He Should Do Something About That: Who Pays the Price for Love and Loving?

One day I decided to go to one of my favorite local clubs to hear some live music. While there I ran into a man that I know socially.  After we said our hellos and started a conversation he commented to me that he had seen my most recent ex-partner out at another social event. His comment was “He is such an a*shole.” It was not a comment that I was expecting to hear. Nevertheless, in response to it I said, “Yes, he is an a*shole, but underneath it all he is a very loving and lovable person.” Then, in reply to that, this acquaintance said to me, “Well, he should do something about that.”

It has probably been at least six months since I had that conversation but his comments, particularly the latter part, have really stuck with me. Yes, there was something very powerful about hearing from another man that the man I chose to be with was indeed “an a*shole,” but more than that it was his followup comment – “he should do something about that” – that left me with something to think about. Actually, truth be told, it was that part of the conversation that has helped to keep me accountable to myself and to the decision that I made to walk away and to stay away.

There is nothing more disappointing than finding out that the person you love has some very troubling and disturbing character flaws. When it comes to relationships and dating, we have heard people say that people present the person they want you to see, or, they present their “representative.” Of course, it is true that many people play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a lot. In my dating experiences, this is behavior that I see frequently from heterosexual men. To get your attention they are on their best behavior, but once a reasonable amount of time goes by, “the real them” comes out. Of course, you have your share of charlatans out there, but there are times when I don’t think it is an intentional presentation of a fake self; it is just that most people will go out of their way, at first, to present themselves in the best possible light. Eventually, however, who they are behind close doors and thus, in the dark, will also come to the light. Jill Scott says, “everything comes to light.” I don’t really think that everyone deliberately hides (although some do), it is just that after awhile the pleasantries wear off. Or, as they say, the honeymoon can’t last forever.

The most affirming thing that I took away from what my social acquaintance said was this: that I was not responsible for changing or helping my ex. His behavior (in public and private) is just that: his. In the course of our relationship, one that lasted about a year and a half, I put up with a lot of very bad behavior from him. In the beginning, there were times when he admitted his flaws and faults, and I admitted mine. So, initially, I forgave and I overlooked much of what he did even when what he did hurt me and our relationship (and I forgave the stuff that I did too!). I thought he wanted to change for himself, to his own benefit. And, I wanted to believe that he was willing and able to make the necessary changes for himself. Of course, I was very willing to change and do whatever I could to get to a much better us. But, in spite of his apologies and promises to “never do it again,” he always did it again, consequently, I grew less tolerant of the hurtful things that he did and I began to push back verbally on them, a lot.

It is when I pushed back, when it was clear that I would not tolerate his bad behavior in silence and complicity any longer, that we had the greatest trouble That is when he was the angriest and most hostile towards me; when I stood up  for myself. Looking back, I believe that he expected me to accept him without question, and without insisting that he change his abusive ways.

Finally, in response to me standing up for myself, he made it clear, point-blank, that he was not going to change, which led me to believe that in previous relationships other women may have asked or pleaded with him to change. It would probably surprise him, but I actually do believe that he is able and capable of changing, and doing just about anything that he puts his mind to, but, he has been articulating bad, abusive behavior towards black women for most of his life, mostly in response to the abusive things that happened to him as a child at home from his emotionally and physically abusive mother. I did not realize the depth of his resentments towards black women, especially to his mother who is now dead, until I was well into the relationship with him, when the going got very emotionally tough and exhausting. I suppose, with him, this is why his relationships have always seemed lovely in the beginning, but then disastrous in the long-run. Abuse has a cycle and he was (and currently I suppose he is) not willing to do his part to address the pain and trauma of his own past, therefore, in relationships, he “cycles through” or reenacts and relives his own abuse. This he did with me and he did this with other women before me. Our relationship ended the way it began: in abandonment. When we met he was seeing other women, but he abandoned them to be with me. Similarly, when our relationship came to a final stop, although there were many stops, he just stopped communicating. He never explained, he just ran away and hid behind his phone and his cars, and anything else that would keep him from seeing me or being seen by me. It was the most abusive relationship that I had ever encountered (as I have learned from bell hooks, that “all abuse is abandonment”).

