Playa Hate: Straight Complicating Everything

Recently I met a man, age 50, who is a self-avowed “playa.” That is to say that his goal in life, the one identity that he sought to articulate and cultivate was that of a playa (slang from the word “player”). As we talked, he shared that from his youthful days growing up in Kansas City, he endeavored to have as many women as possible, primarily for sexual purposes, and not necessarily as a married man or with any commitment to those women. So, of all the occupations or identities he could have had in the world, he desired, unabashedly, to be a playa.

Not surprisingly, he was and is into what one might call “gangsta” rap or hip-hop, which includes the music designed and produced by the hip-hop group, N.W.A. (also known as Niggaz ‘wit Attitude). He also proudly displays a playa attitude and profile: hard face (few smiles/inability to effectively emote or expressing his feelings without showing signs of significant discomfort or angst); gangsta swag and posture that often commands (indirectly) “look at me”; expensive and fancy-rimmed cars; money; and powerful street credibility with peers and acquaintances who do not question his expressions or actions. That said, to me he resembled the members of N.W.A.; though not exact, he was like them in rhythm and style, and I couldn’t help but think that perhaps for him N.W.A. and other gangsta rap artists were a kind of playa model or life metaphor.

This man’s affinity to gangsta hip-hop by way of groups like N.W.A. was in stark contrast to the music (and thus the environment) that I grew up listening to and appreciating. I am old enough to have embraced N.W.A. for myself when they came on the scene, but I was primarily raised on R & B/Funk, and thus listening to black music artists like Earth, Wind, and Fire (EWF), MAZE, featuring Frankie Beverly, and LTD. The lyrics and music produced by this cadre of artists came out of a very different orientation to life, and most of their songs emphasized relationships, feelings (thus intimacy), and often they sung about the struggle of being in and out of love. If I must say so myself, the struggle to be in love or to be in relationship occupied a big part of my thinking as a youngster. Indeed, the music that I listened to encouraged me to seek out love and intimacy as a kind of model or metaphor for my life. From a very young age, unlike the man that I just described, I was influenced by the music that filled my ears to desire and cultivate a life of love and relationship.

The first time that I encountered N.W.A., critically, was with a man who was actually from South Central Los Angeles. I was quite impressed by his knowledge of the group and it was, in fact, one of the very first conversations that we had prior to becoming lovers for a brief time. He was a very able and brilliant thinker and I valued his take on N.W.A. Of course, he gave them the nod, but he did not glorify or legitimate their lifestyle; at least not that I remember. His knowledge and understanding of N.W.A. and gangsta rap in general was also as an academic; as a social scientist he too was on his way to being a college professor, though he was raised in “the hood” and often menaced by the LA police. However, he did not aspire to be gangsta or to be a playa.

Later, I learned more on my own about N.W.A. and gangsta rap. Ice Cube, one of the members of N.W.A. was highly visible at the time that I took it upon myself to explore the group’s messages and rhythms. And, in light of conversations and questions that feminist bell hooks was raising, I gained a much more nuanced understanding of gangsta rap overall. I especially liked the chapter interview that she published in Outlaw Culture. First published in 1994, then reprinted in 2008, this interview with Ice Cube was significant in that she explores a serious conversation with Ice Cube who, along with N.W.A., has openly produced music and lyrics that are considered by many to be hateful towards women or misogynistic. It was a very important and necessary dialogue, one that was called “outlaw feminism” by my former Claflin University colleague, Dr. Ronald B. Neal in a 2011 Feminist Wire article. Neal explained:

In her engagement with Ice Cube bell hooks enacted a practice that I call Outlaw Feminism. In the spirit of her wonderful book, Outlaw Culture, Outlaw Feminism challenges and breaks the codes of inherited masculinity and heirloom femininity. It goes against the rules of purity with respect to political and cultural engagement. It’s about getting your hands dirty, ruining your nails, breaking your heels and messing up your suit, tie and hair, all for the sake of truth, understanding, and most importantly, transformation. Outlaw Feminism is tantamount to Erykah Badu walking down the streets of downtown Dallas, Texas with no clothes on. Outlaw Feminism is the feminism of complexity.

