Making it Hard for Ourselves: the Politics of Resistance

Recently, a man that I know – a  black man who alleges that he loves me – had this to say to me from out of the blue (and over text):

You make it hard on yourself because you choose to be [publicly] an atheist and a womanist…it just seems like “you black women” want to struggle.

What he did not know, or realize, was that the most powerful people on planet Earth are the ones who dare to resist the abuse and terror of white-dominated institutions and any misogynistic behavior, when to do so would go against the grain, or the norm; and when  to do so might make life “hard” for them.

I am so very grateful for the people and the institutions who struggled against injustice and risked their lives and what they had to make the world that we know a better place for all. Indeed, there is no better sacrifice, than to lay down one’s life for a friend, and for others…when you don’t have to. Deep down, I think the greatest people in the world knew that their struggles (the ones they did not have to take on) would enrich and sustain the lives of others.

A person or institution who only uses his power when it is acceptable or popular or safe is not powerful. He is a conformist, and he is afraid. This is a man who does very little, if anything, for anyone besides himself or his immediate family members; and, unfortunately, there are many like him. I’m sure you know some; the ones who sit back (from behind their masks) and criticize those who are willing to stand up and take the risks that they feel are necessary. That criticism is a projection of their feelings of inadequacy and fear, and it has no power to stop anyone from being who they want to be in life, even though it is meant to intimidate to bully, and to shame others, which is a reflection of the shame that they feel about themselves and their actions and inactions.

I am very proud to identify myself, in public, as an atheist and as a womanist; and this even more so every day, because in the the name of so-called gods, men and religion have torn this world apart, as well as the beings who live on it. Men and religion have predominantly been the ones to bring violence and destruction to the Earth and its inhabitants.

As for the man who said those words to me – you make it hard on yourself – he never really got me, and he probably never will, and that is okay. Because if standing up for myself, and for others, is seen as “making it hard on myself,” then so be it, for it is something that I hope I have the wherewithal to do until the day that I die.

Because the struggle is life and the struggle will continue.

© 2017 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

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What’s Wrong with Black Women? What’s Wrong With Black Men?

I have been using my own platforms with my writing to challenge whiteness, patriarchy, sexism, white supremacy, at least, since 1992, which was the year that I enrolled as a student at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law. Hence, being open about my resistance to injustice has been a part of who I am for a very long time. I can identify with Colin Kaepernick being committed to kneeling during the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner” and telling the truth on police brutality, but he is not unique. Many others, black women and men alike, celebrities and non-celebrities, have used their platforms to speak truth to power. Of course, not every black woman and every black men has done it, but many have. And, because we have done it in response to whiteness, patriarchy, and expressions of white supremacy, we also know what it means to be alienated and rejected. Some of us know and we have known for decades what retaliation looks like, and we know what it feels like to stand alone and apart from everyone else and with no one else to come to our defense, but us.

That said, I want to share a personal story. About a week ago, I was verbally attacked by a man that I know for being a black woman and for being a feminist (although I have always categorically identified as a womanist). We were communicating on text (which I don’t particularly like to do), and he took issue with a response that I sent to him when he asked me why I had not asked for his help in a personal matter. When I explained to him that 1) I had already taken care of the matter before he was even in the picture, and 2) that he and I talked about the matter briefly and he did not voluntarily offer his help to me, he went berserk and texted back, “See that’s your f*cking problem and the problem of many black women.” He continued to tear me and black women apart by asserting that black women are “f*cked up,” and that we, black women, better get it together because Donald Trump is in office and men “of every color” are leaving black women and feminists. Really? Like I should care about Trump and men who are leaving black women feminists. From men who were never really with us anyway? Well, to them I can unabashedly say, good riddance!

Nevertheless, his response was both hateful and disrespectful, and it was a deliberate and cowardly verbal attack on my person and my identity. At first, I graciously returned a text and said, “Goodnight,” but soon my graciousness and niceness went by the wayside and I went in to total defense mode …until I kinda lost it (and saying some things that I did not mean to say); but, at the same time I could not sit there and let him hide behind the phone and figuratively slap me with his words. For the next three hours I texted him about every half an hour thinking of everything I could to reject the ignorance and hypocrisy of his words.

Many black women face this kind of daily abuse (and worse) from so-called male friends and intimate partners. They are repeatedly verbally belittled for taking care of themselves by men who despise black women but who simultaneously want them to depend totally on them (when they are really not all that dependable). Black men like this want to control black women, and in attempting to do so they don’t mind characterizing black women as “f*cked up” when by their own admission they have “mama issues.” Truth be told, these same men often have “daddy issues” in that they did not have loving and nurturing fathers/men who were wiling and able to be present to them when they should have been. In an effort to replace their absent daddies, the black men that some of them learned to respect were pimps and players, i.e., men who aspired to control women’s minds and bodies for a living. Thus, they have reenacted the same kind of abusive and negligent kind of emotional behaviors in their own intimate and day-to-day relationships. Not to mention, if you look in to their inner circles and you will often find that many of their so-called “friends” and acquaintances exude and encourage male behavior that is audaciously dishonest, disloyal and dismissive of women because deep-down they don’t really love or respect black women. They tolerate black women to gain something, usually to satisfy the need for company and sex. If they are cis-gendered black men, you might find that they desire for women to entertain them when they are bored or in need of sex, but other than that they often treat black women as disruptive and unwelcome in their daily routines, which are often reserved for the exclusive company of men (i.e., in a homosocial environment). To me, these type of men are not trustworthy people, they lack intregrity, depth, and the ability to cooperate with black women and perhaps all women in general, and they know it, so they do what they do best: they strike out against black women to take the focus off their own f*cked up past and present situations.

