The motherless single

This also serves as proof of life, since it’s been so long since I wrote here.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the challenges of being motherless as a single woman. As usual, my friends step in with amazing resources and love-filled everything. But I feel like the Eeyore at everyone’s party this time of year. I dislike sadness, and at the same time, I feel like it can be its own safety blanket. I mentioned it to my married friend and she said that she hates Father’s Day like I hate Mother’s Day. She recommended that I do something that makes me incredibly happy.

Sounds too easy to be true, but… I took myself out to dinner after visiting the U.S. Botanic Garden, which is this heavenly oasis filled with orchid-beauty. It helped a lot to walk in nature. It reminded me that we always get to choose how we’ll look at something like loss or pain. Getting over or getting through is never outside of our grasp.

AnonFlower

I don’t even know what this is.

Orchid1

Some amazing something or another orchid

LBJQuote

I loved finding an Austin-connection & Lady Bird with an inspirational quote (which you know the single ladies *love*)

Orchid2

More beauty

Maybe it says a lot about me, but I like the idea of visiting flowers that I know are not going to die or wilt while I try to overnurture them.

As many of you know, I can be a little emotional around this time of year. I wrote a little about my mom this morning at my new blog. I’m reposting it here, but I’m also blogging more frequently at joshunda.com – so I’d love it if you could we could follow each other over there.

A couple of years ago, while I was in the Bay Area for VONA (which I highly recommend, as does Junot Diaz) I was deep in a draft of my memoir with the help of kind, excellent teachers. It was probably too soon after my mother’s death at the beginning of 2012. It was only May. Mary Johnson, author of the exquisite An Unquenchable Thirst, mentioned that it was brave to try to write about us so soon and I like trying to be brave. But there was something about the time that opened me up – there is something about grief that is special. It is always hard. It lingers. But it offers contemplation and shoring up if you let it. (I wrote about the deaths of my parents, especially my mom, for Gawker in 2013)  I was spring cleaning and found this letter.

 

Dear Mom:

In death, it turns out, there is so much meditation on life. When you know the contours of the end, what it smells like, the hollowness of the trivial, the meaning of a real friend, cleaning feces from fingernails and staring down the terror of the unknown, nothing else feels real or deep or confirmed.

I had to stop pretending I cared about facts when you made your quick transition. I used to think information and data were armor. Armed with facts, journalists and writers can get to feeling invincible and God-like. Omniscient. But all knowledge can feel futile in the face of a wounded soul. A broken spirit.

I have no gifts but being a witness to what life feels like, and that is subjective. It is reading the breeze. It is believing the voices in my head are you, ancestors and God. Maybe it means in my grief, I have become mad. My dreams are canvasses of picturesque beauty and upheaval.

When you were on the planet, living flesh, the story that propelled me was that we have parallel lives. That you had closed the door to a specific kind of joy but to be less like you — less mad, less unstable, less Maggie — I would open that door, stand at the threshold, investigate what it was you were rejecting. The intensity of joy and gratitude and not knowing and being still is an unwelcome bittersweet state. It is like living on another planet, or in another world, where time is not mapped in minutes but in how successful one is at navigating life events.

You taught me how to ignore the world and its milestones. How to follow my destiny. How to treat myself regally, no matter the attire or its cost or its worth. I thought you mad for so long for this disregard, considered you inept at life.

In your absence, I know better. Facts are not truth unless they can be felt. What we feel and what we create with what we feel lasts a lifetime. Everything else shifts, no matter our assessment of the shifts. We can be in our moments, owning them, or we can let life’s moments own us. I miss your lucid moments, maybe once a year, when I could drag your essence out of you for a little advice. I hear you, I feel you — it’s different, worse and better.

I feel you watching.

I will try to grow better and more vulnerable and so much stronger.

Stay there.

Love,

Your baby girl

MomGettingDown

 

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?

On anger and loving the ones who love you back

From Centric TV.

D.L. Hughley thinks black women are the angriest group of women he’s ever met. Oh, and he’s writing a book that’s probably as unoriginal as he is, and those sentiments are probably laid out with more substance. But probably not.