Without conscious changes on his part, he will do this to the women in his future. And that is very sad. But, as the saying goes, “you can’t put new wine into old wineskins.” Some of the new women in his life will know better than to tolerate his abusiveness, and, hopefully, they will not choose to stay. But there are also many heterosexual women who participate in their own abuse, especially if abuse is all they have known (and accepted) in relationship to men. Likewise, if I remember correctly, all the serious relationships and even the marriages that my ex had in life burst open wide at the seams, and they will continue to do so as long as he refuses to do anything to change himself and his behavior, even as the opportunities for change continue to present themselves to him. Indeed, one day those opportunities will stop; most likely through violence if he does not stop the abusive cycle that sabotages his ability to stay and thrive in good, healthy relationships.

Recently, I chimed in on a Facebook conversation with younger black women about their relationships with men. My message was clear. Yes, it is good to stand with and for a man, but you cannot do for a man what he is not willing to do for himself. As other women added their comments to the thread, I emphasized how important it is to not take away a man’s agency by taking over or usurping the responsibility he has to care  for himself. If a man is not willing to do for himself, to take good care of himself and make life-affirming choices for his life alone, then one must see him for who he is and for who he wants to be (i.e., a dependent who wants others to take care of him). People wonder why there are so many single black females out there, and one of the primary reasons is that there are so many black men out there who are operating with the minds and actions of  a 15 year old, a/k/a arrested development. And, no matter what color she is, no woman has to accept bad, childish behavior from her partner. There is nothing wrong with going solo, in fact, even as marriage remains a popular goal for many people, including non-heterosexuals, the so-called “institution” of marriage is failing. It is not working in favor of women and I doubt that it can work in any patriarchal dominated environment or society. If a man does not treat a woman respectfully as an emotional equal, then it is best to lose him because even though they are few and far between, there are men who can and will be good and healthy partners to women. And, most importantly, no woman deserves to be with anyone who believes that he is superior to her. I believe that no woman should be with a man who openly practices male supremacy, and thus actively engages in daily acts of domination and control on the basis of gender.

N/B: And I must say, unfortunately, many men believe themselves to be superior to women due to religious beliefs and ideologies that assert that male supremacy and thus female inferiority is how their god intended it to be. It is an outdated, antiquated, inequitable, patriarchal, way of thinking and being, and it has informed our systemic and social reality. It is no accident that white male supremacy is as widespread as it is when male supremacy is promoted and enforced in most if not all social, educational and financial institutions, which are dominated by white men.

Today, I am grateful for the wise words of friends and acquaintances, and for those who have also learned the hard way of what it means to let go of that which causes them pain or harm. Every now and then I see my ex in passing, or along the routes and in the places where we both travel and visit. We still live within a few blocks of each other and there have been times when I was compelled to stop and speak to him (of course that didn’t work out too well). Then there was this: a couple of months ago he called and apologized even to the point of taking full responsibility for the break up of our relationship, which he did not need to do (and I told him that as well). However, it was an apology that lasted less than a month, because within one week of that apology he was back at it again being abusive and disrespectful with his language, ideas and his actions (especially in the form of hiding behind the phone and using it as a weapon against me). By the third week that we had been back in contact, a contact that he initiated, he was doing it again, cycling though his own abuse, and in full swing: being an a*shole and being abusive. I had to realize that in spite of what he was saying, he is not willing to be any different than he already is. I had to admit to myself, that the man that he is now is the man that he is prepared to be until the day that he dies.

So, yes, he “should” do something to help himself, but the fact of the matter is that he probably won’t. Ever. And what I had to accept, in the words of the song by E-40, is that “everybody’s got choices.” Therefore, everybody deserves to make a total mess of their own lives if that’s what they want to do. If you have followed my blogging, then you probably know that my life is already very complicated and writing has something to do with that. The last thing I need to do is to add other peoples’ unnecessary complications to my life when they are not willing to take responsibility for their lives and their choices. In addition, I have spent years learning how to undo co-dependent behavior that has kept me from being who I am. So, while on the one hand, I do hope that the man that I once loved and knew intimately will find the wherewithal to change –  and if he does that I will definitely be supportive of that decision even if emotionally I am long gone from him and what we used to have – on the other hand, and in the words of another song that I really love by smooth jazz artist Norman Brown, “It costs to love somebody,” and, as far as this last ex is concerned, I have already paid the price of loving him. Further, there is only so much that I can do for him. Changing his life and his actions so that they are more loving and lovable are things that he will ultimately have to do for himself, on his own.

