There is No Such Thing as Emotional Abuse, Right?

Once, I knew a man who threw me out of his house when I said to him that there is such a thing known as emotional abuse.

In response to my assertion he turned and yelled at me, “THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS EMOTIONAL ABUSE.” And then, from out of what seemed like nowhere, in a fit of rage, in an effort to reject the truth of what I had said, he told me to pack my things and leave.

The next day, he texted me and told me that he was sorry and that he loved me.

And it was in that experience that I learned, first-hand, that emotional abuse really does exist. And so did he.

© 2017 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.

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.