I shouldn’t be surprised by this. He defended Don Imus when that dude called the women on the Rutgers basketball team out of their names. Bros before hoes, I guess.

Hughley is the latest example of a black man with a platform using it to chastise and generalize about black women for profit. While Hughley’s book is not strictly about black women or dating like the ones you’ve heard me rant about and those published recently by Ray J or Musiq Soulchid or The Very Smart Brothas, or the ones to come like the co-authored book by Tyrese and Rev. Run, it riles me for reasons I wrote about in Bitch Magazine for an article called “Ill-Advised.”:

The reason I am riled up about the runaway success of these books—why I refused to pay money to see Think Like A Man (besides Chris Brown’s casting)—is that the messages embedded within them demean the success of black women. Doubly oppressed by race and gender, black women continue to succeed academically and economically  – but they (cue violins) are still stumped in matters of the heart. What, no celebration over the academic degrees? We didn’t get to learn how to read legally for centuries. Where’s the bestseller-turned-blockbuster about that?

Instead, popular culture narratives leveled at black women – particularly those penned by black men – are typically demeaning, snide, childish, humorous at the expense of successful black women…

These works debase black female readers by way of black male condescension. It’s a kind of intellectual bullying and a Catch-22: If they consume it, they are under black male control, if they dismiss it, they are fulfilling the stereotype of emasculating, hard-headed black spinsters who don’t know how to treat a man, which is why they can’t keep one.

What happens in the black community tends to set cultural trends. Maybe women of different races feel like this isn’t even about them, the same way that black men consider it quietly humorous to continue to support a guy like Hughley or name-the-relationship-expert-this-week. But women around the world who have been juggling successful careers while also trying to stay sane know that any woman who is deemed “too independent” — and God help her if she’s also unmarried — are implicated in these kinds of cultural narratives.

It’s not as sexy, I know, to say: I’m really sad. I’m going through it. I’m so disappointed. I’m so hurt. More convenient for marketing purposes to read melancholy as anger, to reinforce the notion that women of marrying age who are not coupled are inflicting it on themselves by being unjustifiably upset at the world.

The inability to see black women as capable of more than rage or sass, but also fully capable of being disappointed and hurt absolves black men who hurt them of taking responsibility for some of the pain that black women internalize. And hurt and disappointment turned inward, of course, turns into anger.

It took a lot of meditation, therapy and soul-searching for me to understand that as a survivor of trauma and stress, I carried the burden of not wanting to ever appear angry in public. Repressing my feelings led to a lot of darkness and ugliness in my life. God forbid, that on top of being successful and self-sufficient, I would also be pissed off once in a while.

I had to practice allowing myself to be tired, sad and/or angry. It comes with the territory. It’s called life. Anyone perpetuating the notion that black women or any women, really, are the angriest, ever, is untrue and unfair. It is just a disappointment, heaped on layers of other disappointments.

To add insult to injury, D.L. Hughley is not even funny enough for me to care about. The black men I count as my true friends know how to treat women, so this is not about them. I’m still allowed to be sad about and tired of the universal acceptance and passive invalidation of any defensiveness on the part of black women about old tired tropes of black-women-as-a-monolith-to-sell-products.

Kimberly N. Foster wrote thoughtfully about giving up the fight in defense of black men for For Harriet, which I totally get and can relate to. I’m at a point in my life where I am learning to surrender battles that are not mine, since part of what makes me gloriously happy is leaning toward my life’s purpose, writing, speaking and reading books that are not written by men who don’t know how to use their platforms for good and not evil.

The place where I get stuck is that I don’t think anyone wins when we only love the people who love us back. At the same time, we don’t have all the time in the world on this planet, so it seems wise to just ignore or give up on people who give up on you. I’m not an angry black woman as much as I’m a disappointed and weary one. Hurt, tired and self-protecting, maybe. But not angry.

There are more of us than any sound bite would lead you to believe.