Who pays the price for love and loving? We all do in one shape, form or fashion. But, how you pay it and why you pay it is totally and entirely up to you. As you think about the quality of your own life, and how to make it through tough and troubling relationships, I urge you to stay true to yourself and commit yourself to making good and sometimes hard choices, even when the people that you love lack the will and possibly the ability to do the same. Ironically, that is “the something” that you can do to help yourself to building and getting the life that you deserve.

© 2017 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

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On the Spelling of My Name and the Seeds of Change

I have been spelling my name in lowercase letters for at least a decade; come to think about it, it has probably been closer to two decades than it is to one. All these years, embracing the spelling of my name has been my signature, my trademark. Looking back, I was first inspired to modify the spelling and thus the visualization of my name on papers and publications to lowercase letters because of bell hooks. Her critical thoughts and writings on feminism, love, men, power and many other issues had such a profound impact upon me that I decided to put my newly recognized consciousness out in public – and as a passive but powerful way of identifying with feminism as a way of thinking and being. At the time, I must admit, I really did not realize the power of what I was doing.

Recently, I was “advised” by someone associated with an academic organization that I needed to use the uppercase A and the uppercase F if I anticipated my name being publicized or in print. This directive, made by a white woman (who I knew formerly and casually) did not sit well with me. And that it came via email didn’t help matters either. Initially, I thought, was this advice or a threat? I wondered why she felt the need to tell me what to do with my own name. And, I wondered what was coming next. Maybe, I imagined, she would feel familiar or superior enough to me to tell me what to wear or where to sit. Since she knew of me from academic circles, it baffled me that she needed or wanted to tell me what to do with my own name; as if somehow she thought that I did not know. Of course, I responded to her just as boldly and confidently as she came to me, but I also thought that perhaps it is time for a blog on the spelling of my name, just in case others were having similar thoughts or urges.

First, the spelling of my name is mine, all mine. I don’t expect others to use lowercase letters to spell my name. But, every chance that I get to control the look (and feel) of my name, I use lowercase letters. One of the first public experiences that I had with this was in Springfield, Massachusetts. I had just given a lecture at what is now the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History and a local newspaper reporter asked me how to spell my name. In addition to getting the spelling correct, I also asked if the “A” and the “F” could be written in lowercase. Much to my surprise, and at least for that particular local journalist, using lowercase letters was not a problem, and so he published it as I requested. Seeing my name published in the local newspaper the next day in lowercase letters was very important and very powerful. It was an affirmation of my own identity, and it was a declaration, one that let other people know – in a very public or political way – that the spelling of my name was and is ultimately up to me.

Aside from the”bell hooksian” influence on the spelling of my name, there are a few reasons that I have continued to spell my name in lowercase letters. The first is that spelling my name in lowercase letter is a visual reminder to me of all the seemingly insignificant things that I did in life to get to where I am today. By no means do I think that I have done all that I can do, but I have accomplished a lot. I have also had the awesome privilege of traveling alone in and out of this country and taking charge of my own future or destiny. Sometimes, when I look back at those little things, including the places where I lived or worked, I am blown away. I have been through many ups, downs, stops and starts, and, of course, I did not get there all alone, but seeing my name in smallcase letters always brings me to a deeper appreciation  of my life’s journey and of the power that I have because of that journey.

