On Being Mary Jane and the intimacies of single black women

I love the idea of Being Mary Jane, but I’m annoyed, too.

There are about 4 million viewers of the show. BET is boasting that it’s the #1 show on Tuesday nights — surprise! — among my demographic: All the single black ladies. If you haven’t been watching because you’re not one of the 55 percent of African-American  unmarried women in America, #BeingMaryJane trends globally on Twitter during every new episode.

Like a lot of scripted (and unscripted) dramas featuring single black women, while the show’s creators point out that Mary Jane doesn’t represent all of the single women mentioned above, there’s such a dearth of single black female characters on television whose love lives are a significant part of their narratives that it’s refreshing to see a show offer that.

I really miss the other one, Olivia Pope. Pope, played by Kerry Washington, is the lead in Scandal. The ABC hit show is based on a real-life problem solver inside the Beltway. Her power and stylishness is what makes Pope iconic, but her Achilles heel is the small problem of the fact that she’s in love with the very married President of the United States and his dreamy compadre. (Please read: Is Olivia Pope the New Sally Hemings? for a little insight into why this seems a little far-fetched and hard to digest for black women.)

Anyway, ‘Scandal’ isn’t back until late February. I figured I’d check out Being Mary Jane to fill in the big gaping void.

I don’t think it’s working.

So, both characters offer uncommon and refreshingly humane portraits of unmarried black women who are generally stereotyped as martyrs or hood rats and very rarely viewed as anything in between. Good on you, television, for trying to give us life.  Enuma Okoro writes at the Atlantic, “Comparing Being Mary Jane to Scandal obscures one of the great strengths of Gabrielle Union’s new series: the relatability of its protagonist. Part of the brilliance behind Brock Akil’s work is that she uses a black lead character and a primarily black cast to appeal to women of all races.”

Does this about sum it up?

It’s a good effort. Better than good. I’m not optimistic about a wildly diverse audience for the show, though.

I watched the movie before the premiere earlier this month because I was intrigued by all the trailers showing Gabrielle Union submerging in a sea/bathtub littered with quotes on Post-Its, which I am fond of writing inspirational quotes on myself. The movie was good. For Gabrielle Union, who hasn’t had roles with the most, um…gravitas…in the past, it’s fantastic.

In the movie, we first meet Mary Jane baking at two in the morning. We rarely view black women doing domestic work for personal comfort in popular culture (looking at you, The Help), so as unlikely as it might be, it’s still nice to see. Her drunk boo, Andre (the excessively fine Omari Hardwick) arrives unexpectedly and cajoles her convincingly enough that she sweeps all her single lady things under her bed, empty wine glass and all.

She discovers Andre is married when she steps on his wedding ring accidentally. She responds by assaulting him with a steady stream of garden hose water. I don’t know if I squealed from pain watching this or glee? I couldn’t imagine this ending well in real life, I guess, so maybe it was a mixture of both.

Things with her family and at work are not any less messy. Mary Jane’s mother calls her all the time to vent, usually when MJ is at work. This is reminiscent of Whitney Houston’s character in Waiting to Exhale in almost every way, but in MJ’s case, the whole family follows suit. Her older brother seems to show up in every scene asking for money. Her little brother flips signs and sells weed for cash. Her niece is pregnant. She tries to get some retail therapy by buying incredibly expensive and fugly shoes, only to run into Andre and his wife, whom she later confronts at the pet store.

Yes, that’s what I wrote. Mary Jane goes to the pet store where Andre’s wife is buying kitty litter for her bereft friend and corners her. Since the one unmarried black woman everyone on the planet knows is Oprah, it’s not surprising that her name comes up. Andre’s wife immediately recognizes MJ from TV and tells her that she’s brought her so much comfort, especially after the talk show queen’s show went off the air. Mary Jane responds by saying, “Did you know I’m sleeping with your husband?”

Oh. Is *that* how that works?