Engaging gangsta rap artists – and playas, I might add – about the complexity of issues associated with gangsta rap and gender is still very necessary these days. After last week’s release of Straight Outta Compton, many public intellectuals and pop culture critics chimed in on the importance and impact of the film. I was particularly interested in what Bakari Kitwana had to say about the movie. My first encounter with Kitwana, who is an author and hip-hop activist, was at a lecture that he was giving at Mount Holyoke College in 2003 or 2004 (I think). I mention it here because I openly questioned him about the misogyny of hip-hop in general and how that could complicate or compromise hip-hop as an alleged social justice movement. Just the other day, I was eager to hear Kitwana discuss Straight Outta Compton in an NPR interview, and I was pleased that he gave voice to the complexity of problems that are emblematic of gangsta rap or hip-hop culture, wherein he included an acknowledgement of “all the things that are beautiful and all the things that are ugly with N.W.A.” 

As a womanist, I too am concerned about the complexities or “the beauty and the ugliness” of gangsta rap. I say that because I can absolutely get down with the resistance that gangsta rap and groups like N.W.A. have promulgated against the police and especially in terms of that coming out of the West Coast in the U.S. My first socio-political reference, as far as the development of a black, anti-police rhetoric is concerned, was the Black Panther Party (BPP), and it was most notably upon my meeting and eventually sit-down dinner with Elaine Brown of the BPP (when I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana) that I grew even more fond of its mission and message. Of course one can read about the Black Panther Party, but when one has the opportunity to meet a member of the original Black Panther Party – in person – and enter into a dialogue about the actual internal workings of the BPP, one’s understanding is expanded beyond imagination. What I learned about the Black Panther Party from Elaine Brown, and subsequently from further reading, was much more than any book could have done for me; and, being in her presence, I heard, first-hand, of the role that women had in shaping a campaign in defense of black people in the United States with righteous indignation and defiance against police brutality that was being articulated in Oakland, California and beyond. Not to take anything away from N.W.A. and the role that their music had in standing up for black urban people against the racism and belligerence of the Los Angeles police, but, before there was N.W.A. there was the BPP, and parallel to the BPP there was Robert F. Williams (Negroes with Guns) in North Carolina, and in Louisiana there were the Deacons for Defense, etc. We, and black people in particular, have been using every medium possible to stand up to white supremacy and the hatred of black people in this country (and beyond). Just last night, a professional colleague living outside of the United States messaged me on Facebook to inquire about what he was seeing via his news sources about the U.S. and black encounters with the police. After a short exchange, and some awkward stops and starts, he finally said to me, “I couldn’t feel safe in your country.” In response to that I said, “It is not safe here.”

I think it is great that the former members of N.W.A. have offered American movie-goers something to think about in terms of their music and their legacy, but first and foremost they are not the only ones who have stared down the police and lived to tell about it. Secondly, if gangsta rap is going to continuously reinforce gangsta patriarchy or a professional playa-pimping mentality towards women, and black women in particular, and along with claims to black masculinity and sexuality that are framed obsessively and in hyper-sexual and unilateral terms, then Straight Outta Compton, as a framework for considering how black lives matter is straight complicating everything about hip-hop in a way that leaves me very disappointed and legitimately skeptical. I mean, how do I listen to gangsta rap, even now that N.W.A is no more, without feeling the playa hate? Where do I enter the dialogue with a gangsta rap artist or a professional playa who has made a living of primarily imaging and relating to black women and any other women he chooses to target predominantly as sexual objects or for transactional (economic) purposes? What makes that dynamic any different from that of the dynamic that is set up between a pimp, a prostitute and a trick? How do I consume gangsta rap or hip-hop without reinforcing the playa lifestyle and mentality which is rooted in the patriarchal contempt and hatred of women, and black women in particular. Put another way, and in the words of bell hooks, *where is the love between black women and gangsta hip-hop artists?