Another reason that I spell my name in lowercase letters is related to the connection between the personal and the political. The more that I spelled my name in lowercase letters in print, the more that I was asked about the spelling of my name. Who knew that such a small thing could have such an impact! Consequently, the (re)spelling of my name brought me to the realization that even the smallest change to the social order of things or the status quo is always noticed. Indeed, I know how to construct a grammatically correct sentence. I know that breaking the rules with the spelling my name in all lowercase letters will be seen by many as incorrect, improper, and perhaps, need I say, DISOBEDIENT! And that is it precisely. Spelling my name in lowercase letters is a type of stand or attitude; it is a personal manifesto that speaks to popular thinking about women and identity. Spelling my name the way that I want to spell it is simply a way of accepting and loving myself. But, it is also my way of letting people know that I am not a follower, although I am totally capable of collaborating with others on various projects and programs. I don’t always need to be out front and in charge, but I have always been a leader. I have always been womanish in attitude and expression, or, as Alice Walker says about womanism; a womanist is “serious and in charge!” Others may disagree with me or reject the spelling that I give my name, and they may make it “proper” for personal or institutional purposes, but at the end of the day, I am in charge of my life, my actions, my body, and, of course, I am in charge of saying or determining who I am. How I spell my name is up to me, alone. Yes, it may seem like such a small or unnecessary thing to say, but control over my name, the power to name myself and thus to know myself is a powerful freedom, and I take that freedom very seriously, just as other black women, like Audre Lorde, have done without shame and without apology.

Most people don’t break the rules. We live in a society where conformity is the name of the game. People keep the peace; on the job and beyond, they often engage in groupthink and peacemaking. Even with all that women and men have been through, especially black women, by and large, people don’t “rock the boat.” Spelling my name in lowercase letters is a passive yet strong way of saying that I am not afraid to break the rules. I am not afraid to walk down a new path if necessary. When I look at people who cling to the rules without a willingness to question them or perhaps change them, I see followers. This is both sad and disappointing situation because a great many of the rules, laws and practices that govern us actually need to be changed or broken. Many of the rules that dictate our living and our being, at the least, need to be challenged, or at least questioned. When people express a desire to control how I spell my name, it lets me know that they are probably not willing to make a change, not even in the small matters of their own lives. And, if they are not willing to start with changing self, I doubt very seriously if they will be willing to challenge the order of things when it comes to bigger matters, such as sexism, such as racism, such as heterosexism. When people do not model change or plant the seeds of change when it comes to their own affairs, it is doubtful that they will do it for others.

I should not have to say this, but one of the things that the world  desperately needs is people who really are willing to be the agents of change. The world needs bold, brave change agents, not the so-called change agents or change makers who merely appropriate the rhetoric or talk of change during election season in order to get votes. Today, many are appropriating the word “change-agent” or “change-maker,” but there is little doubt in my mind that many of those very same people would also be the first ones to tell me or others to “go along to get along” if they could. If they could get away with it, I believe they would tell me and others – the ones they may attempt to control –  to know and stay “in our “place.” Yet, the place they want others to stay in is often the place that makes them comfortable or secure in life. And, what they tell others to do is often a reflection of their own self-esteem or self-image: stuck.

By contrast, I don’t require others to spell my name in lowercase letters, but I don’t let others tell me what to do or how to spell my name so that they will feel better about themselves or what it says about their day to day choices. Fortunately, we live in a country that allegedly values “the freedom of speech.” And, that freedom applies to the spelling of one’s name. I feel free to model that freedom to name myself in my personal and in my public life, which are very interconnected. In the (re)spelling of my name I also model what it means to be in control and accountable for who I am.

Last month I watched the politicians and pundits claim to be the agents or makers of change. Yet, I don’t see how they are much different from who or what has gone before them. To be an agent of change you’ve got to be willing to change yourself. If you are not willing to change, if you don’t know the power of changing things on your own, how in the world can you expect or require change from anybody else? And, if you are quick to tell others where to go, what to do and what to do when they get there, then I doubt that you will allow yourself to get out of place for a worthy cause (and perhaps not even for an unworthy cause). These days, there’s a whole lot of talk about change, but that talk is often just what it is: talk.