Fast forward to MJ having an emotional night — she was baking a cake for her niece’s baby shower and had a nervous breakdown over a cute baby commercial. She has successfully delivered a story about women stealing sperm in what she calls the “rapey Africa story.” Mary Jane proceeds to steal and store the sperm of David, an ex that she has been labeled “Never Answer” in her iPhone.

Look, if she can’t bother to change the man’s name in her phone or actually meet him for dinner right after she said she would, does she really care enough about him to keep his sperm in a baking soda box in her freezer?

Proof there is a God.

At a party at her house where there are strippers (just because) when everyone is drunkenly confessing their dirt, she busts out the frozen sperm she stole instead of confessing that she’s been doing it with a married man. When she texts him later in what must have been the thirstiest string of texts in modern television, he doesn’t answer because after having an explicit conversation with his wife about why they’re divorcing — along the lines of: “No one likes to put a dick in their mouth first thing in the morning” — these two end up having make up sex.

Anyway, it’s nice that Mary Jane leans away from the Tyler Perry-model of shrill, psychotic and materialistic black women with standards that are too high and unrealistic, but she’s not that far away from that archetype. When she’s working, for instance, and tells David “Never Answer” she can’t go out, she calls him back two hours later to see if he can come over now that she’s finished working. She has a nonsensical hissy fit when she learns that he’s headed out on a date with someone else and she lies to him about Andre.

It’s the desperation that irritates me. That in every other area of a black woman character’s life she is together and in control and measured, but when it comes to intimacy, romance and love, she loses will power and totally becomes undone. [For a better and fuller explanation of popular culture narratives about single black women and how they are damaging in real life, I recommend Ralph Richard Banks' book, Is Marriage for White People? I wrote a review of it here. You can buy it here.]

At least with Pope, we see her make an effort to date a man who is available, she just backslides (like all the way back through history) regularly. With Mary Jane, we continue to see the message that black women are content to be sloppy seconds no matter how successful we are — because our loneliness is so deep and broad that it makes us morally corrupt and reckless like nothing else.

On one hand, this resonates. On the other, I don’t watch TV for a mirror or a reminder as much as for fantasy and inspiration. So to see Mary Jane as eviscerating and judgmental with everyone but herself is painful, even if it’s glossy and there’s lots of eye candy.

I might just wait for Scandal to come back on. Have you been watching Being Mary Jane? What do you think?

“It is not worth the grief” An essay at the Feminist Wire about work & self-care

 

I wrote a piece for the wonderful forum on black women’s health published at The Feminist Wire today:

There was something really satisfying about it, I think, because I was used to abuse. I had no idea what to do with my feelings when I wasn’t working. My work addiction provided immediate gratification so that I was always accessible to anyone – student, editor, supervisor or reader.

As Gloria Anzaldúa wrote in another context, “no vale la pena…it is not worth the grief.” Like my peers in academia who are full professors, I know what it means to be fully committed to the world in which we find ourselves. When I started teaching, I had the same porous boundaries with my students. I was answering emails and phone calls at all hours, regardless of what the syllabus said. For my 60+ hours per week, I was essentially paid the wage of an intern with no benefits, which is why it was useful to continue working at the paper.

My life was my work. Work was my life. I was always exhausted. I thought this was what it took to live the American dream, but I was not really living.

I hope you enjoy it. Ironically, I still work all the time. It feels different (and more anxiety-producing at times) because I’m working for myself now, but I know it will resonate with some of you.

Single Lady Music: Beyoncé

File this under #GuiltyPleasures.

I became totally enamored of Destiny’s Child back when Wyclef was closer to relevance and I halfway believed a singing career a la Mariah Carey or Lauryn Hill was in my future. I could sing a little bit, despite awful stage fright, so the yearning, sticky-sweet ballads of my generation were right up my alley. I was as likely to jam to Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin as I was to try to reach all of the high notes of Whitney Houston or Rachelle Ferrell.

