It’s your anniversary: Reflections on Year One

There is nothing like standing in the middle of a crowd and feeling utterly alone.

The loneliest I have ever felt has been standing in a room full of dressed up people, my mind somewhere else entirely, my heart aching for something, though I couldn’t figure out what it could possibly be.

A year ago, against the backdrop of other life changes, I started Single & Happy. It was initially called Single, Happy & Free for like, two weeks, but that seemed to be rubbing it in. And the tag line for months was about statistics be damned, because I was really angry about all of the stories in our culture that shame black women in particular for being successful, having standards and yet, somehow still being unfit for companionship.

I didn’t really want to write a book about it. I said I did, but I prayed for different guidance. A lot of people like the idea of mavericks, of people who say the thing that folks think but won’t write or talk about in public, but being one, going against the popular culture stream is something I didn’t think was in the cards for me.

Meanwhile, I had tried all of the online dating sites with the exception of a few, but what I learned after spending money I didn’t have to waste was that while there are all kinds of people who can find companionship that way, it wasn’t for me. I was also angry that no matter where I went — from my therapist’s couch to meetings with supervisors to happy hours and picnics –  the world reflected back to me what I believed about myself: I was not enough. I needed to get a partner. Sure, happiness and solitude – yeah, whatever! But you are a shell of a woman without a romantic relationship.

It was an incomplete story. I fleshed out what I was feeling and reacting to by reading books, like Samhita Mukhopadhyay‘s Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life, and Ralph Richard Banks’ Is Marriage for White People? and Florence Falk’s On My Own: The Art of Being A Woman Alone and Patricia Hill Collin’s Black Sexual Politics, among others. I could see how relationships for other black women in the past, the memorable ones, my heroes – Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth – had never been in the foreground for historians.

It turned out that Harriet Tubman was married a few times. How come I had only ever seen her pictured alone?

I learned that there is more than one way to find love, to be happy and fall in love with oneself while also reframing the discussion about what it means to be single.

For years, I had heard that single black women, and later, their white, breadwinning counterparts, were all these things: emasculating, overbearing, too fat, too dark, too much of everything. Those degrees would not keep us warm at night. That weave looked nice on a video hoe, but a man can’t run his fingers through that. Go natural if you want, but for some men, that makes you look too mannish. Too strong.

Too everything.

The message: These black women don’t know how to treat a man. “You don’t know how to let a man be a man.” Maybe you won at life by surviving all the things black women have to. But you have failed at matters of the heart. You have failed at the ultimate prize of womanhood: to be chosen. To be accepted, for life, in marriage.

And this: By succeeding, moving forward, we are making the brothers look bad.

And we are not alone. This year, I took note of the increasing rhetoric of the End of Men debate. What is a man without full ownership of patriarchy, when women are allegedly snatching up all the jobs and the money (spoiler alert: we are not). Why can’t white women, too, have it all – the partnership, the great job, the freedom and the money? Well, white follows black. So, welcome, sisters, to the reality of life as a black woman.

You can have most of “it,” whatever “it” is. But you will get called out for being something other than a woman. Insecure, mean-spirited, disenfranchised, coddled boys will find ways to remind you that you are only worthy when a man puts a ring on it. Which, as we know from the many stories of relationship mayhem, divorce and tragedy that circulate through our headlines, is just not true.

But I created Single & Happy thinking that I would keep it private until I could figure out what I was really trying to say, while I worked on a little book that I thought might actually be of service to some other folks. It turned out that I was right, that I had friends around the world who agreed with me, and when they didn’t, had reasonable arguments to the contrary.

I’m more Eeyore than Pooh or Piglet on any given day, so the Single & Happy title could often be read as a misnomer. But because of y’all, it is almost always true. Thanks for reading and for visiting. Looking forward to another year of sharing and commenting and dancing a little to old songs from the 90s with y’all.

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.

The Romantic’s Disclaimer: A book excerpt

I love romance and thinking about love. It’s an affliction that was only worsened by a childhood reading list of titles by authors like Sidney Sheldon, bell hooks, Cornel West and a lot of Harlequin Romances, Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel.

