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Brown Girl Navigation: Between the Public and Private Selves

By Guest Contributor, Tafisha Edwards

My entire concept of my womanhood was rooted in the ability to conceal the true self, my true self, in something glamorous and composed and measured. And it was always up for public consumption. As a young girl, as many young girls are, I was taught appearances were to be kept (I am of Caribbean descent, so it was actually more like: “No. Slackness. Ever.”) It was never acceptable for me to be unkempt, loud, sexually forward, sexually aware, tired, upset, hungry or cranky in public as a young girl. Once my mother caught me masturbating and she simply told me “It’s not nice.” And I so dearly wanted to be a nice girl, it was all I was ever taught to be. There were obviously more appropriate things to say, such as “This is for when you are alone.” Fortunately for me I knew it felt good and didn’t take her words to heart, but the underlying shame of being caught with my hands on my own body lingered, and lingers to this day. How strange that another person is allowed to touch me, but I ought to feel ashamed of exploring what rightfully belongs to me.  I don’t mean to suggest my mother consciously meant to harm me, she was only teaching me as she herself had been taught—as many women are taught. But she and all of the various women in my life—grandmothers, aunts, friends of the family, teachers, strangers have all shaped my perception of what is acceptable in terms of my own body and the manner in which I carry myself. And some of those lessons are damaging and take a considerable effort to unravel.

I recognize as a black child, nevertheless a black woman, being anything other than ladylike is dangerous in a world where my body is sexualized without my consent. In a world where the male gaze often pins me to the “Whore” end of that wonderful “Madonna/Whore” archetype, where I must fight for my agency, for my personal space, for my right to simply BE without having to contextualize, strategize, or care what anyone besides myself wants. The appearance of what I want to be for the moment versus what I am is yawning given all of the spaces I must navigate safely.

This is not novel, this chasm between what it is and what it looks like, and its manifestations are all around us: alter-egos, public and private selves, double consciousness, personas, etc. Ever since I became aware that the world extended beyond my family and its shades of black and brown, I understood that we as a race were often obliged to adopt mannerisms to conform to the standard of whiteness that governs the world in which we live. I had seen my parents shift the rhythm of their steps in the workplace, their accents melted away if they went to the bank or made a business call. But it was only after I read Franz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” I could properly identify and articulate the ways in which language, bodies, and even psychoanalysis all involve and revolve around that standard of whiteness. And as a Caribbean woman I felt an affinity with Fanon’s words I had not experienced before. However, after reading the text I was disappointed that Fanon did not address the reality of black woman. Of the entire book, which delves into the despair, the confusion, and the anger that Fanon experienced as a man in the face of the unforgiving hand of colonialism and its disregard of his worth as a black man, black women did not receive the same amount of focus and it weighed heavily upon me, the lack of women’s voices to guide me through the many faces I must wear.

Eartha Kitt, whom I adore and identify so much with now as a woman in my early twenties, was the first black woman I had seen speak of navigating spaces with different personas. On the 1989 chat show “Wogan” Eartha Kitt, Terry Wogan asks Eartha: “…Is that why you think, perhaps, you’re an extravert? That you’re looking for attention and you’re looking for affection?” and she tells him of the disparity between the sensual and poised Eartha Kitt and the ‘urchin’ Eartha Mae. It ached to see her acknowledge one identity while she inhabited another. But I was strengthened by her awareness, by her honesty, by her acknowledgment of the self that needs to be hidden from the world, that private self where the truth lays heavy in what we were not given. A poet whom I greatly admire said I reminded her of Eartha after I performed a poem. Naturally, I assumed she meant the similarities in our accents. When I pried my way into interviews, quotes, biographies, I understood that she probably meant more than our rolling Rs. You understand what someone attempts to conceal by the manner in which they conceal it. I hide that tender self: horribly shy, needing affirmation and affection, beneath extraversion.

I will always remember recognizing my own private battle in another black woman and the relief I felt that there was someone else who understood what I did. Seeing Eartha Kitt’s eyes dampen on that couch reminded me I didn’t have to buy into the myth that black woman possess a preternatural strength that cleaves us from our emotional selves. I’ve been told so often that my emotional battles aren’t as bad as [insert ethnicity race/here] man’s or [insert ethnicity/race here] woman’s. It is a constant fight to honor that tender side, and not to smother it with an approximation of the woman I was told I should be. It is heartening to know that this was a struggle older than I am, that perhaps my mother struggles as I do even though I wouldn’t know how to begin to ask her. That I am allowed to be on record saying ‘I am so so broken and so actualized because of it, knowing myself and how I work.’ Awareness is a form of power. Awareness is the beginning of power.


7 Republican Lies

By Camille Wanliss Ortiz

If there’s one thing Republicans have no problem doing, it’s lying through their teeth. Facts are like an appendix to them – no one really needs them. Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan lied so much at the Republican National Convention in Tampa it’s amazing his pants didn’t burst into flames. Republicans should be commended though. In these tough economic times, they have single-handedly created the need for additional fact-checkers at news organizations nationwide.

There will be no shortage of deceit this campaign cycle. Here are just a few lies to get you to Election Day.