What made me strike back against the man who verbally attacked me on text was a fury about the hypocrisy that this man demonstrated to me for several weeks. Prior to the lashing that he decided to give me on text, I had overlooked several instances where he couldn’t even remember what he said the day before due to being drunk out of his mind and in a blackout. I can tolerate a lot of things from a man, but when a man who is by his own admission, f*cked up, and who is doing absolutely nothing to change or help himself accuses me and all other black women of being f*cked up, then he better know that he is uttering fighting words, and fighting words might be what he gets in return.

Whether we ground ourselves in the philosophy of womanism or feminism, or nothing at all, there are black women who are both willing and able to stand up for themselves, for black culture and for the sustainable development of black communities. We do not need black men or any other men to stand up or speak for us. We are very capable of speaking up for ourselves and for others. There is plenty of documentation that speaks to the long history black women have had with regard to leading the charge for social justice. No matter how much black men may want to deny it or diminish it, black women have stood on behalf of themselves and others, including non-black peoples, in spite of the consequences, and even when it has cost them their lives and livelihoods. Furthermore, many times black women stood on the front lines when black men and the powers that be tried to silence them by controlling or maligning their minds and bodies as a group and as individuals. Notwithstanding this abuse and abandonment (which can be mental/emotional as well as physical), there are those of us who will stand (or strike if necessary) and fight in defense of ourselves and for those we love and often for the sole purpose of letting obnoxious and ignorant people and institutions know that we are worth standing up for. Of course, there are many who will not like it when we do this, and they will claim that there is something categorically wrong with black women. This very disappointing and unfortunate response is something that we should come to expect because of patriarchy. Some people (male, female, and those in between, if truth be told) really do believe that “this is a man’s world.” Many believe it is a man’s right to dominate and control women, and for some that means “by any means necessary.”

Nothing is wrong with black women who stand in defense of themselves, and especially not when they are attacked by wanna-be pimps and players who don’t know the first thing about developing mutually loving relationships with black women. Perhaps the questions we must begin to ask are, “What is wrong with black men?” and “Why don’t they want black women to feel and be empowered about themselves and their communities?” What is wrong with black men like the one that I just told you about who is both terrified and drawn to black women at the same time? What is wrong with black men, who are over the age of 50 but who hide behind their YouTube channels, phones, their suits, their cars, their sunglasses, their educational degrees, their jobs, and all other kinds of material possessions and hurl painful and hateful accusations at black women when what they really need to be doing is whatever they can to stop sabotaging their own lives and happiness with bad personal choices due to the traumas of their youth? What is wrong with black men who abandon black women when black women don’t give them whatever they want whenever they want it? Many black men could be better partners to black women if they would become willing to confront and unlearn the patriarchal crap they learned as children (and as adults), which is no longer working for them as adults. If they really wanted to, there are some black men who could be better partners to black women. But honestly, many of them refuse to change, because they don’t have to, and many black men learn from other black men who spread toxic and twisted so-called theories about black women under the guise of pan-Africanism. It is sad to say, but it has become socially acceptable for black men to disrespect and hate black women in public and in private discourse, while also claiming to love them. And that is one primary reason that so many of us – black women – choose to be alone or with others besides black men. Black women are not the property of black men; nor do black men have a natural or so-called god-given right to our persons, our minds, and our bodies. Likewise, I do not claim that black men belong to black women exclusively. I don’t give a flying flip about what Dr. Umar Johnson, Tariq Nasheed, Brother Polight, or any other so-called “prince” or “ambassador of blackness” has to say about so-called “interracial relationships”: black women can choose to be with whomever they want, whenever they want, for the reasons that they want, and that should go for anybody. Furthermore, and essentially, what must be understood is that

…some of us – black women –  will refuse to be disrespected and hated by men who also claim to love us – no matter what color they are. Such men do not love us. They fear us and the power and prerogative that we as black women have as human beings to reject and abandon them if need be.

 

The men who respect me as a person are also capable of respecting my choice to identify as a womanist (and my choice to identify as an atheist, by the way). There are several men in my life who love me, and one of them is my father. Only those who fear womanism (or atheism), due to a lack of knowledge and uncertainty about their own personal and political identities, will try to tear me down and discredit who I am. And?