I must admit, that if gangsta rap is going to maintain its allegiance to gangsta and perhaps even a plantation kind of patriarchy, i.e., a woman-hating and thus emotionally violent way of life, then gangsta rap is probably a little too complicated for me. Being outlaw is one thing; being complex is another, but straight complicating something (like gangsta rap or even a relationship) to the point that women are treated like sh%t is not worth it, at least not for me. In other words, I need a music and thus movements that are rooted in love, intimacy, relationship, honesty, mutuality, partnership, etc. Thus, for me, any music that says that black lives matter must also attempt to say that black women matter and black families matter and black children matter. So, of all people, if a black musical artist or group is unabashedly and repeatedly filled and refilled with violent, hateful thinking and behavior, then I can’t really be down with it, and in some instances I might have to straight be done with it. Because when a fifty year old man tells me that his number one goal in life is to be a playa, and the primary idea behind that is to sleep with as many women as he can, and yet he says that he is allegedly committed to the progress and education of black people, then as far as I am concerned he must be straight outta his damn mind if he thinks that I would believe that kind of double-talk and take him seriously. And if that is what listening to N.W.A. and gangsta rap has meant and will ultimately mean for its previous and future consumers, then N.W.A. and its producers have effectively and straight complicated everything, which means that we, as a people, have even bigger problems on our hands when it comes to demonstrating and convincing others that black lives matter, and that more than we could ever, ever imagine.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Note that *where is the love is in reference to a chapter, “Where is the Love? Political Bonding Between Black and White Women,” in Killing Rage: Ending Racism, written by bell hooks and published in 1995 by Henry Holt Publishing.

Sandra Bland and the Power of Self-Defense: Because Some of Us Really Are “Still Brave”

Finally, I am able to put something significant down on paper about Sandra Bland. When the news of her death came to my attention, I was stunned, and I was speechless. Briefly, I was at a loss for words to describe my feelings about her death, which seemed so absolutely inexplicable. And, deep down, I knew that what happened to Sandra Bland could have happened to me. In addition, I knew that her death in police custody was not a new thing. Black women have been dying in police custody most apparently these days.

When one of my former students sent me the link of the dashcam video of Sandra’s arrest, I could barely bring myself to watch it. Eventually, I hit the button. And though it was through clenched teeth that I braced myself for what I would see, I was quite inspired by her engagement with the arresting officer. Of course, I could see a woman being traumatized by an officer who was clearly out-of-control and out-of-order, but I also saw a black woman who was, nevertheless, squarely, defending herself! So, when she said to the arresting officer, Officer Brian Encinia, “You must be feeling yourself right about now,” I couldn’t help but be empowered by her words.

What does it mean for black women to stand up and defend themselves these days? Whether a black woman stands up for herself to a law enforcement official, or whether it is to a lover or potential lover who is angry or out of control, it is quite probable that she will face down some unnecessary abuse or trauma. For example, several years ago, I had to call the police for property damage, but I did not like the way that the officer handled the situation, so I filed a complaint. Eventually, in response to my complaint, I was told by the local police chief that I could not see the standard operating procedures (SOPs) as a matter of fact or law. But, at the time, I was working for a state lawmaker, so I had everyday access to local and state lawmakers who handled these kinds of questions all the time; and, like any other city resident, I had the ability to go online to reference the city charter and the state and municipal laws as to what law enforcement officers could or could not do administratively. When I was informed that the SOPs were “off-limits” to city residents, I intuitively knew that the police chief was wrong, so, after doing a little research, I pressed the issue and wrote a letter asking for the chief to explain to me in person why I could not see the SOPs. Much to my surprise, when we met in person, the chief apologized to me and he handed me a photocopy of his department’s SOPs. On the one hand, I knew that the SOPs were public information, but I was quite surprised by the chief’s willingness to apologize for giving me inaccurate information. And, I knew that apologies like that don’t come very often.

Of course, what I went through was nothing in comparison to what Sandra Bland experienced July 10, 2015, and the days following. When I heard the news of her death I physically ached as I imagined what she must have endured by way of Officer Brian Encinia and in the custody of the Waller County Police Department. The outcome of my personal encounter with a police chief (who also happened to be an African-American male) had a surprisingly positive outcome, which was the exact opposite of what Sandra Bland incurred. We both spoke up for ourselves to a powerful male authority, but the consequences were devastatingly and diametrically different.

In the last few weeks, here is what I have learned as a result of contemplating Sandra Bland’s fatal encounter with the police: what one chooses to do in the presence of any patriarchal/traditional power is completely up to that person. If you choose to stand up for yourself to a law enforcement officer, especially one who happens to be male, you must be aware that the outcome could go any way. When we, women and men, talk about what to do in the presence of a powerful, male authority figure, people say all kinds of things to discourage us from speaking up like, “Yeah, but you must pick your battles,” which often means to submit to that authority…every damn time. But, when I watched the video of Sandra Bland, I didn’t see a woman trying to go to battle, I saw a woman who had legitimately and consciously decided to stand up for herself come what may. And, when I saw the defense that she asserted for herself I was very proud of her. I was proud that she was not willing to accept the officer’s twisted story of what was happening to her. It was good to see (because of use of smartphone and video technology) that she was not willing to go along with his outrageous version of what was actually going on. Did that defense cost her her life? Perhaps or perhaps not. We do not know the exact cause of Sandra Bland’s death, but we do know that she was exactly the kind of woman who would not let the irrational and belligerent presence of a male authority keep her unjustifiably silent and submissive.