As much as I love soul, R&B and gospel, there’s something about pop music from the 1990s, particularly, that inspires a deep nostalgia that I’m not yet comfortable with entirely. I don’t want to say that Beyoncé is the Diana Ross of my generation, but the glamour, the talent and the iconography are all there. It’s likely that “Single Ladies” tipped her into the pop artist stratosphere, but maybe she was going to be that famous anyway because she’s just that talented.

Nineteen-ninety-something.

Why is she always so naked? Why is she telling girls that we run the world when, clearly, there’s still so much misogyny in the world? What kind of message does our love for Beyoncé send to little girls who can’t live up to the standard of beauty that Beyoncé seems to set?

I don’t have answers for any of those questions. And I have written defenses of Beyoncé in the past, so I won’t go back into it. But the reason she’s become so popular is that there aren’t many singular black female figures in popular culture (not just those who are unmarried, since Mr. Carter put a ring on it a while ago) who seem to “have it all” – beauty, brains, a loving partnership and a sense of self outside of that partnership. For me, Beyoncé’s confidence and self-possession counterbalances the hypersexual sultry stuff.

There isn’t anywhere in our culture where women don’t get mixed messages about women, independence and relationships. I don’t think it’s fair that Beyoncé is the symbol of our angst about not committed to chastity or promiscuity. I love that she uses what she has to get what she wants; that’s what I aspire to do.

Here are some of my favorites.

Upgrade U: I know the feminists among us will pretend that we didn’t like this song, but I’ll just come out and admit that I loved it. I love it still.

Diva: I was inspired to write an essay about my short, failed attempt at being a rapper for an anthology when I heard this one.

Independent Women Part 1: Wow, it makes me feel old that this was 12 years ago. But whatever. I like the remix better, though.

Irreplaceable: Every woman who has had to, um, put someone out loves this song. It’s just a given.

Best Thing I Never Had: Honestly, I hated this song when I first heard it. But it resonated with me for a dozen reasons when I started listening to Beyonce 4 again recently.

What’s your favorite Single Lady music? I’m a Keri Hilson fan, too. We’ll get to her in a minute.

Why black women can’t afford to be shamed for being single

Earlier this year, I was reading Health First! The Black Woman’s Wellness Guide and these figures gave me pause.

2010 Census Figures for Marital Status among Black Women in America

7,492, 890 Never Married
4,170,470 Married
792,263 Separated
1,422,370 Widowed
2,173,815 Divorced

53 percent of American women are married and living with their spouses, compared to 44 percent of Black women, who are more likely to be single heads of household. Single mothers of color are more likely to be poor than any other women.

…the average Black single mother has no assets; she has a median net worth of zero dollars, compared to $6,000 for a White single mom.

So, basically, it’s already expensive enough being a black woman & we don’t amass any more wealth when you add shaming to the mix:

“Lifting as we Climb: Women of Color, Wealth, and America’s Future,” also found that nearly half of all single black women have zero or negative wealth, meaning their debts exceed all their assets; one-fourth of single black women have no checking or savings account; and only 33 percent of African American single women are homeowners. Mariko Chang, independent consultant and author of “Shortchanged: Why Women Have Less Wealth and What Can Be Done About It,” notes that the legacy of the racial wealth gap is largely to blame for the discrepancy.

“So much of the racial wealth gap that occurred in our history is still really alive,” Chang said. “Because of both discrimination and a gender pay gap, black women, in particular, lack a lot of the traditional wealth safety nets that other groups have access to. Because of their lower earnings, and also because of the types of jobs they have – service jobs, for instance – they’re less likely to have fringe benefits, retirement accounts, paid vacation days. If they face unemployment, illness or any kind of negative economic shock, they just don’t have that cushion.”

I would like it very much if we lived in a post-racial, post-racist society, but unfortunately, the racial and class disparities that affect me as a black woman interfere with my ability to “just get married” to solve my financial problems — even if I were the kind of woman to marry for money, which I’m not.

The historical context of (some) black families & marriage, a brief overview

I just wanted to mention that posting will be a little lighter than usual as I finish editing the book, which I plan to publish before February 2013. This is my first book, so I’ve been losing sleep over it, but I do hope it will be worth the wait.