I’m writing more about this in another book, but it’s important context: my mother, a single parent with undiagnosed bipolar and borderline personality disorders, left me alone as a child and teenager for long stretches of time while she was working or going to school.

In those long, often boring, stretches of time, I became a writer, a dreamer and a hopeful romantic. I also learned how to live by watching television, movies and reading a lot. My life experience and the people I was blessed to meet along the way helped dispel or reinforce relationship notions in one way or another.

But my earliest ideas about love and romance came from a mixture of popular culture references like The Color Purple, The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker, the love poems of Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez and June Jordan and so many television shows and movies from the 80s and 90s that I couldn’t even start to list them all. (Scenes from The Women of Brewster Place still pop up in my dreams, for instance.)

Having all the time in the world to jump from one seedy or sappy narrative to another was the best structure I had to craft a robust inner life. The soundtrack of my youth is all Jodeci, New Edition, Boyz II Men, Bell Biv Devoe, Johnny Gill, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige and Bobby Brown: baby-making music.

Yes, and I loved them anyway

The images from those books – A painting of the blond Fabio caressing a damsel in his arms; descriptions of the dark-haired and ruthless Lucky Santangelo getting her revenge as a scorned lover in Los Angeles; the bucolic love stories of Danielle Steel involving horses and green fields – worked in tandem with music lyrics to feed the epic story that the love of a man was just over the adulthood horizon. To love and be loved was the central goal of womanhood, so if I was really going to grow up and be a woman, I needed to know these plots and their narrative arcs.

One of the consequences of my mother’s mental illnesses, though, was that I had a misshapen sense of what it meant to be intimate with another person. The side effects of bipolar disorder include euphoria, manic depression and violence.  Almost right up until my mother died in January 2012, she was always in love with somebody or something. She was never without a suitor.

Mom loved love. “I think he’s in love with me (smiles but serious)”: this was her constant refrain. I only know of one black man she courted seriously – my father – but the rest of her lovers were like representatives of the United Nations: white, Mexican, Pakistani, Russian.

Mom was loud, bipolar and a beautiful disaster, as Kelly Clarkson sang. I was her polar opposite: quiet, observant and reserved. While she spun through the world, giggling at one intimate encounter or another, I became a student of people and relationships.

For women, mothers are the templates for womanhood and what we believe about being a woman in the world. As a result, I believed that love and sex were interchangeable. Sex in exchange for affection looked a lot like the dramatic, florid romances I read.

Unfortunately, it would take many years to learn the difference between sex and love.

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.

Rihanna on being single: “There’s a major drought out there.”

Elle Magazine Photo

I am fascinated by Rihanna, probably because it’s been amazing to see her career move from Pon de Replay (Ugh) to Cake, which I would love to stop singing.

You’ve probably seen a few opinions about Rihanna on the interwebs in recent days. Here’s my two cents: She is grown. And she can do what she wants. Know how I know? She mentioned it in this Elle Magazine piece.

On the backlash over their reconciliation:
“The bottom line is that everyone thinks differently. It’s very hard for me to accept, but I get it. People end up wasting their time on the blogs or whatever, ranting away, and that’s all right. Because tomorrow I’m still going to be the same person. I’m still going to do what I want to do.”

On having kids: “It could be tomorrow. It could be 20 years from now. I just feel like when the time is right, God will send me a little angel. But first, of course, I have to find a man. I mean, there’s a very important missing piece to the puzzle here!”

On finding that man:
“I feel like it’s hard for everybody! I don’t think it has anything to do with being famous. There’s just a major drought out there. […] But I just need to find the person who balances me out, because then things like my schedule won’t matter. I’ve done it before, so I know I can do it again.”

This whole drought thing, and the idea that there’s a shortage,  is a really annoying part of being single. The concept has plagued me since I was a teenager, when I was told there were a shortage of black men who’d want to date me because I dreamed of being a college professor.

It happened again when I found myself at a liberal arts college where the male to female ratio was 40/60 – and the ratio of men of color to women of color was far more severe.

The idea that there is a man shortage is a pervasive and problematic one. It rarely leads to women’s happiness, I’ve noticed. Anyone who tells you there’s a man shortage or a woman shortage or any kind of shortage of anything typically is missing a lot of potential options either close to home or further away.