1. Non-living things are people too

Last year while campaigning in Iowa, Mitt Romney uttered these famous words, Corporations are people, my friend, which is ironic considering Mittens himself can barely be considered human. But if this were true, if corporations were living, breathing beings, then Romney should be considered a serial killer since many businesses saw their demise during his tenure at Bain Capital.

Republicans have also fought hard to consider women’s eggs as people too. Under the “Womens Health and Safety Act,” which was signed into law earlier this year in Arizona, the assumption is that life begins two weeks prior to conception. Yes, you read that correctly. Ovulation = pregnancy. Laws on “personhood,” as it has come to be known, are also being considered in states such as Iowa, Florida, Georgia, North Dakota and Mississippi among others. But if eggs are people, shouldn’t sperm be considered people too? If so, then shouldn’t masturbation be outlawed? And what about fellatio? Isn’t that cannibalism? Hmm.

2.Voter fraud is widespread

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, there were at least 180 restrictive bills introduced in 41 states in 2011 to combat voter fraud. This included legislation requiring voters to show identification and proof of citizenship, and laws ending same-day voter registration and reducing early voting periods. But after a nationwide analysis of voter fraud found that there were only 10 credible cases since the year 2000, why are the Republicans passing these laws?

The answer is simple. After the electoral butt-whooping the Republicans faced in 2008, they devised a plan to ensure that the same record number of voters (mainly blacks, Latinos and young people) would not turn out this election cycle for President Obama. In Florida the suppression of votes seems to be paying off for the Republicans. This year, Republican registration was at 128,039 voters, up from 95,525 in 2008. Democrat registration on the other hand has dropped sharply. There were 11,365 voters registered this year, down from 259,894 in 2008.

3. They believe in fiscal responsibility

When Clint Eastwood was busy talking to a chair at the RNC, there was another invisible president in the room – George W. Bush. Remember him? It seems none of the fiscal conservatives do. During his eight years in office, Bush increased federal spending more than each of the six presidents that preceded him. By starting two wars, passing the Medicare Part D drug plan, and giving the wealthy several tax cuts while deregulating Wall Street, not only was Bush responsible for the nation’s great debt and huge deficit, but he was also the author of one of the greatest economic recessions in history. During his tenure, the federal budget increased 104% and discretionary spending increasedby 48.6%. Where was the Tea Party then?

4. Raising taxes on the wealthy will stifle the economy and prevent job creation

It is scientific fact that just the thought of a tax increase will cause Republicans to break out into hives. Ok, that’s a lie but so is the assertion that raising taxes on the wealthy will stifle the economy and kill job growth. Over the past two years Republicans have tried their best to make “rich” synonymous with “job creators” but the wealthy do not create jobs. Consumer demand does. During the middle of the last century, the tax rate for the richest Americans was over 90% and the economy and middle class thrived. But once Reagan came into office in 1980, the tax rates for the wealthy decreased while their income tripled. And since Bush’s election in 2000 the tax rate for the wealthy has been at 35% while the economy and middle class have seen the slowest growth.

5. The definition of marriage is between a woman and a man

This is true unless you’re Newt Gingrich or Donald Trump, then apparently marriage is between one man and three women. If you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger it’s between a married man and his maid. And if you’re Michelle Bachmann it’s between a woman and an allegedly closeted gay man.

6. They are pro-life

I think Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun interviewed on Bill Moyers Journal, said it best on the topic of pro-life:

“‎I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

7. They believe in the Constitution and want limited government

Hey, remember that one time when George W. Bush created the Patriot Act, which essentially pissed on the Constitution, increased the government’s power to spy on everyone and dismantled the right to be free citizens? And remember all those time(s) Republicans started screaming about their constitutional right to bear arms and kill things and then created laws that infringed on the rights of gays to marry whoever they want and a woman’s right to choose what was best for her own body? Yeah good times.

Republicans are certainly an imaginative bunch. How else would they be able to deny global warming and coin a new term like “legitimate rape”?

What lies have you heard Republican tell?

Akin to Stay in the Race

Repost of the Week

By Camille Wanliss Ortiz

Repost of the week: “Just Think No” in The New York Times

Despite criticism from both sides of the aisle, Rep. Todd Akin has no plans o step away from the Missouri Senate race against Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill on the heels of his scandalous remarks on rape and abortion rights. The deadline to remove his name from the ballot passed Tuesday evening. Republicans know that as long as he stays in the race, the controversy will be sure to dog him and the presidential election until November.

Maureen Dowd’s Op-Ed in The New York Times brings up a valid point about Akin not having to leave the race for what he believes in. What he said was not a gaffe. It is the Republican Party platform. Just ask Iowa Rep. Steve King or Mike Huckabee, who have no problem with Akin’s stance.