From the book:

My mom, like the women I grew up around, knew Jesus and loved God. For God-fearing Christians, marriage has been deemed a badge of honor for centuries.

But she wasn’t actively avoiding marriage. She had tried. It just didn’t work for her.

While she never seemed interested in trying again, she was far from bitter. She continued to date more actively than even I was comfortable with into her late 60s.

Part of why she was able to be single and happy had to do with the cultural sentiment around us, which was You don’t need a piece of paper to certify your love. This is how people of color and women who are not interested in the politics of respectability (or assimilating as much as possible to mainstream culture) find space for their own models of self-worth and self-love: by appropriating for themselves what they need to feel affirmed, often outside of the gaze and judgment of popular culture.

This cultural self-approval was popular during slavery by necessity even though some of the bravest women who are depicted and often written about as single or singular black women – Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, for example – were married. In Tubman’s case, she married a few times, including one marriage that her biographer Catherine Clinton notes in Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom happened when she was likely well over 50 years old. Back then, marriages between free blacks and slaves were considered informal arrangements, not legally or biblically binding enough to trump the commerce of slavery. Clinton wrote:

“Free blacks were faced with the prospect of choosing liberty in exile or a return to enslavement by remaining with their families…A slave’s master could choose to honor or ignore the couple’s commitment, rendering such unions inherently unstable. The sale of the slave spouse might throw the entire relationship into limbo. Thus, slaves who chose a life partner, whether a free black or another slave, constantly confronted fears not only that their marriage might be shattered through salve, but that they might lose contact with their children as well.”

Any book that purports to be geared toward black unmarried women and/or instruct them on getting a mate that doesn’t acknowledge this historical context is irresponsible.  That history, along with reports like Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report on the black family (known best as The Moynihan Report) offers a more detailed explanation of black women’s perceived powerlessness in matters of intimacy and love in the United States. While it is easier to just point to statistics and talk in witty sound bites, the truth is that black unmarried women have always been required to do much more than their white counterparts in every sphere of life.

Matters of the heart, then as now, are apparently no different.

Top Posts in August: Single Lady Car Maintenance, Learning Intimacy & Wisdom from Alice Walker

August was a hit month at Single & Happy with Zen and the Art of Single Lady Car Maintenance.

Zen and the Art of Single Lady Car Maintenance was a global hit, which genuinely surprised me. I wish for all of you a day when you get Freshly Pressed. It was like being prom queen on the Internet – and I met a lot of great readers from all over the world.

Break-ups, learning intimacy & ending self-sabotage was not as popular. But a lot of you still liked it. (Maybe because I posted it the day after the Zen post?)

I need to remind myself of this at least once a week: “No person is your friend who demands your silence or denies your right to grow.” More wisdom from Alice Walker here.

You know how people will ask you if you’re single, then get shocked and say, “Why?!” when you tell them? Well, I tried dating so that I would figure out a better answer to that question. But that, too, was a #fail.

On the New York Times’ great Opinion piece, The Busy Trap, and the difference between being busy and being lonely.

Single Lady Quotes: bell hooks

From Goodreads

I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else’s whim or to someone else’s ignorance.

As a young writer, I aspired to be a poet like Ntozake Shange, who distilled so much of the black girl’s experience in her poetry and a warrior like Alice Walker. Intellectually, I yearned for the freedom, clarity and possession that marked bell hooks’ work.
bell hooks was the first black woman intellectual I admired. I read Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life – a conversation between bell hooks and Cornel West, when I was 13, and never stopped admiring her work. It also allowed me to envision myself as an intellectual in my own right. hooks has written over 30 books.

“To return to love, to get the love we always wanted but never had, to have the love we want but are not prepared to give, we seek romantic relationships. We believe these relationships, more than any other, will rescue and redeem us. True love does have the power to redeem but only if we are ready for redemption. Love saves us only if we want to be saved.”

“Love is a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust.”