As a black woman, and as a womanist, and as an atheist, I will continue to speak truth to power. I will not let the attacks and threats of fearful, abusive black men, corporations, institutions, Donald Trump, or anyone else rejecting me for that matter keep me from standing up for myself and defending the goodness of black culture and of black women in particular. Whether we are being attacked in the open or behind closed doors, I will be standing up or sitting down and using all of my power and fierceness to resist and expose those who claim to love black women on the one hand, yet who act like they could care less or even hate us on the other. And, indeed, I am not alone. There are many black women who have been willing to fight for our dignity and honor for decades, and I stand on the shoulders of those who did it way before I was even a thought in this life as we know it. This is not to say that all black women are willing to defend black women or black culture. But, I am, and if standing up for myself, black women and black culture costs me a place on this great big plantation called the United States, or if because of standing up I lose a relationship with a black man that I once loved, respected and trusted, then so be it. I don’t need that kind of man or hatefulness in my life, and this is one black woman who will go down with her honor intact and her voice heard and hopefully remembered by those who need and want to hear it. And, I am not the first, nor will I be the last black woman who will use her power seriously and fiercely. We have been here for what seems like forever, and there are those of us who have always been and will always be brave enough to be who we are. Regardless. And, yes, in case you are wondering, it is that bravery that will inspire generations of black women to stand up for themselves and discredit patriarchy and patriarchal systems, whether white, black or any other color (I say that because I once had elder black colleagues who accused me of “influencing” students with womanism. Well duh!!!!!). That is the point. My life and my thinking will make a difference, not just for me and those in my immediate and personal circle, but to other generations as well, some of whom I will never meet or know. And, frankly, that is what is very, very right and good about many black women!

© 2017 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

A Brief Word on Harriet Tubman, American Hypocrisy and Tokenism

Harriet Tubman on the tool that greedy humans use to manufacture their wealth while murdering and impoverishing millions on this land and on lands around the globe? What is there to applaud? Why should I rejoice?

I want those who made this decision and the United States government to use money to do justice, not to divide nations, destroy the Earth, and re-enslave people and their communities. This thing called “money” is used daily to rank and classify the quality of our lives. It is a small piece of paper that has become a very destructive yet powerful global mechanism of social and economic control. Try to exist without it. Try to matter without it.

How can I be happy or moved about the decision to put the face of Harriet Tubman, a courageous African and American woman who liberated herself and others from those greedy for profits and power on a $20 “bill” while a bounty was placed on her head, as if putting her image on money is an adequate way of honoring her life that was repeatedly threatened and endangered by white hate and contempt? And, does this mean that the American people and the U.S. government respect and honor black womens’ lives, especially poor black womens’ lives, just as they honor famous white men who are memorialized on U.S. currency? Of course, black women are noticed and appreciated by the powers that be if and when they are making money to the ultimate profit of a small white minority, and often to a single white man or family who is hidden behind a sheet, or in today’s terms, he is hidden behind a screen (which sounds a lot like a plantation economy to me). On the contrary, in many U.S. cities and towns, black women make less money than their black male counterparts, thus, though we may be very visible, economically and socially, we are not valued equally as black men, and certainly we are not as valued and thus not as compensated as white women. And, if recent events have demonstrated anything, we know today that in the eyes of the law black women (like Marissa Alexander and Sandra Bland), black mothers, black men, black lesbians, black gay men, black-trans, black children, and black lives in general DO NOT MATTER. If in fifty to one-hundred years from now the Department of the Treasury or the Federal Reserve puts their faces on paper money it will not make them matter. It will not erase or undo the past and the harm that has been done in the name of American economic and so-called globalized progress.

Harriet Tubman, one of the greatest Emancipators this nation has ever known, does not deserve to be made a monetary token to support the American economy that was built on the backs of African peoples and others this nation’s colonizers chose to exploit. To honor her is to dare to set the captives free and thus to live an emancipatory life! To respect the life and legacy of Harriet Tubman, whose first name was Araminta Ross, we must live by her motto, “go free or die.” Because in the end, when we take our last breaths, it will not be money, the Department of the Treasury, or the Federal Reserve that made our lives what they were: it will be our humanity and the courage we had, in spite of our oppressors and oppressions, to face life and death, free.

© 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

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

Black Women, Motherhood and the Resolve to Live Anyhow: a random thought on freedom now

I am in a bakery finishing my coffee and a young black woman who works here ends her shift. She leaves and returns momentarily carrying her beautiful baby in a car seat to show off her infant child to her co-workers (and to curious customers like me who want to have a look). We all oooh and aahh over her child and her pride as a mother. Then, as I think to myself, just 40 or 50 years ago this probably would not have happened or been possible here in the #ATL in a local bakery and in a part of the city that is predominantly white and affluent.

Just that fast, it dawned on me that black mothers in the U.S. have not experienced this kind of social affirmation and personal freedom for very long at all, for once they were not permitted to show this kind of love and motherly identity so freely in public spaces. When black people like me consider the struggles of our mothers and grandmothers in a world controlled and defined by white cultural practices and values, we have much to be thankful for. And upon that consideration, all of us, regardless of color, can be aware of what it took for non-white mothers to live anyhow in the face of those controlled and diminished by the hate and disregard of black mothers in particular. Finally, we must then remember, in light of the recent Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, that the next generation of women won’t be able to live so freely in the future unless we do our part to secure their freedoms now.

© 2014 annalise fonza, PhD