class. Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own discusses how English women do not have access to spaces for many, many years. Woolf specifically speaks of English female writers in the past and in her present and how past English women writers did not have the opportunity to have space to write or create novels, short stories, or poems because of how women are viewed in society.

I am sure that Woolf has her fist raised up today and looking down on all of us…seeing how past injustices continue for women in the publishing industry. This morning, I read a piece by Dana Schwartz called “Why Hasn’t the Late Show Invited Any Female Novelist?” (http://observer.com/2016/05/why-hasnt-the-late-show-invited-any-female-novelists/#.VzIuvu2iWWw.twitter). In this piece, Schwartz adds to the discourse about how women writers who are novelists or fiction writers are not invited to the Stephen Colbert show. Instead, Colbert has had several male novelists or fiction writers one after the other on his show. The female writers that have appeared on Colbert’s show are memoirists. Schwartz mentions in her piece how Jennifer Weiner discusses how female writers get treated in the publishing industry when they write about families and female characters compared to our male counterparts. Weiner and Jodi Picoult have spoken out about how sexist the publishing industry is. During an Huffington Post interview, Weiner answers, “I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book – in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jason-pinter/jodi-picoult-jennifer-weiner-franzen_b_693143.html).Weiner and Picoult addressed how Franzen’s Freedom received all these accolades for writing a great American novel about how a family in peril handled temptations of contemporary American society. Weiner’s and Picoult’s arguments stem from that they and other female fiction writers are deemed as chick literature writers whereas Franzen and other male counterparts are viewed as “Great American” writers. I followed this story in 2010 very closely, and I read Franzen’s Freedom which I happened to like. I believe it is a very good novel, and it shows how individuals can get caught up in a commercialized society where they bury their deep desires, and those deep desires come back and haunt them. Now, reflecting on it, I would like to go back and read everything on this happening because it is starting to seem like the story was sensationalized by the media. There has been other news on Weiner and Franzen discussing his latest novel, Purity.

I do agree with Weiner on how sexist the publishing world is. Male writers are still looked upon as “Great American” writers and/or “The Men of Letters.” Female writers don’t get that title, and people don’t look upon us as such. When female writers are successful, the media, advertising, and some critics will craft us as the darlings by the fans who support our work. Yet, we don’t get the same title as our male counterparts. We don’t get the same respectable publicity that our male counterparts do. Male writers not only get that recognition, but they are privileged to be granted the space that they are in. More so, white males writers have greater accessibilities of these privileges than white female writers, men of color writers, and women of color writers. We exist in a white patriarchal society still. Yes, still after all of this time. Those who aren’t white males have a more difficult time being “granted” recognition for their crafts. Most of all, white males writers are able to occupy many spaces in their careers which grants them many opportunities to become successful writers. As a black female fiction writer, I am going to have to fight, just like my predecessors, harder to explain in ways why I write what I write because I will be going against the status quota.

Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Tayari Jones, Gayle Jones, and other black women writers have paved a path for me. Black women writers continue to pave a path for each other, so the next generation of black female writers will continue to contribute and aspire like the ones who have paved the way for us. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker are living legend established writers who write about the black experience from their own eyes and how they have seen American society and American culture in their world—and how they continue to see it. However, Morrison and Walker do not get talked about as much as white male writers—and they don’t get taught as much as male white writers overall. The four pieces I read for my “Whiteness and White Privilege in America” will help enrich my discussion about writing spaces. In general, Gay, Janai, Smooth, and Martínez discuss how important it is that we practice conversations when it concerns minorities in America when they are in certain spaces. This is quite important in how we facilitate conversations that empower individuals that are viewed as “Others” and are in the “Minority” and how it is important that the ones who have been oppressed find ways to liberate from oppression and have the opportunity to create, use, and utilize spaces.

The four pieces I read and viewed:

Roxane Gay’s “The Seduction of Safety, On Campus and Beyond” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/opinion/sunday/the-seduction-of-safety-on-campus-and-beyond.html?_r=4)
Janai’s “Introverts and Extroverts and Power (Oh My!) (http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2013/09/introverts-and-extraverts-and-power-oh-my/)
Jay Smooth’s “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussion Race” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MbdxeFcQtaU)
D.E. Solís y Martínez’s “How the Trigger Warning Debate Misses the Point (http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2016/01/how-the-trigger-warning-debate-misses-the-point/)