“One of the major tasks black women face as we work for emotional healing is to understand more fully what love is so that we do not imagine that love and abuse can be simultaneously present in our lives. Most abuse is life-threatening, whether it wounds our bodies or our psyches. Understanding love as a life-force that urges us to move against death enables us to see clearly that, where love is, there can be no disenabling, disempowering, or life-destroying abuse.”

“It is the absence of love that has made it so difficult for us to stay alive or, if alive, to live fully. When we love ourselves, we want to live fully…When we love ourselves, we know that we much do more than survive. We must have the means to live fully.”

“Exclusion and isolation, whether they occur through overt or covert acts, have always been useful tactics of terrorism, a powerful way to coerce individuals to conform, to change. No insurgent intellectual, no dissenting critical voice in this society escapes the pressure to conform….We can all be had, co-opted, bought. There is no special grace that rescues any of us. There is only a constant struggle to keep the faith, to relentlessly rejoice in an engagement with critical ideas that is itself liberatory, a practice of freedom.”

I am a happy Single American: An excerpt from the book

I have been telling you a little about the book I’ve been writing, and wanted to offer you some excerpts of it while I slowly edit so you don’t have to wait forever for a finished product.

The year I turned 34, I had finished three full and seven half marathons and I’d been teaching journalism at the University of Texas as a lecturer for four semesters. I’d dreamed of being a writer for over twenty years, and persevered for long enough that I worked full-time as a newspaper reporter in some of America’s most scenic cities: San Francisco, Seattle and Houston (well, OK, now I live in Austin, which is much prettier than Houston.)

I owned a home – a huge feat for a girl who had once frequented New York City homeless shelters as a child — a beautiful dog the size of a mini-pony, a reliable car some jerk dented with one of those metal carts at Home Depot and a spectacular bill of health from doctors. After years of therapy for having financial issues, control issues, addiction issues and general issues, by the time I reached my mid-thirties, when my therapist said I was the most mentally healthy person she knew, I finally believed her. I had a rich network of friends around the world who respected my work and writing and emailed me dispatches from Mexico, Barcelona and Egypt.

I believe that we are each defined by the people in our lives. They are mirrors for us. I am probably unnaturally devoted to my friends because so many of them have acted as surrogates for family over the years.

I am also a single American.

“Why are you still single?”

This question has always grated on my nerves, but it’s only gotten worse as the years have gone by. It is what I like to call a back-handed compliment. A guy I met recently called it a slap kiss. It is meant to flatter you as in, “Why are you still single when crazy-as-a-fun house Becky got engaged six months ago?”

Before I did any research, before I realized that the problem was a cultural and social one and before I knew there were over 60 million other single Americans who probably shared my pain, I simply answered this question with the truth: “I don’t know.”

Sometimes the answer was different. “I don’t want to be in a relationship.”

The truth, more often, was a bit more nuanced, as any single person can attest. Dating, as I will write about here, is like everything else in the world that the Internet screwed up – incredibly rich with potential, totally, incredibly time-consuming and randomly ludicrous. I could not believe no one had written a first-person account of dating as a single woman in the 21st Century and how to cope with all the shenanigans that come with the package – no matter how brilliant, sexy, big-boobed, erudite or compliant with societal norms a woman is or is not, it is really rough out there for single people.

Not just a little bit rough, honey. It is incredibly hard to find like-minded people with good credit, self-awareness or goals that are scheduled beyond a calendar date in the next couple of weeks. There are books on weight-loss, getting your money right, how to be more devoted to God, and of course, how to get a man. What I really needed for a good decade, though, was a book on how to be happily single.

When they only date white girls & other musings on interracial dating

The drawback of being a creative person is that sometimes you have a thought & it just will not leave your skull.

I have a good spidey sense, so I can usually tell when I meet a man who has been believing that Psychology Today hype about black women being mannish or whatever. Still, it’d be nice to have some kind of hand sign, T-shirt, or whatever that would separate the WODAWGS — Will Only Date A White Girl — from other potential suitors.