Oh how I wish that more people would be willing to break the rules and get out of the places that people and society have constructed for them to be. I long to see people who lead and from a place inside of them that is authentic and thus political (or socially responsible). Donald Trump, for example, is the antithesis of authenticity and accountability. He uses the rhetoric of change yet promotes the ideas and nostalgia of a troubled American past. What former greatness does he want to revive or replicate? Yes, there were times in my past that I was pretty good, but the person that I have become today is much better, stronger and confident. There is actually no part of my past to which I would like to return. Indeed, I look back and I learn, but life is moving forward, not backward. My being who I am today is based on my ability to grow and  learn from my past mistakes and successes; yearning for something that I once did, for the person I once was, or for the life I once experienced would indicate to me that there is some preoccupation or unfinished business that I have with regard to my past. Perhaps, in some weird, twisted kind-of-way those who want to go back and revive the past, like Trump and his followers, really are preoccupied by something that is back there. Clearly, for better or for worse, they have some preoccupation or attachment to the persons, places or things of the past that they remember. Maybe they want to fix something that was broken in the past; or, perhaps they want to repair some damage that was done in the past, or maybe they have regrets. As far as I am concerned, I cannot fix the past; no one can. But, what I do with the present and what happens in the future depends on my ability to interpret the past accurately and then to plant the seeds of change that will bring forth powerful and better futures.

To the would-be and rising change agents out there, I must say that you cannot bring forth better futures if you keep looking back, longing for what was once there. To feel the power of change, to be a powerful agent of change, you have to be willing to break  the rules, to cross lines and usually that means you will be in the minority and perhaps alone. Don’t be fooled by those who merely talk about change, because to be a  true change-agent or a change-maker you’ve got to be willing to be in a new place, not the old. Indeed, it is not easy being in a new place, or being in the minority. But please know that today, more than ever, if we are going to create powerful and better futures, we desperately need those who are bold enough and brave enough to spell their own names.

© 2016 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Why I Didn’t Get Married

First of all, this blog is long overdue. I have been meaning to write on this topic for months, but I could never bring myself to do it with everything else that has been happening in my life for the last four to six months. But, from day one, when the words came to me, I felt that it was very important for me to blog about marriage. So, here it goes.

Frequently, I am asked about marriage. The closer that I get to being fifty years old, I guess, for some, it seems an appropriate question for a woman. And, for some, I suppose that it seems strange that a woman has managed to stay unmarried with no children in her adult life. I’ve been close to marriage once. It has been more than twenty five years since I was engaged to be married, but it was an engagement that lasted all of two months. The deceptive actions of my ex-fiance made the idea of marriage – with him – simply unimaginable. Now, when I look back, I don’t regret backing out of that engagement for a moment, but when it happened, when it was clear that our relationship would not lead to marriage, I was devastated. But, that was to be understood; I was in my early twenties and marriage was an idea that I had been taught to embrace from my childhood. To be more exact I would say that I was indoctrinated into embracing and believing in the idea of marriage.

Today, marriage is not a priority for me. In fact, there are times when it is not really an idea that appeals to me; at least not with so many relationships and marriages in the U.S. falling to pieces. One book captures this concern. In Is Marriage for White People: How the African American Decline Affects Everyone, professor of law at Stanford, Ralph Richard Banks queries:

White adults, men and women alike, are more than twice as likely to be single now as in 1970. More American women in their early thirties are single today than ever in our nation’s history. African Americans lead the marriage decline; other groups follow…Still, marriage has diminished more among African Americans than among any other Americans, including whites with whom I typically contrast African Americans for ease of exposition. Black women are only half as likely as white women to be married (11), and more than two times as likely as white women never to marry (12). As others marry, black women often remain alone (13).

I came to terms, years ago, with the idea of being alone, as in being not married. At first I was not married due to a failed relationship – or so it seemed. Later, I was not not married by choice. Why? Well, by my early thirties I came to understand that being alone does not mean being without male companionship or intimacy. I do not have trouble finding men to date. Shucks, “some of my best friends are men,” and I often enjoy the presence of a man for fun and relaxation. However, rarely have I found that many of those men would make good or worthwhile lifetime partners. Yes, every now and then I meet a man who is quite intriguing, but marriage is the last thing on my mind. Most of the time, I’m just trying to ascertain what is possible with that man. Ultimately, I want to know can we get along! Do we have what it takes to last as a couple? If we can’t get through the first month or two, or six, without too much trouble, then, duh, there is no going forward. I am simply not into the idea of getting married just for marriage’s sake.