This is what we as black people, and black women in particular, must continue to do: we must keep standing up and defending ourselves just as being “in defense of ourselves” and our truths is what over 1,600 black women did in 1991 in a New York Times piece behind the Anita Hill – Clarence Thomas sexual harassment case. Indeed, we must never forget nor allow anyone else to define our realitie(s) or to say that we do not live in a sexist, racist, classist, heterosexist society, and we must honor those who show us how to stand up and speak for ourselves when necessary and in spite of the consequences. Learning how to defend ourselves, and thus how to develop a conscious attitude of self-defense in this society is one of the most powerful things that women, especially young black girls, must come to know. For, in learning how to defend ourselves in the face of patriarchal trauma or terror we will, hopefully, embody integrity and courage even when it may cost us something, including our lives or our livelihoods. Have we learned nothing from the Civil Rights Movement, or from other revolutionary struggles for liberation from state-sponsored violence or oppression? Have we not heard the cries of the many women and children who have suffered and died from domestic and patriarchal violence? If we raise children to defend themselves against patriarchal trauma and terror (which can be carried out and reinforced by women, by the way), and if we do that more than we raise them to be submissive to deceitful and power-tripping patriarchal people and institutions, then the world might be a much better, and humane place to live.

When I finally took the time to watch how courageous Sandra Bland was in the face of Officer Encinia; when I saw what she did and said in spite of her pain, and in spite of her distress and increasing cries for justice, she helped me to see how to embrace my own freedom and liberate myself in a world that is filled with angry and hate-filled people who are feeling themselves more than they probably even know. And, most importantly, Sandra Bland helped me to know, without any question whatsoever, that some of us really are still brave!

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

P.S. Please note that the phrase “still brave” is a reference to the following text, All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, which was published in 1982. I also recommend a newly revised and edited text, Still Brave: The Evolution of Black Women’s Studies, published in 2009.

Cleveland, Baltimore and the Enduring Problem of the Colorline

If the recent protests in Cleveland and Baltimore have anything to say to us, it is that we, citizens and residents of the U.S.A., have a long way to go before we live up to claims of being a democratic society.

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a group of teenagers and I engaged them in a conversation about racism. “What is racism?” I asked. Most replied with the usual: prejudice, discrimination, hatred, and name-calling. These are common words used to describe racism, but they frequently miss the mark. Each one of these words can stand alone; they don’t accurately capture the nature of racism or what it means to sustain it. For instance, one can express hate for someone or something and not be a racist; one can just be downright hateful and nasty. And, one can engage in name-calling, but not have that name-calling tinged by racism.

Racism is a very complex and systemic social phenomenon, and one that has been very misrepresented and mishandled. Racism was and is constructed on the concept of race, which was developed in the eighteenth century by Euro-scientists who ranked or categorized human beings by physical attributes. In “Race the Power of An Illusion,” which is now a PBS special, Dr. George Fredrickson asserted that, “Eighteenth century ethnologists began to think of human beings as part of the natural world and subdivided them into three to five races, usually considered as varieties of a single human species.” This ordering or ranking of humans in physical and thus in “racialized” terms became the bedrock of developing societal structures and the distribution of resources in the West. Gradually, right here in the U.S., racism became a central organizing framework, one that has been used, systematically, to situate people of European descent (and those who unabashedly support European ways of being and thinking) at the top of nearly every American institution for more than 400 years. With this kind of socio-economic positioning, one based on race that has consistently buttressed notions of white racial superiority and privilege, this nation has, unfortunately, perpetuated a racist way of life.