In several interviews since his remarks, it is interesting that no one has taken Akin to task on what exactly it is that he meant. Akin has only offered veiled apologies in the guise of misspeaking on the topic. But the nation needs the following questions answered:

  1. What is “legitimate rape”? Last year Akin, along with Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, sponsored legislation that would redefine rape in order to limit federal funding to these victims. Maybe this is a synonym for the “forcible rape” term he coined.
  2. What doctors has he been speaking to? What sources can he cite that back up his claims that pregnancies resulting from rape are rare? A 1996 study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that over 32,000 pregnancies result from rape each year. But I guess to Mr. Akin that’s not so much. The irony is that Akin is on the House Science Committee but can’t seem to grasp the concept of basic biology.
  3. How does a woman’s body have a way to “shut the whole thing down?” Do vaginas come equipped with escape hatches? Are there panic rooms specifically for fallopian tubes? I don’t even.

If Akin were just a lone wolf, it would be easy to write him off. But he is part of the Republican Party pack. It’s indicative of our failure as a nation to have allowed ideology to supersede reality. We have given these intellectually inept extremists, who are so myopic in their views on gender and morality, a platform to spew pseudo-science to the masses, to redefine rape to fit their agenda, to champion less government except in the case of women’s rights.

So what can you do about it? You can start by signing this petition to have Akin removed from the House Science Committee. And if you live in Missouri, send this dude a clear message come November 6th.

The Michelle Obama Factor: The Media, Myths, and Black Women

By Mary Annaise Heglar

(Originally Published in Clutch Magazine; posted below with edits from the author)

In the past four years, you’ve probably learned a lot about black women. We are eternally single but we refuse to marry outside of our race. We are fat and proud, but we’re also considered the least attractive. And, even though our wild curly hair is not attractive, we are still obsessed with it—and boy, do we spend a lot on it!

As a black woman, I learned a lot about myself that I didn’t know. And I didn’t know it because it wasn’t true. I did know, however, that not a single one of these publications, websites, blogs, or think tanks had been at all concerned about black women four years ago. But suddenly they were about as fascinated with us as a puppy with a slab of bacon.

What changed though? Well, the answer is simple. While we have been here for centuries, we’d never been in the White House before. And the 2008 election gave us our first black president and first lady.

Michelle Obama’s presence in the White House is very different from Barack’s. His multiracial identity, while complicated, does not involve a history of kidnapping, rape, and forced servitude. Rather, it involves consensual intermarriage. Michelle, on the other hand, is the descendant of slaves. Her family history is one that America knows all too well and wants so desperately to forget. In his famous speech on race, “A More Perfect Union,” Barack tellingly drew on Michelle’s background—not his own.

As French  writer, Bernard-Henri Lévy, said during the 2008 election, “Obama is, certainly, black. “But not black like Jesse Jackson; not black like Al Sharpton; not black like the blacks born in Alabama or in Tennessee and who, when they appear, bring out in Americans the memories of slavery, lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan — no; a black from Africa; a black descending not from a slave but from a Kenyan; a black who, consequently, has the incomparable merit of not reminding middle America of the shameful pages of its history.”

Michelle has no such merit. Yet, two generations ago, she would have been “The Help,” but now she is Jackie Kennedy. Her very being challenges every myth about black women—we are fat, ugly, angry, stupid, and (now) single. Michelle is slender, a health nut, poised, smart, and happily married.

The Washington Post was perhaps the least subtle of all the news outlets that were hot on black women’s trails. In the midst of their “Black Women in America” series, they released a statement on why they chose this topic. They mentioned Dick Cheney’s 2004 statement regarding AIDS and black women and the sheer mass of data mined from their own survey of black women. Really? Cheney’s well-echoed and anything-but-original statement didn’t spark interest until six years later? Also, their survey was conducted in 2011—when black women were already a hot media commodity.

In between those two factors, the Post stated the election of Barack Obama and the attention paid to Michelle Obama. They could have began and ended the list right there.

Michelle has undone centuries of terrible PR and outright lies. She single-handedly brought successful, well-rounded black women out of the shadows. No longer the invisible women, they now meet with the Queen of England and hula hoop on the White House lawn. She is the First Lady, the face of American womanhood to the rest of the world.

And this is different from Condoleezza Rice, who also broke glass ceilings within full view of the nation and the globe. Black people embrace Michelle, but they saw Condi as a race traitor. Further while Condi had authority, she was at least perceived to have been used as a token and a mask for the Republican Party and the Bush Administration. Michelle is the partner to the leader of the free world, much in the vein of 1990’s Hillary Clinton.

Unlike Hillary, though, Michelle’s  time in the White House has been marked by an unprecedented show of disrespect—unparalleled by any other First Lady’s tenure. A Congressman mocked her “large posterior” to a constituent and a Washington, D.C. cop has threatened to shoot her on sight. Toy makers have even made replicas of her daughters that show anything but a resemblance. And she is still haunted by the shadow of the angry black woman every time she shows a spine or an opinion. The nation’s hostility toward black women is determined to die a slow death.

Michelle is a walking contradiction. And, since they cannot look away, the media launched a full-on investigation into black women’s lives. How could it be that they’d had this demographic wrong all along? Were black women more like Michelle, or more like Tami Roman?

At the end of their probe, what did they find? Well, in January the Washington Post conceded that black women are just… complicated. All they had to do was ask us.

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