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.

 

What Your Questions Have to Say About You

Every now and then I am asked, by men, if other men are intimidated by me (usually because of my educational background).

That question always let’s me know what a man thinks of himself and his intelligence (and the intelligence of other men for that matter).

It is a question that has more to say about the one asking it (and his self-esteem) than it does about me.

If a man is afraid or ambivalent about being with me because of my education then he probably does not feel comfortable (or worthy) with any woman who has more education than he for any reason.

If you are intimidated with a woman who is smarter than you, then stay with what you know. Don’t try to be with women that you have no intentions of trying to understand and respect. If you are uncomfortable around smart, educated women, well, er, then those women are not the ones for you. Stay in your lane. Be with the ones with whom you feel most comfortable. Choose partners that you feel equal to in intellect, abilities and experiences. 

Funny how sometimes the questions we ask reveal what we really believe about ourselves, and others. And, what we believe about ourselves, deep-down, is what will inform our most lasting and significant choices in life.

© 2017 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Have You Ever Written a Neighborhood Plan (Young Lady)? Sexism and City Planning

Today I talked to someone who asked me if I had ever worked for a city planning department. Here’s what I said in response: Well,

Number one: I teach students who go on to work for city planning departments.

Number two: I have worked for city planning departments, mostly in the role of a researcher/academic.

Number three: I am mostly engaged and committed to planning that is from the bottom up; my work in city and regional planning has been primarily with not-for-profits as well as local and state government agencies.

And then he said, “Yeah, but don’t you want to be a director of city planning?” Who came up with that?

I started to say: “What parts of numbers 1, 2, and 3 do you not understand?” But I didn’t.

And then he asked me: “Well, where did you go to school?” As if there was something deficient about my planning education.

When I named the schools for him, he said, “Yeah, I know about those schools; they are pretty good.” Like that had anything to do with anything.

And, all the while he was doing this, he was calling me “young lady.” Just for context: he was an older black man; probably about 25 years my senior.

This exchange reminded me of a more recent conversation that I had with a local white planner who was, I suppose, a little perturbed by my critique of his planning presentation. In response to my comments about his presentation, which were not hostile – I just didn’t agree on a method he was proposing (and I proposed another one instead), he asked me, “Well, have you ever written a neighborhood plan?” Just like that. Out of nowhere; who I am, what I said; none of that mattered. Like the man who asked, “had I ever worked for a city planning department.”

Why? Why should I be shocked when I encounter appeals to accomplishment and rank as a means to silence me and my critiques? I received similar receptions in my previous profession (I was a United Methodist clergywoman). When people learned that I was the pastor, the church administrator, the one with the authority to be in charge, they would ask me, “When were you ordained?” Or, “Where did you go to seminary.” By contrast, these were questions that my male counterparts rarely, if ever, had to answer. People just took their word for it that they were who they said they were, the “Reverend So-and-So.” Why should it matter to me that men who are black, white, brown, red, and yellow constantly question my credentials or my “fitness” for the work that I have been doing for years? Why should I be so offended since it happens so frequently? Even today.

Likewise, I have to ask myself, why do I think or want to think that urban planning academicians and professionals who call themselves committed to social justice, advocacy and equity are free from sexism, racism or any other “ism” for that matter? What makes me want to believe that women planning scholars should or could get equal treatment in the classroom, in the conference room, or even when it comes to discussing and implementing urban plans in “the real world of planning?” Where have I seen a good example of gender or racial equity in the urban planning profession, and in the U.S.?

In the classroom, planning scholars and urban historians often make reference to Jane Jacobs, a pioneering white woman who is known for her critique of city and neighborhood planning in the late 1950s. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was written in the in the context of the urban neighborhood in New York City and not long after WWII. As noted by one of my colleagues, this is a book that you can still find on bookstore shelves today (including virtual book shelves). Jacobs is well-known for her critique of one of NYC’s “finest” a/k/a “The Power Broker,” Robert Moses. Of course, there was a lot that Jane Jacobs did not say or do in her important book (i.e., as it concerns matters of race and class), but, one thing is for sure, she was willing to stand up for herself and for her community, and she did this in spite of the sexism exhibited by the city and regional planners and the contemporary thinkers of her time. How did she do it? Indeed, with the power of the pen! And, voila, there is the example!