As a black American woman, a woman of African descent, it is fairly easy for me to understand how we are divided by race and racist practices. I know racism and other oppressions in my day-to-day interactions and from historical texts. But for many, racism is not so easy to perceive. Such widespread blindness to or contempt for racism troubles me, especially when it comes to planning for urban cities. It was Baltimore, not Atlanta or another Southern city that enacted the first racial zoning ordinance in 1910 (Silver, 1997). And, traditional land use zoning, known as Euclidean zoning, had its beginnings in 1926 in the village of Euclid, once a suburb of Cleveland. Zoning, which has been utilized for “organized” development, so to speak, has also enabled many local urban planning officials and residents to exclude unwanted uses and unwanted people in a very racist kind of way.

Recent protests behind the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, black women, such as Rekia Boyd, who are part of the SayHerName Campaign , and Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams in Cleveland serve to shatter the recalcitrant denial of racism in the American context. This denial is often supported by narratives about religious freedom (initially from British oppression) and North America as the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” However, today’s urban protests to the fatal interactions between white police and black residents bring us face-to-face with the “inconvenient truth” of who we really are as a nation. These protests shatter our claims about democracy, not just about who we are as “Americans.” They indicate that perhaps we are not really who we say we are.

Yes, there have been many noble moments, movements and people, but, nevertheless, the U.S. is not a nation of equals; we are not free from the threat of arbitrary state-sponsored violence against non-white bodies or those who do not bow down to this “American” way of life, and, when we see protesters demonstrate their bravery in the streets, they are often demonized by those who would not dare to put themselves on the line in the name of freedom and justice. These organized protests to the senseless loss of life at the hands of local and wanna-be police officers (like George Zimmerman) dispel our delusions about the collective American identity. The anger and resistance of the protesters bring us back to the reality that there are still wide and terrifying disparities between the American people(s), and we experience these disparities in spite of the many marches, struggles and the losses of life and limb that some have sustained in the name of freedom and democracy. Furthermore, that we have a black president and black middle class family living in the White House will not and has not fixed one of this nation’s greatest and enduring problems: “the problem of the colorline,” a phrase coined by the great W.E.B. DuBois more than a century ago in 1903.

On the one hand, I am very grateful for the sacrifices made by those who have courageously stared American racism(s) in the face, but “the problem of the colorline” will not begin to fade until we become a nation that is truly built on concepts and practices of equity, ones that value human and non-human life over material quantity and profit. And, it is with deep sorrow and regret that I must say that as long as a central organizing American framework is inequity via racism, there will always be a protest waiting to happen.

*For more on racial zoning in the U.S., I recommend: Christopher Silver, “The Racial Origins of Zoning in American Cities,” in Urban Planning and the African American Community, eds. June Manning Thomas & Marsha Ritzdorf, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Are You Coming Back Tomorrow?

Recently, I have been substitute teaching in public schools, and just as I was leaving an assignment today one of the administrators turned to me and asked, “Are you coming back tomorrow?” Immediately, I was struck by her question and by the look in her eyes. On the one hand, she looked at me with the expectation that I would say no (which is not all that unusual for substitute teachers). On the other, I could see her hoping that I would say yes. Upon my answer: “Yes, I will be back tomorrow,” she seemed pleasantly relieved.

As I walked out the school doors, the question stayed with me: “Are you coming back tomorrow?” Of course, I knew it was about the need to fill a teacher’s absence. I also knew that she was familiar with the challenges facing substitute teachers. Today’s young people are quite troubled, and they are difficult to understand. There have been times that my patience was short (or not long enough); but, then there have been days, like today, where I wanted to be there for the students, regardless of their outrageous behaviors.

Today, while we were playing outside, as a sort of reward for making it through a tough day, I saw the students’ eyes light up as I announced that I would be with them for the next two days. In their facial and bodily expressions, I saw that same pleasant relief that I saw in the administrator’s eyes in response to hearing that I would be back. Some young students are not used to seeing the same substitute for more than two days in a row. Many substitute teachers are there just for the day, and they have the option to accept or reject an assignment. And sometimes that is a rejection or the refusal to deal with the students’ behaviors. However, in that moment, when I said that I would be back, I could sense a subtle kind of trust in the eyes of several youngsters. And I thought, yes, there is something about continuity and dependability that makes us all feel good. When someone assures us, “Yes, I will be back (to be here for you),” it conveys a sense of safety and companionship; which are feelings that we can all appreciate.