I think it’s helpful to remember that our attention is our currency. I don’t choose to pay attention to the demeaning crap anymore, because it’s not worth the drama. It’s not exactly a boycott, and it doesn’t always feel as empowering as I’d like. But it is what keeps me moving toward happiness. And sometimes that’s all we need.

Contemplating hook-up culture and female empowerment

If women are so powerful now, why is there so much angst about their power?

This is the first thing I thought about when I read the article adapted from Hanna Rosin’s new book, The End of Men, which I thought I wanted to read at one point. In the Atlantic’s September issue, she writes about the rise of successful women and ways in which women now have the agency – financial and otherwise – to plan for temporary intimacy in lieu of waiting around for love. The article is called “Boys on the Side” and here are some passages that jumped out at me:

Single young women in their sexual prime—that is, their 20s and early 30s, the same age as the women at the business-­school party—are for the first time in history more success­ful, on average, than the single young men around them. They are more likely to have a college degree and, in aggregate, they make more money. What makes this remarkable development possible is not just the pill or legal abortion but the whole new landscape of sexual freedom—the ability to delay marriage and have temporary relationships that don’t derail education or career. To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind. For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.

It’s important to note a couple of things here. Rosin is specifically writing about the white middle class and upper middle class experience.

This is one of the things that riles me about writing and popular culture about single women, generally – in order for a case to be made for a strong story pitch, these stories are only considered universal (like the HBO show Girls, which is referenced in the story later) if they center around the white middle-class and upper middle-class experience. The reason that’s important is that it leaves out huge swaths of women of color who, culturally and sometimes out of necessity and cultural allegiance, make totally different decisions. I don’t know any women of color who could be described as cannily manipulating hook-up culture on college campuses to make space for their success. I don’t know any working class or poor women of any race or cultural background who would do that, either. There is, too, the underlying idea that hook-up culture is a white thing, not unlike marriage, ironically.

This article made me think a SPIN article published in 1998 while I was a sophomore at Vassar. The story, “Sex Ed,” featured at least one black male classmate I was friends with at the time, but it was essentially a story about the fact that for men on campus, “hooking up was as easy as ordering a pizza.” The reason hooking up was so easy, as explained by SPIN, was the fact that women outnumbered men on campus (the ratio was reportedly 60:40) and a large percentage of the men and women on campus were gay, which meant that heterosexual women had to be more aggressive if they wanted to hook up with men on campus.

I bring that story up because it points to an old idea: that for women to participate in the full secular college experience and have a little fun, they have always had to do more work than men. I was the exact opposite of the college girls that are characterized as dismissing overly serious suitors to make space for my success, so maybe I have a hard time understanding the sentiment. This strikes me as a dangerous corollary to the Having it All debate – where the narratives of women who suddenly act like men have traditionally acted are a new sociological puzzle.

Cultural, racial and class differences are key here, too, to say nothing of people who fall into non-gender conforming categories; the narrative that has been bought and sold to black women in particular is that we cannot afford to let go even of casual relationships with our black male peers if we seek marriage because they are so rarefied in academic and corporate spaces that if we act like some of the women Rosin highlights in Boys on the Side, we will be Forever Alone.

Here, Rosin goes into more detail about a 2004 study on sexual abuse on college campuses:

Women in the dorm complained to the researchers about the double standard, about being called sluts, about not being treated with respect. But what emerged from four years of research was the sense that hooking up was part of a larger romantic strategy, part of what Armstrong came to think of as a “sexual career.” For an upwardly mobile, ambitious young woman, hookups were a way to dip into relationships without disrupting her self-development or schoolwork. Hookups functioned as a “delay tactic,” Armstrong writes, because the immediate priority, for the privileged women at least, was setting themselves up for a career. “If I want to maintain the lifestyle that I’ve grown up with,” one woman told Armstrong, “I have to work. I just don’t see myself being someone who marries young and lives off of some boy’s money.” Or from another woman: “I want to get secure in a city and in a job … I’m not in any hurry at all. As long as I’m married by 30, I’m good.”

