We Black Women: Seen, Heard, and Beautiful

This blog entry is partially written in response to someone who recently said to me, “See that’s what is wrong with you black women.” With a cowardly text, and out of nowhere, this man – a black man who has claimed to love me – spewed his contempt and hate toward me and toward black women by saying, “Something is wrong with you black women.” Needless to say, I was infuriated by his hateful rant, yet it was one that helped me to see him for who he really is: a misogynist – one who hates women; one who holds women in contempt. It was a painful realization that I did not want to face because he is a black man, born of a black woman and raised by his black sisters. His misogyny is something that I did not want to acknowledge or admit. I wanted to believe that he was better than the man that he kept proving himself to be (despite all of his best apologies) – after two years of knowing him, intimately.  But, finally, getting that text, a cowardly act from behind his telephone screen where he was hiding out thinking that he was unseen, jolted me out of my denial and caused me to recognize him for who he is, and for the awfully abusive man that he obviously wants to be, since he too knows and admits that he has “issues” with black women, yet he refuses to address those issues. Instead, he keeps getting involved with black women and, tragically, the contempt and hate he feels for black women comes out, sabotaging his relationships with black women, including the ones he has with the women in his family. He repeatedly hurts himself and others, and then he runs, hides, and blames all the “black b*tches” that he chooses to be with. Of course, later, he apologizes, he claims to take “full responsibility” for the undoing of his relationships, but because he is not getting help for his pain (nor do I believe at this point that he is willing or able to stop doing what he is doing on his own – because he has made it clear that he is who he wants to be, end of story, end of life) he cycles right back into a mound of abuse and disappointment with yet another black woman.

Yes, this is the very definition of insanity; it is also a description of a man who is emotionally incompetent and sick and he will make others (especially black women) eventually sick (of his bullsh*t) if they, in turn, choose to be with him. In addition, he is a ragefull man because, to make matters worse, he becomes angry (on top of the anger he already feels from childhood trauma) and dismissive with the women who walk and sometimes run out of his life. He resents them for leaving him. Go figure. Unfortunately, he hasn’t figured it out: no good woman wants (or needs) to be with a man – no matter what color he is – who is not in control of his emotions and who refuses to gain control. And, no woman, black, white, red, or yellow, has to, under any circumstances, put up with any abuse, and definitely not from such a troubled man who is choosing to stay in that condition. Indeed, as one of my friends so accurately said: he is a walking dead man. And the last time I checked, I am so very much alive.

Turning the corner. For those of you who might be wondering, writing is cathartic to me. I write, first and foremost, for myself. It helps me to process my feelings, and it is my way of being heard; my way of standing up for myself and for my feelings. My relationship to writing began when I was a child/adolescent and I would be sent to my room on punishment. In response to that punishment, I would tape notes to my bedroom door (which would be closed); with those notes I expressed my feelings, and most of all, it was my reaction to being silenced and unseen. Who knew that the practice of posting notes to my bedroom door would turn into a passion and an ability to write?

That said, I do not write to “get paid,” although getting paid for my writing is not something that I would turn away. I write because I can; it is something that I  am good at; and, the act of writing for me is what I do to heal myself from pain and from the hatefulness, dismissal, or the harmfulness of others who do not want  to see me or hear me because of their own issues. Writing helps me to express and free myself in a world that is compromised by pain, past and present. And, since I have been writing on public platforms, such as Facebook and WordPress, I have been contacted and told by many that I have helped them to do the same. You cannot imagine how it feels to me to know that my writing and thus my work has helped others to find their voices. That is what freedom is all about: for self and for others.

If you would like to republish my work in a larger platform or in a book, please contact me. I would be more than happy to discuss how that could be done and what it would cost. And now, today’s blog, inspired by the crap that I went through with the man I just told you about:

 

WE BLACK WOMEN

We black women are

Mamas, sisters, friends, lovers, teachers, warriors, and sometimes enemies of those who hate us and who want to exploit and use us, mostly for sex and company,

We black women have stood strong and proud in the face of hate and rejection by those who do not see us, who do not love us,

Because of their own pain and their own fears.

But we black women

 

We are like Maya Angelou

And Fannie Lou Hamer

And Nina Simone

And Angela Davis

And Elaine Brown

And Billie Holiday

And Alice Walker

And Abbey Lincoln

And Shirley Horn

And Bessie Smith

And June Jordan

And Marimba Ani

And Toni Morrison

And Anita Hill

And bell hooks

And many, many more black women – like my own mother and sister.

We are black, and we are women

We have changed our worlds and this world for the better and the world sees us and knows what we have done.

The world knows who we are.

 

Not all black women do good, not all black women are good

There are some black women have done irreparable harm to their children and to their families,

But most of all they have abandoned themselves.

There are black women who have given up on living their own lives

Maybe they did and do not know how to live for themselves

Maybe the fear of life and others has overcome and overpowered them

Maybe they have believed what others said about them, so therefore they lived the lies of others.

 

But there are many of us, black women, who have turned other peoples’ lies upside down

We black women have told and written our own stories

We black women are remembered as the authors and finishers of our own fates

And, we black women have survived the unthinkable, the unimaginable when we could have been dead and gone.

 

We black women.

 

We black.

We black.

We black.

And, we women.

We women.

We women.

We women.

We black women are proudly black and we will be seen, heard, for indeed, we are very, very beautiful.

© 2017 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

 

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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.

Misogyny: A Definition

Anger and hate from the past destroy relationships of the present

Because everyone else is to blame but the one who numbs and denies his pain from women who are dead and gone, no longer a part of his life or able to hurt him

He fills his mind and body with angry and hateful messages spoken by angry, hateful, incredulous others who make women their loyal servants and concubines

Some of the women he hurts manage to go on to the future and recover from his hatefulness and angry acts

While he stays painfully and tragically stuck in the past, haunted by the women who undoubtedly hurt him

He is bound to be angry and hateful again

He will hurt other women again

To subconsciously make them pay for the hurt he endured in the past

And this he thinks this is normal or even acceptable

Worthy of of his own life – that he is willing to sacrifice to the ones who didn’t have the capacity or the courage to love him so very, very long ago.

When with conscious, thoughtful work and support, he could be free to love himself and others, without destroying his own hopes of happiness and those of others along the way.

Instead of unfortunately believing, due to his own angry and hateful actions, that he will never find the happinesses and peace he so desperately desires. 

© 2017 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

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.