Taye Diggs. Still fine.

I’m about to start reading  Swirling: How to Date, Mate and Relate Mixing Race, Culture and Creed by Christelyn D. Karazin and Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, so the question of interracial dating has been on my mind. The book seems to be a guidebook for black women who date interracially, which has been a hot topic in most media focused on single black women.

Specifically, I noted that Ralph Richard Banks’ book, Is Marriage for White People? was the most recent work to remind black women to broaden their dating options:

Banks writes with acuity and directness about the costs of that loyalty to black women who are most negatively affected by man-sharing and its consequences. He also mentions the skewed online dating market, where white men basically exclude black women outright (through silence or an explicit preference not to date us). He also offers a more balanced, objective viewpoint of how black women basically keep themselves from finding happiness in interracial relationships. Banks’ central thesis is that by dating outside of the race and marrying outside of the race more often, black women may save black love.

The reason it would be helpful to know if people only date within their race, though, is because you can’t ever take for granted that you’re not being fetishized as a black woman. And all of this talk about black women trying to get chosen because they’re so desperate, unfortunately, builds the mythical case that if a single black man is within a 50 mile radius, the nearest single black woman will hunt him down & trap him, Black Widow style.

As if you can make someone who doesn’t want you or anyone who looks like you in the first place want to date you with the stench of desperation alone.

When I was younger, I had a very simplistic glare reserved for black men who only dated white women — as if it were a personal assault against my very existence. I think my internal rationale was: One less date for me and what is wrong with me, anyway?  instead of Um, you can have that one, I’m good.

I believed that the person you chose to be with was a reflection of what you desired in yourself. And I desired (and still desire) black men. But at some point, particularly when I lived on the West Coast, I was surrounded by so many black men who were dating outside of the race that I became immune to it and finally just accepted that grown folk are allowed to choose their own mates. Eventually,  the presence of black men who only dated white women to the exclusion of other races (particularly black women) stopped hopping on my last nerve.

That only happened, though, once realized that I had limited my options based on what they were when I was younger. I didn’t date white guys until I was out of college, and even then, only sporadically. When I ventured into interracial territory, let’s just say it wasn’t as smooth as Something New made it seem.

I thought a lot of white men in popular culture were hot (looking at you Richard Gere) but because I never saw images of them with black women (there were rare exceptions…Iman and David Bowie, for starters) somehow the concept of white men who found black women attractive  seemed…distant. The kicker? I was shocked to discover that random black men (usually the ones who didn’t date black women!) felt some kind of way about that. Apparently, they, too, had a gaze reserved for black women who dated outside the race.

News reports say that the number of people dating and marrying interracially is creeping up as the taboo associated with dating outside the race starts to fade:

About 24% of African-American males married outside their race in 2010, compared to 9% of African-American females. However, the reverse is true for Asians, where about 36% of females married outside their race compared to 17% of male newlyweds. And intermarriages for white and Hispanic people do not vary by gender, researchers found. Intermarriages also vary by region. In Western states, about one in five people, or 22%, married someone of a different race or ethnicity between 2008 and 2010. That drops to 14% in the South, 13% in the Northeast and 11% in the Midwest. Interracial dating services have also cropped up online, offering those looking for love an opportunity to find their preferred matches.

I only have anecdotal evidence. Among my friends, I would say four out of 5 of the married black women I know have partners who are not black. Most of my friends are a little on the maverick side, granted, but still. Those are pretty interesting statistics. I’m interested in hearing from y’all about your interracial dating experiences. If you only date a particular race, why is that? And if you date interracially, have you noticed that society has become more accepting? I’ll be back with a review of Swirling shortly.

I thought I was the only one who loved this song, but I found out when Donna Summer died last week at age 63 that it was the song of choice for so many. The Internet Movie Database called it “the abiding feminist anthem…(and) one of the most-played songs of all-time.”

Every now and then, when I’m tired and whiny and ready to complain about too much work, I hear the hook on this song.

What a life, Donna Summer. Rest in peace, darling.

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