Well, it is 2016, and half a century later, women planners are still being ignored and dismissed; we still face sexism among  our colleagues, students (yeah, I said it!), and from practitioners that we know like the one who interrogated me today. Conference sessions on diversity, women, race, and planning are pushed to “the back of the bus” and scheduled on final days when nearly everyone is out of steam or they have gone back home, which shows us all how very important matters of gender, equity and inclusion really are for academics in city and regional planning and in the planning of its  conferences. Emerging feminist ideas about planning methodologies and frameworks, such as “loving attachment,” (made visible and palatable by Leonie Sandercock, Karen Umemoto, and Libby Porter) are not unknown, but they are not put into practice and thus they are not taken seriously by planners “in the real world.” Like, when have I heard this concept explained in detail for students or communities by one of my male counterparts?  That would be never. To make matters worse, it is not unusual for feminist proposals to be  openly criticized as divisive and unnecessary by those who are much more comfortable with traditional, Euro-masculinist theories and practices of city and urban planning.

Time and time again, women planners and planning scholarship that is gender-specific is disregarded and deemed not “good enough” or important enough to be first in presentation or priority at gatherings of scholars and students of planning. In addition, name for me one city where you have heard of a development project that has been designed for women or girls or with womens’ issues or concerns as the primary and motivating force. Yes, in planning programs we have inspiring workshops and courses that encourage us to think in terms of gender and race, and as they pertain to the built environment; and, we have women who are visible and audible in the teaching and in the practice of planning. But, where can we see city and regional designs or plans that make women and girls the primary beneficiaries?  Where do we find women’s thoughts and ideas about space and place that occupy the center of local discussion about city and urban planning projects and designs (beyond a class session or two)? Where, beyond the work of Dolores Hayden, and the planners I have mentioned above, do we see women city and regional planners taking the lead, offering visions of urban development that are also predominantly women-identified and women-centered and “in the real world?” I am not saying that they are not there, but I would like to know what is really happening with women and planning in the 21st century when many of the women that I know in planning have ultimately been more than willing to act in the interests of self, tradition, tenure, whiteness and patriarchy. As bell hooks once said, “Where is the Love?

Now, about black women planners and scholarship. Of course, I want to believe that black womens’ planning scholarship is important to city and regional planners who are “in the real world,” but today, after the “motivating” conversation that I had with a local Kansas City resident who has been active in community and neighborhood development, and after thinking about my own experiences “in the real world,” I really don’t see where black women planning academicians who talk openly and powerfully about race and gender in city and regional planning are perceived of as significant or important to the development of planning theories and practices (and who are on full-time status at schools and colleges of planning in the U.S.). I see black women planning academicians and practitioners, but rarely do I see the ones who are openly feminist or womanist and openly anti-racist (just for starters).

That said, I am currently in the process of working through a hypothesis, along with a trusted colleague, which posits that black women planning academicians who operate from a gender-centered position and from a standpoint that privileges the experiences of black women and girls and black communities (e.g., the epistemological privilege of the poor) will be dismissed, disregarded and ultimately rejected in response to being openly critical of whiteness, maleness and the positivist roots of city and regional planning. For several months, we have been working to construct and test our theory which says that black women planning scholars who openly and unabashedly critique men, especially white men and white conceptual frameworks of  city and regional planning, will face negative consequences and negative responses from colleagues, students, administrators, and other institutional officials overall. And, we predict that this response will happen more times than not and in the form of some very specific consequences and negations. If our hypothesis is proven to be true, then we – as in city and regional planners – have not come all that far when it comes to women and planning. In other words, if a significant percentage or group of black women planning academicians are not free to theorize and to practice city and regional planning as they see fit, then we are not free (not individually and not as far as academic freedom goes)! Unfortunately, “in the real world,” if we have that finding, we believe that it will demonstrate that theories and practices of city and regional planning and the institutional terrain of planning schools, colleges, and thus municipal and regional planning departments are still as Barbara Hooper said in 1992: what white bourgeois men have said it is.”

And if our findings prove to be true, since I am a womanist scholar, I think that what we must then think in terms of is what womanist Katie G. Cannon, a theologian and womanist scholar whose work was critically beneficial to me in my 2010 dissertation, is whether we, as city and regional planners, have “structured academic amnesia.” And, if we do have this ‘structured academic amnesia,’ you can be sure that it will be played out “in the real world,” “as if this true [feminist and not this] womanist story] never happened.” Yet for some of us, like Jane Jacobs did half a century ago, who are willing and brave enough to utilize the power of the pen, nothing could be further from the truth!

© 2016 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

For more on Katie Cannon, I recommend: Cannon, Katie Geneva.  2006.  Structured academic amnesia:  As if this true womanist story never appened.   In Deeper shades of purple:  Womanism in religion and society., 19-28.  New York:  New York University Press.

For more on Barbara Hooper, I recommend: Hooper, Barbara. 1992. “Split at the roots”: A critique of the philosophical and political sources of modern planning doctrine. Frontiers 13 (1): 45-80.

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.

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.