These four pieces reiterate for me in how you and I need to continue to find ways to discuss discourse in a way that makes us feel compel to without feeling like we are going to get potentially attacked for what we say or how we express it with all matters( including how writers are treated in public spheres in the publishing industry). Jay Smooth discusses this in his New Hampshire Ted Talk how it is difficult to have constructive conversations about race and racism because when an individual confronts a person or persons about a racist comment or opinion that he/she/they said, it turns into…are you saying that I am racist? I know as a person of color it is hard for me to engage in conversations with some people about race, and this is from all types of people—even people in my own race. When I’ve had discussions with some of my white friends about race, it pretty much goes over their heads. Even if I try to break it down or explain it to them, it gets pretty frustrating because no matter what you say, they do not want to get it at all. Questions like “how can I be privileged?” when I have explained to them a scenario in how they are privileged in a certain situation when I am not, gets frustrating. There have been times where I’ve had close friends who have made racist statements and/or racially prejudiced statements about black folks or black women in particularly. I know of one instance where I heard several comments about black women from a close friend being ghetto, and I was even confronted by…”Well, you know it is true, though. You know that black women are loud and vindictive” I am paraphrasing this because it was a long time ago, but I had thought days and days about not being this person’s friend anymore. My logic is…how can you want to be friends with me when you really don’t want to talk about or know anything about my culture? I do struggle with white friends who don’t get that. Yet, there are white friends that I do have who get it. They get that they are privileged and recognize it and want to change it. I am able to have thoughtful, engaging conversations with them, and with those friends, I am able to create those spaces with. Roxane Gay talks about that in her piece. When we use free speech, we don’t use it as a threat. I would like to add we need to all know what freedom of speech means before we throw that phrase around because many people hide behind “freedom of speech” when they are throwing hate speech around. Gay mentions that just because we have freedom of speech, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t exempted from its consequences. She’s right. What I know about verbal words and written words is this: they hold tremendous power. People say that they don’t, but they really do. Verbal abuse? There have been abuse victims that say the verbal abuse they received was worse than the physical abuse that they received. Words do hurt, and when you say them in certain spaces, you are either uplifting people’s self-esteem, or you chipping away or destroying folks’ self-esteem.

The individuals’ consequences of what they say either violate, disrupt, or destroy any type of safe space for any individuals who need to seek them when needed. Safe spaces are supposed to be temporary spaces for emotional refuge when the majority makes others “The Other.” When the majority collectively abides by existing, binding rules/standards, individuals who don’t fit in or abide these rules are the “Others.” They are unable to be themselves or express themselves because their uniqueness does not fit in with the “standard norms.” Safe spaces are there for those who feel traumatized or triggered by events that have resulted from “constructive norms” that have hurt them. As Martínez discusses in his piece about trigger warnings, we have to create spaces and communications to talk about what triggers are trauma—and discuss why we have that trauma and what we can do about healing from that trauma so we can have more fulfilling lives.

Yet, it is quite hard to have those spaces due to how people see those spaces and not understanding how they are causing those spaces not to be created. Janai’s piece offers interesting insight to how introverts and extroverts are privileged individuals in different spaces and how we all should recognize that being introverted or extroverted has privilege along with it. If you are an extrovert in spaces while having conversations, Janai writes that your loudness can silence other individuals in the group who want to share their experiences. If you are introverted, you have the privilege to observe and listen to people without having to share anything about yourself in certain spaces. What she says is interesting, and I can see how extroverts and introverts have some privileges depending on what spaces that they occupy…it is an interesting take. I suppose I am privileged in a way concerning not sharing my fiction writing with certain people. I tell them about I am writing a novel, but I don’t share parts of it, and they don’t but in. I suppose that I drew the line in the sand earlier about my writing, and in the past, I was quite selective about telling people that I had an online blog. So, I am introverted about certain aspects of my life while I am extroverted by certain aspects of my life. In some ways, I can see one seeing that as a privilege that I practice.

However, if we examine other minorities in the past compared to what I just shared, we’ve come a little ways. Woolf gives examples in A Room of One’s Own about how Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters had to hide their passion for writing. The Bronte sisters had to come up with male pseudonyms, so they could publish their books in a white male dominated publishing industry. A female author did an experiment where she used a male pseudonym and saw in a startling way in how agents/publishers treated her. Catherine Nichols used a male pen name (http://jezebel.com/homme-de-plume-what-i-learned-sending-my-novel-out-und-1720637627) and saw the results she got. In 2015, Catherine received very positive feedback and even pleasant rejections as her male pen name than when she actually submitted her work under her real name. Can we say sexism much? The Brontes published in the 19th century, and Catherine had her experience in the 21st century. That is two centuries—that is two hundred years, and in two hundred years time, individuals are still practicing sexism within publishing—and in many aspects of our culture.

In order to create spaces where individuals can freely express themselves without harm or persecution, we must have these conversations about racism, sexism, classism, elitism, ageism, and all other –isms that prevents many of us for being ourselves or talking about our experiences, so we can make changes to a system that benefits some. However, a system that eventually harms all. Yes, safe havens should still exist because those spaces need to be utilize by individuals who are looked upon and treated as the “Other.” However, you and I need to continue to create respectful spaces and have respectful conversations. The way we create spaces is tolerating and empathizing with one another and trying to learn how to have healthy, balance respectful conversations. I agree with Jay Smooth. Once we start becoming better in how to communicate with each other, then, we can start tackling the major issues that systematically oppress people from having access to certain opportunities or knowledge. We can also dismantle how ism tropes destroys spirit of self-innovation which is a part of freedom because individuals who are oppressed are worried more about obtaining freedoms and having the chance at opportunties that they limit own time in pursuing their talents that help our culture and society move along to being greater and greater.

Cheers,
Sophia