I’ve been thinking a lot about safety and companionship these days and what it means to travel through life with willing and mindful partners. Being in the role of a teacher, I often look into the eyes of children who have seen more abandonment and loneliness that most of us would care to know about. Sometimes, after a trying day as a substitute teacher, my own life experiences seem very small compared to what I imagine theirs to be. Every now and then, when I see a young student fighting or crying, I know there are things happening that are beyond their control and behind the scenes that cause their acting out and defiance. As an adult I have a lot more control over my environment and my outlook on life. Today there was one young boy in particular who was fighting and being disruptive the entire time. Finally, when the day was almost done, I stood next to him, called his name, took a deep breath and said, “I know you can do better.” Just in that moment, he looked at me out of the side of his left eye with pleasant relief, and it was the same expression the administrator gave me on my way out. Remembering that, walking out of the building to my car, I felt good about the day and about that school and about that young boy. And, I said to myself that I would write this piece, because sometimes a simple, “Yes, I will be back (to be here for you),” is enough to give us some relief.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Shoulda Been Gone: When Is Enough Enough?

Certainly, there are times when I have asked myself: why did I stay in that place, that job or that relationship as long as I did? Weren’t there signs or events that happened that should have made it easy for me to move on or move out? I suppose that out of a genuine need to feel that I did all that I could do in a certain place or in a relationship that I have struggled with timing an exit or an ending. Like many, I have struggled with drawing a line in the sand and letting it be. Leaving that line there or saying enough is enough in a place (such as a city) or even in an employment situation is especially difficult when others don’t want you to go or when they expect you to stay (perhaps stuck and unhappy in a city, a job or a relationship like ~ ahem ~ they are). Detaching, particularly where human relationships are concerned, is not always an easy or pleasant thing to do.

I don’t think my struggle with detachment is all that unusual. Compassionate, healthy, loving human beings want to make good decisions, and they worry about others’ feelings, not just their own. On the other hand, selfish, unhealthy, or worse yet, narcissistic, dishonest and delusional human beings could care less about how their decisions affect others; they want and justify what they want no matter what and no matter who suffers in the process, and they frequently inflict a lot of emotional pain and confusion upon themselves and others. How I appreciate displays of compassion and mindfulness. When it is a personal decision (and not the result of emotional or physical intimidation or violence), I respect that sometimes we as human beings keep trying or hoping for better situations or better behavior in people (all the while as we too are doing our best to improve or address our behaviors). Committing one’s self to gaining the best possible outcome is a very respectful, humane effort.

Nevertheless, back to my question: exactly when does one pack it all up and move on down the road? When is it time to let go of a place, a job, a person or even an idea (like a god or a religion) that is no longer fulfilling or that has run its course? There are times when people, places or things are only temporary; when they no longer provide us with a sense of meaning or safety. When that happens, it is time for me to let go, and I have learned that saying “enough is enough” is, at the end of the day, my decision. On the one hand, in making decisions of whether to stay or go, I often talk it out with others ahead of time, but it is not up to the situation or the person or the idea who is no longer enough for me to determine whether I should stay. A conscious movement away from a place, person or idea (especially one that is causing me unhappiness, stress, confusion or misery) is never easy, and to be sure, the act of severing ties with anyone or any thing can be accompanied by unbelievable grief, anxiety and loneliness. But, moving on, no matter what others might say or do to keep you from leaving, or pressuring you in to not doing what you want because they are afraid to end or bring closure to undesirable or outdated relationships with people, places or ideas for themselves (which is something I have personally experienced when exes and/or children are in the picture…and when it comes to gods or religion), is a very powerful act of self-love and self-affirmation. In a world that is constantly abandoning us and encouraging us to abandon ourselves and our agency and to conform to the status quo, it is important that we learn how to 1) take ultimate control of our own lives and choices, and 2) exhibit that power when necessary. When should you be gone from people, jobs, places or ideas that no longer work for you? Be gone when you have had enough, and only you can be the one to say when that is. The others, the ones who are left behind and not happy with you for moving on and taking charge of your own life and destiny will just have to get over it. Or not.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

On the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.: From an Atheist

On occasions, I am asked if I would date a believer, or a person who believes in a god or supernatural being, such as a Supreme Being. Being an atheist, there was a time that I said unequivocally no to that question. But, about two years ago I began to soften my response. For example, in 2012, in an NPR interview with Jamila Bey, I said openly that I was “flexible.”