Today, my approach to marriage is similar to my approach to teaching and to my life as an academic in general. I expect college students to put their all into doing well in a course; and, likewise, I put my all into what I am teaching and writing. Furthermore, I believe that we are all students of life, and with that comes recognizing the lessons we learn about ourselves and love. I try to give my all when I feel love with a man, but, a man who shows me that he is not willing or capable of giving his all and of doing the necessary emotional work of relationship is not, as some might say, “marriage material.” In fact, such a man is not really “relationship material.” I enjoy being in an intimate relationship with a man; it is where I do some of my best work, so to speak. I enjoy talking and working things out, but rarely do I meet men who enjoy talking and working things out. On the flipside, I find that many men enjoy the fun of being in relationships, but they often avoid the not-so-fun part of being in relationship. And there is at least one good reason for that: when you open up yourself to someone of interest, you are making your whole self visible and thus seen. All the good parts are visible, but so are all of the not-so-good parts. Being seen wholly like this makes us all vulnerable and thus open to pain or hurt. Patriarchy and the social construction of masculinity teaches many men (from childhood) to avoid being so seen with such vulnerability. One of my favorite authors, feminist bell hooks, has explained, that boys, especially black boys, are often only seen in part, not wholly. For some, going through life not being seen as vulnerable, often expressed as cold, hard or angry, is a means to surviving traumatic and painful conditions. The downside is that refusing to be seen as vulnerable and making oneself invisible to avoid being seen as a way of life can also lead one down a very lonely and dark path. On the contrary, I have found that being vulnerable is the way to thrive in life and in love. Embracing our vulnerability (being willing to share our whole selves with another) is the lifeline to experiencing a good, healthy relationship. Of course, this kind of vulnerability, which leads to intimacy, doesn’t happen overnight, but gradually and with time and effort it has beautiful and rewarding consequences for those who are willing to make themselves visible to each other, scars and all, and in spite of the fact that they might get hurt. Unfortunately, the possibility of getting hurt goes with the territory of relationship.

So, before I close this blog I will say openly that I am not against getting married, nor do I think that it is something that is only for white people. However, I will say that until people – men and women no matter what color or class – are willing to be seen as vulnerable then marriage is not something to be embraced or taken seriously. That said, I will also say that instead of constantly finding paradigms to fit ourselves into, such as marriage, we must endeavor to find the wherewithal to construct healthy social or relationship paradigms that work for us in the here and now. And, whatever relationship paradigms we construct for ourselves, must be specific to who we are, what we need and want from ourselves, others, and life in general. Indeed, the relationship paradigms that we create must be a reflection of our own lived experiences; and that will include the good, the bad, and the ugly.

In conclusion, if a person is not good at developing healthy relationships – ones that are based on respect, honesty, equity, and loving kindness –  then how is marriage imaginable? No marriage will survive if there is disrespect, dishonesty, inequity or animosity for the other, unless, I suppose, there is some kind of covert arrangement or transaction at work, or, unless the person is willing to live with such expressions. On the other hand, it is very important to recognize one’s own autonomy or worth and completeness apart from anybody else. Thus, what I have learned from life is that I, as a black woman, do not have to be married to be happy or fulfilled in life. Being happy or fulfilled is something that is up to me to cultivate, and so far I do not require or need marriage or children to find fulfillment or happiness in life. Yes, it is always great to share myself with a man that I care about, and I have known some very interesting men, but I can love a man wholly without being married and without bringing children into this world. There is nothing wrong with being alone and the happiness that I feel and know for myself is something I know and create from within, alone. And, right now, there is nothing more important than cultivating my own happiness for myself.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

 

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.