I say this from experience. Back when I believed the hype about a shortage of black men or available men to date, I made really lousy choices that reinforced that I believed I would be happier as part of a toxic couple than as a content single woman. I continue to work to expand my sense of what’s possible in my life and in my work, and as I’ve done that, it’s helped me to diminish the idea that I need to latch on to anything — relationships, ideas, possessions — in order to keep from going without.

I work really hard not to judge people – you never know what happens when the cameras are off. Rihanna and Chris Brown are no exception to the rule. But I do wonder if Rihanna didn’t think there was such a shortage of men out there if she wouldn’t make a different, healthier choice.

Single Lady Music: The Ladies of the 80s

One of my favorite things about Austin is the Alamo Drafthouse. They have a sing along series for everything. I have shamelessly belted out all of the Justin Timberlake songs in existence while twirling a noisemaker. I don’t know what really important business kept me from the Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It Hip Hop Quote Along — but nothing could keep me from this Ladies of the 80s sing along when my best friend was in town. There were gems I had totally forgotten about. The only thing that could have made it better was if they had added Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s “Ladies First” video.

So, without further ado, I give you the Ladies of the 80s:

The Weather Girls. Two Tons of Fun? What! They really said, “God bless Mother Nature, she’s a single woman too.” No, really.

Gloria Estefan. You just couldn’t tell me I was not a Latina whenever I heard a Gloria Estefan song. I am no good at salsa, but I certainly try when it comes to this lady.

Janet Jackson. If you buy me an adult beverage one day, I will tell you about the afternoon that I saw this on Video Music Box and found a chair to nearly break my leg on trying to be like Janet Jackson. 

Whitney Houston. Yeah, you knew you weren’t going to make it out of here without I Wanna Dance with Somebody. I miss Nippy.

Single Lady Quotes: Kelly Clarkson

I’m not even sure how I became obsessed with Kelly Clarkson. But I think my love for her probably means I should just go ahead and confess to loving popular music. Plus, there’s the fact, that she’s a Texas woman and she can sing her tail off. She’s got the healthiest combination of cowgirl swagger and down-to-earth appeal.

She is not technically a single lady at the moment – since she’s dating after being single for 6 years. But her songs still give me life. So, there you have it ladies and gentlemen.

But here are some of the things she’s said about being single for awhile. These totally resonate with me — I’m sure you can relate, even if you don’t have 1 million Twitter followers like Kelly:

“People are really concerned about my relationship status. When I tell people I’m happy being single, they don’t believe me. They say: ‘You have to be miserable being alone’.”

(Addressing rumors that she had been single for so long because she’s a lesbian)

“I get that all the time. People are like ‘Are you secretly a lesbian? Because I’d really love it.’ Lesbians tell it to me all the time,” Clarkson once said in a 2009 interview with AOL’s PopEater.com. “I’m like, ‘I’m glad it works for you and I wish I liked women like that because oftentimes men are very hard for me, but I happen to like boys.’ I could never be a lesbian. I would never want to date someone like myself, ever,” she added.

Here’s the thing: Most of her music doesn’t have lyrics that are super inspirational all by themselves. But these are some of my favorite songs; and if you’ve never heard Beautiful Disaster Live, you need that in your life. Enjoy:

Reads for the Weekend: February’s over? Women at War & Queering Black Herstory

So, yeah, we got an extra day. But March still snuck up on me. February was crazy!

Lovely Guest Post from WomenWellLoved: You deserve your love & affection

Planned Parenthood Saved Me (aka, Kiss It, Komen.)

I loved Nippy, crack quotes and all. My love note to Whitney.

Speaking of fantastic women, Rest in peace, Marie Colvin. I read this 2002 Vanity Fair piece about war reporters who happen to be women and it did my heart good. “Boys get fascinated by toys about age two, and that never changes,” Colvin says. “That’s not what I think is important about covering a war. I think the story is the people.”

I haven’t written a lot about the LGBTQ community here yet, but I intend to get there. In the meantime, this was a great piece about whether or not it is a disservice to women in black history to require that they present according to popular standards of gender norms.

In black relationship dynamics, incarceration has been a huge, tragic and ongoing factor. Michelle Alexander, an expert and scholar on The New Jim Crow, writes about the myth of desegregation in America.