Recently, I met someone who is a believer, and we connected. Although he is not what I would call a religious enthusiast or fanatic, at times he talks about his god and his faith with subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to inform me that his god is real. Because of my feelings for him, I overlook it, and there are times when I engage him gently with questions about his religious thoughts and philosophies. I am willing to be in this kind of critical engagement with him because 1) I understand his actions; I once did the same kind of thing – used every opportunity to “witness” or share my faith (often when it was not requested) with others; and 2) because it is another way for me to get to know him and the basis for his everyday actions or behaviors in life. And, I have yet to encounter a Christian who does not feel compelled to be vocal about his or her faith. It goes with the territory.

So, what did it for me? How could I allow myself to be in an intimate relationship with a man who believes in something that I don’t? On what grounds is it conscionable that I get along or share myself with a man who does not share the same ideas or philosophies that I hold? These are questions that I am contemplating at length on the 29th anniversary of the Martin Luther Kr., Jr. national holiday.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man who challenged the white racist ideology or philosophies of his time. By the 1950s and 60s, those white racist philosophies and socio-political expressions of whiteness were incorporated into federal, local and state policies and institutions, such as urban renewal, which was a federal housing policy that had a disparate impact upon former urban Negro communities, and at a time when urban blacks were fighting institutional oppression at an alarming rate. Throughout my lifetime, I have come to understand Dr. King as a man who stood against social division and exclusion on political and personal grounds. I have also come to know him as a man who believed wholeheartedly in achieving a peaceful coexistence despite everyday unjust behaviors and inhumane practices, here in the U.S. and beyond.

With regard to my political and personal commitments, I have come to realize that I do not want to section myself and my life off to only those who think or behave like me. I want to meet and know others whose lives and philosophies are different from mine and without the compulsion or the need to willfully mock or dismantle what they share with me. On the other hand, there will be times when I will be openly critical of ideas or philosophies (including religious ones) that are expressed in public that I reject or disagree with; that is something Martin Luther King Jr. did with the power of the spoken word, and he did it mainly from the pulpit, as an American preacher. Likewise, I am fundamentally empowered by the freedom of speech as we know it in a Western way. And, it is that freedom of speech that I rely on, as an atheist, to say publicly that I do NOT believe in gods of any kind. Unfortunately, I have that right, even though the majority may respond to that statement with hate, rejection or discrimination.

In addition, what I have come to learn is that I am not responsible for the thinking or the belief of others, which, I think, is one reason that I can spend my personal time and person with a man who believes in a supernatural god. I am not his keeper. I am not responsible for what happens to him when he dies or really at any time for that matter. I do not choose an intimate partner on the basis of what he believes, but on the content of his character. In other words, my being with a man is essentially not predicated on where he lives, or how much money he makes, or how supportive he is of my thinking or behavior. And, most importantly, my decision to be intimately involved with a potential partner is not determined by whether or not he believes in a god or whether he shares my worldview. My being with a man, or being with any person for that matter to accomplish any goal, is rooted in a healthy engagement of ideas and critical thinking. At the end of the day, I want to know who a man is overall. I want to know if he is committed to doing good; to being the best person he can be; if he is willing to use his talents and skills to help and empower others; and, is he a man who is a peaceful, loving person, even when his ideas are not supported or he does not get what he wants.

Indeed, this is not the kind of behavior that I have seen from many atheists or theists who use their positions and philosophies like weapons to discredit those who don’t ascribe to their ideas or theories of reality. These are extreme and unjustifiable attitudes that I cannot support as a human being because the truth of the matter is that others may not choose to walk the paths that I have taken. We each have our own paths to attend to. For example, when I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., I don’t worry about whether he was a Christian believer or not. I respect and honor him because he was a great human being who courageously endeavored to bring about fairness and equality, and not exclusively for his own clan or Christian friends. Of course, I know that there will always be those who choose to remain divided over philosophies and ideas, but I have lived long enough to know that there is no future in that position, and fortunately I know that there are those who have found the wherewithal to accept those who are different or divergent in thought, word and deed without resorting to contempt, hate and violence, but who are not willing to let injustice and hatred go unconfronted. This kind of boldness and willingness to speak compassionately and thoughtfully, I think, is a significant part of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. And it is, in my humble, atheist opinion, one of the attributes that made him one of the greatest human beings who ever lived on the face of the Earth.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.