Saying My Name: The Power of Fictions and Everyday Name-Calling

I didn’t always like or embrace my birth name, “Annalise.”  During my childhood and adolescence years, many teased me and arbitrarily shortened my name for convenience. I suppose in that light I was very uncomfortable with my name; it seemed inconvenient, burdensome, and not “classically beautiful” or cultural-enough for a young black girl. The discomfort that others had regarding my name, with saying the name, Annalise, when referring to me, caused me to implicitly reject it very early on. For the most part, I only used Annalise – the name that was assigned to me at birth by my parents – in formal settings, or when I had to. Otherwise, in personal and familial settings, I didn’t refer to myself as Annalise for a very long time.

As I came of age, or when I began to develop my own identity (apart from my family and friends), and as my choices exposed me to the the complexities of life as a human being, I finally let go of the nicknames and used Annalise exclusively and everyday. Of course there have been some family, friends, and even some acquaintances, who have continued to “call me out of my name,” or to call me something other than Annalise. Mostly, when that happens, I take it as a term of endearment, but it also is indicative of how patterns (including speech patterns) are extremely hard to break. However, ever since I started introducing myself as Annalise, that name has been the name that I have chosen to embrace. It’s not Anna. Not Lise. But Annalise. My name is annalise [which is how I spell it intentionally – with low-case letters]!

Being known as annalise has been a very complicated affair. I didn’t know myself as annalise until I was in my 20s. Once I accepted it, and rather awkwardly back then, I gradually learned to like it, but the acceptance of my name took years to achieve.

Recently there has been a lot of talk about the new Shonda Rhimes’ television series, How To Get Away With Murder. Due to the central role that black women have been placed in these shows, Rhimes has challenged many viewers to consider taboo subjects and social conventions. Through black women characters, like Miranda Bailey, Olivia Pope, and Annalise Keating, Rhimes constructs a storyline that situates black women in personal and professional (as in working or labor-related) relationships with white men. The narrative that Rhimes has put together is very complicated and complex. As a black woman, I can totally relate to the intersectionality of this landscape because race, gender, class and sexuality are always converging and often when I least expect them to meet. Many of the black women that I know personally and those who watch the Thursday night Rhimes trilogy deal head-on with living their lives in close proximity to white men who often articulate (verbal and nonverbal) troubled expressions that have been aimed historically at black women – or what I refer to as women of apparent African heritage. A myriad of issues and factors go into the lives we hold and the names we have been called by white men and others. We have repeatedly been called “bad” names: like bitch, whore, wench, and cunt. And along the way, there have been some “good” names like: colleague, lover, partner, sister, etc. [but I will caveat that to say that the terms “good” and “bad” can be quite relative]. For example, last year, in 2013, I wrote a blog voicing my initial thoughts on the Scandal series featuring Kerry Washington as the main protagonist, Olivia Pope [which is not available because I am currently editing it for e-publication].

In spite of my criticisms of Rhimes’s characters and plots, I am still glad that she does what she does: write and produce television programs. That I don’t particularly like a perspective or an storyline does not mean that I have rejected Rhimes or any of her productions. In fact, I have continued to watch for a couple of reasons, at least: 1) to show my support for who Shonda Rhimes is and what she represents in the overall scheme of “Hollyweird”; and 2) so that I can continue to articulate an opinion from an informed and intelligent place. One of my biggest peeves is when people form opinions, but do not take the time to educate themselves about the subject or the landscape of their opinions (in fact, we really shouldn’t call such talk opinion at all, because it is really just blubbering on and on). Anyhow, since watching How To Get Away With Murder, I was not ready for how affirming it would be to hear my name, annalise, repeated over and over again and in reference to a lead, black female protagonist. I was not ready for the power of that act: of repeatedly hearing the name Annalise in reference to a black woman protagonist. As humans we learn and come to understand many things in life because of repetition. Yes, there are challenging and troublesome issues or factors associated with the part of Annalise Keating, but it has been very refreshing and powerful to hear a name that I once did not embrace, and a name that many do not associate with black women or black culture personified by Viola Davis, who is, in my opinion, one of the most awesome black actresses in Hollyweird today! It was so good (positive) to hear that I often found myself repeating it after certain startling scenes from the episodes: Annalise! Annalise! Annalise! [Like the one where Annalise removed her wig and confronted her husband Sam with his naked picture on the phone].