The women still had to deal with the old-fashioned burden of protecting their personal reputations, but in the long view, what they really wanted to protect was their future professional reputations. “Rather than struggling to get into relationships,” Armstrong reported, women “had to work to avoid them.” (One woman lied to an interested guy, portraying herself as “extremely conservative” to avoid dating him.) Many did not want a relationship to steal time away from their friendships or studying.

In that research, by the way, two-thirds of the subjects of sociologists’ research came from “more privileged” backgrounds. This idea of cultivating a “sexual career” is one that would offer a variety of side-eye glances from women of color, full stop. I understand the need to frame a story around existing data, but this is one example of just one side of the story.

The absence of women of color and people who are not so privileged from stories like this speaks loudly. It infers that the overarching narrative of white female sexual agency is the dominant story for all women everywhere, which is less true now than it ever has been, considering the growing diversity of our country. The absence of our narrative from discussions about women’s sexual liberation, too, shows that feminists still haven’t found a way to bridge the racial and class gaps that inform our discourse on everything from politics and business to love and relationships.

Why standardized tests are a lot like being single

Seems like a stretch, I know. Bear with me, my brain is a little mushy from all those special triangles:

  • Arbitrary assessment of your human capacity/worth as a human being
  • You can study as much as you want, but you’re pretty much always going to perform the same way
  • People say the scores don’t matter, but schools require that you take them. It’s like when your married/coupled friends say they wish you could hang out more…but they only ever hang out with couples. So you better get on that if you want to see them again. (No pressure.)
  • Shocker! Race matters. Black people don’t do so great on these tests.
  • The test doesn’t test your ability to reason verbally or quantitatively as much as it measures your ability to take a test.

I took the GRE last week.  I got called an hour and a half early, answered the call, and went to the center clutching sharpened Number 2 pencils and my driver’s license like I was ready for the world.

I wore my favorite t-shirt. It bears the first names of black women writers. The first thing the guy at the desk said to me: “Zora, Toni, Alice & Octavia…” I nodded.

“Your kids?”

“Writers,” I responded, frowning.

Anyway. Three and a half hours later, I was done. Went and got a mani/pedi and a cheeseburger. Fell asleep at 9 p.m.

Like a boss.

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.

Thought Catalog on five steps to embracing your single self

A friend of mine kept sharing well-written blogs from Thought Catalog last year, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I noticed this list in January and it made me smile. I hope it’s useful for you, too:

..Single means you have no significant other, and by significant, I mean someone not genetically related to you for whom you’d walk on newborn babies or hot coals or dissolving wads of cash to save him/her from even an ounce of pain. The person you sleep with, even regularly, does not count. He or she does not cuddle under blankets with you pre-midnight and put up with your ice cold, winter-crusted feet to watch bad reality television. Your 3 A.M. “hangout” buddy doesn’t feed your cat when you’re out of town, or buy fabric softener in your favorite scent so you smell heaven when you’re dreaming. Single means you’re alone at the end of the day, both literally and figuratively speaking. But it’s ok. Here’s how to enjoy it.

 
1. Continue to sleep with your special friend
That is, however, only if he/she doesn’t make you feel like crap. But if you enjoy the company of a late-night someone providing you pleasure on a platter like a midnight gourmet cheese tray, stick with it. Enjoy it. Recognize it for what it is, and don’t try to turn that person into your boyfriend or girlfriend. If you two (or three…kinky!) have never left the bedroom, you probably never will. If you can’t accept this, then stop fooling yourself, or stop seeing this person.

 

2. Be all that you can be
No seriously, this is not just the Army’s vague mantra. We all know that when you’re in a relationship, you get round and happy from all the eating and midnight sex games involving whipped cream and chocolate and the love-for-one-another-through-thick-and-thin-emphasis-on-thick and the comfort and security of lurrrrve. So if you’ve always wanted to run a marathon or speak a new language or learn how to cook or sew or grow plants or dance the damn jig, now is the time to acquire new skills. Once you have a significant other, they suck the life out of your life in every area except love. (Just kidding! Kind of).

 

You can read the rest of it here. When is the world supposed to end this year? May? I might need to get on this list, then. Joking! Sorta.

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