Single Lady Quotes: Madonna

“I’m anal retentive. I’m a workaholic. I have insomnia. And I’m a control freak. That’s why I’m not married. Who could stand me?”

““I’ve been popular and unpopular successful and unsuccessful loved and loathed and I know how meaningless it all is. Therefore I feel free to take whatever risks I want.”

“If your joy is derived from what society thinks of you, you’re always going to be disappointed.”

So sayeth Madonna, who I have loved through all of her transformations. Yes, even when she had no business trying to rap.

This is also a plug. I wrote an essay that appears in the new Soft Skull Press anthology, Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop.  You can follow Laura Barcella, who edited the anthology, on Twitter.  If you get a chance to read it, let me know what you think.  It’s already gotten some good reviews, which is exciting.This one at For Books’ Sake says I have a different opinion of Madonna than bell hooks.  And I didn’t even know that bell hooks had called Madonna a plantation mistress. Guess I’ve got some (more) reading to do.

A love note for Whitney Houston

Dearest Whitney:

When I was little, sometimes people would tell me I looked like you, which to me was better than someone telling me I was a rock star.

I knew all of your notes by heart, even if they were out of my alto range. I practiced, comb in hand, when WBLS played all of your hits. I was in second grade singing the Greatest Love of All with my classmates, which is how I first knew you were a force in the world.

And of course, I Wanna Dance With Somebody, which, when my sisters sang it at karaoke in South Philly just a few months ago, got everybody up to dance. In 2011.

I didn’t have much money to by tapes back in the day, but I bought all of yours, no matter what. I’m Your Baby Tonight…When you sang Miracle, I listened to it over and over again, your voice a prayer I kept repeating with the melody in my brain.

When the Bodyguard came out, I was in love with my first real boyfriend, the man I thought I would marry, the one who proposed with the prettiest cubic zirconia ring I’ll ever see. I sang to him with your songs: I Will Always Love You & Run To You.

You knew just how to make love sound within the reach of your voice. The conviction and clarity with which you sang about love made me feel like you were an authority. You had to really know what the greatest love looked like, felt like, and when you lifted your head and your perfect smile would break open and let out that amazing talent, I was convinced that of course you knew.

And Bobby Brown was your boo. Wouldn’t have been my first choice for you, but I loved your commitment to being in the relationship you wanted, regardless of what people had to say about it. Addiction — to love, to people, to drugs, to anything –  cancels out everything, doesn’t it? It is a reminder that there are still parts of ourselves that we have not learned to love. There are still parts of all of us that still want to give up and die, and for some of us, no matter how much we are given, that part is a bigger, unconquerable land than it is for others.

Grace. I laughed at your interview with Diane Sawyer, because you had the same stunning clarity when you were high that you did when you were sober and shining brightly, face sweaty, eyes a brilliant fiery dark brown, daring somebody to say something. She is still in there, fighting, I thought.

You were the reason I cared about Waiting To Exhale, the only reason I would ever sing “Shoop, Shoop” other than Babyface. And with the voice of your baby on My Love is Your Love, I thought, she is still as bad as she ever was. She will find her way back. There is still time for her to be as great as she once was.

So the news that you are gone now is sad not just because it is the snuffing out of a talent broad and wonderful and singularly unique. You are someone’s mama, someone’s child – that is its own unique tragedy. But you were one of my cherished celebrities, and I don’t have many. You are my John Lennon equivalent, and knowing you are gone, physically, makes my stomach hurt and my eyes well up with tears. Your passing seems to indicate the death of an era of believing in the risk of love. The heights of it, the ugly depths of it, the public joys and the private torments of it.

Back when I was crying myself to sleep, when I heard you sing about the only man you’d ever need, it built me up. I know that God will remain the only man you need into eternity, so that dries my tears. I was not ready for you to go, but there was never going to be a good time. There never is.

Thank you for leaving behind enough music to remind me of journeys you helped me complete, even though we never met. I hope you find a tribe of angels with whom to sing many more songs. The ride with you, as you once said, was worth the fall.

Missing you already, J.

Blog at WordPress.com.
The Esquire Theme.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,943 other followers