I spent the first twenty years of my life rejecting the name, Annalise, and now, twenty years beyond that (since I have embraced it for myself), a black woman actress who I respect plays a critical role that many can identify with across lines of race, gender, class and sexuality. In watching this particular television show by Shonda Rhimes, I have felt such an amazing and warm sense of validation for who I am and how I have “named” myself via the acceptance of my birth name. Truly, that feeling caught me by surprise! Who knew that a fictive television character would have such a good and positive impact upon my personal identity through the repetitive saying of my name? Indeed, many black people have know the power that comes from saying one’s name everyday with pride and respect in a world that has historically called us out of our names and assigned us names that we did not accept or agree with. I imagine that this is one of the reasons that some black people have rejected their birth names and assigned themselves new names to give voice and power to the persons they are and to the lives they wish to live. And, as a former United Methodist minister I know that this is one reason that many people, especially black people, have embraced fictive narratives and cultural myths, like religion or Christianity (however, I am not by any means arguing that one should exclusively situate or place one’s total human experience in a fiction, a myth or an outdated belief system).

As complicated as the characters in Rhimes’s shows may be, one thing is for sure: there are some black women writers and actors who are standing in the tradition of other black women, and men, and those in between, who dared to speak up, write bold new scripts, and break down the ignorance that held them back from expressing and loving ourselves as boldly and fiercely as they possibly could! So, what have I learned by watching How To Get Away With Murder? That no matter what, we – black women and all oppressed, disinherited people – must continue to speak our names, for in the everyday calling of our names, honestly and authentically, we can come to a better understanding and acceptance of who we really are!

©2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

N/B: Please note that there are allusions to several other writers in this blog, including: bell hooks, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Howard Thurman, Pearl Cleage, Alessandra Stanley.

Congratulations to Kim Socha for Writing Such a Liberating Book!

Every now and then I am asked to support the work of other writers and artists, and most of the time I am thrilled to do it when the author or the artist is actively engaged in promoting freedom and ending oppression, domination and abuse. Recently I was asked by Dr. Kim Socha, who is an educator and an activist, to write a blurb for her forthcoming book, Animal Liberation and Atheism: Dismantling the Procrustean Bed, which will be available on Amazon on October 7th, 2014 (published by Freethought House).

About a decade ago, I was a vegetarian, but it was primarily for health reasons; I wanted a healthier diet, which today is a very popular idea to embrace. In recent years, I hadn’t thought much of vegetarianism or veganism, but, after reading the advance copy of Dr. Socha’s book, I must say that I am seriously reconsidering my food consumption habits from a whole new point of view, and with atheism in mind – as an ethical/conceptual framework. Upon receiving the advance copy, I found many similarities between Kim and myself, but I also came to respect her for being a scholar-activist in her own right in spite of the challenges and the hostilities that she has encountered from loyal meat (flesh)-eaters. In addition, I was keenly aware and appreciative of the way in which some academicians and some of us with PhDs are not hiding in the shadows. We are making our ideas and voices heard in the public square and articulating education as “the practice of liberation” (Paulo Freire).

Thank you Kim for giving me and all those who will read your book so much to consider about the narratives and ethics we employ to justify human domination over non-human animals. Although I have much to learn about veganism, I support your efforts to stand up to the myths that have enabled us to do harm to non-human animals in the name of human survival and nutrition. And, I am inspired that you are challenging the treatment of non-human animals as an atheist! Indeed, there are many who cannot fathom that one can be morally good and atheist at the same time, which is often an attitude exhibited by religious narcissists and fanatics who are gripped by fear, paranoia and an unrelenting desire for immortality (when, in fact, most violent and abusive crime in the U.S. – and beyond – is committed by theists).

For those of you who follow my blog, it is without a doubt that I recommend Kim Socha’s bold, new book, and I applaud and stand in solidarity with her for daring to dismantle the myths that have informed and dominated our eating habits to the point where we are not really as free as we think we are. This book is a reminder that liberation is something that we must strive for each and every day for ourselves and on behalf of others, and especially for those who cannot defend themselves against violent, malevolent powers . For more about this book, or to learn about it on Facebook, please follow this link!

© 2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.