An informal emulation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee with the blooming red rose of police bullets to thy firstborn sons.
Like a coy and unsigned suitor’s note leaving thee to wonder exactly who sent these flowers.
I love thee in the full knighthood of riot gear body armor that exposes only my amorous motives.
I love thee with the sharp cracking kiss of a baton on your tender temple, wrist, shoulder…
I love thee with the seductive siren perfume of tear gas.
I love thee with the steady, rumbling march of tanks on residential city streets.
I love thee with the warm, heavy-armed embrace of curfew and martial law.
I love thee with the sly lover’s denial in public, all the better to heighten my passion in night’s clandestine shadows.
And when thou would protest against my love with smoke and gas-choked breath,
I shall but love thee better after death.
When I was a kid, my mom worked as a civil rights attorney who took mostly police abuse and discrimination cases. I grew up hearing about police brutality around the dinner table. My mom also worked, on a few occasions, with black police officers who were brave and broke the code of silence to blow the whistle on other cops. I grew up understanding that cops are people and vary, but the police as an institution are a source of violence and terror to many people of color.
Ferguson, MO is a suburb of St. Louis and the shooting death of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown there is just the latest tragedy and outrage in the devastatingly regular murder of young black men by police (or people self-appointed as such). Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, Rodney King…the list goes on and on, and includes women and other people of color, but primarily young black men.
The mainstream has always attempted to paint the victims as dangerous in order to justify police violence against them. But since the videotaped beating of Rodney King in the early 90s, and the advent of camera phones, that argument is harder to support.
The next defense is to paint the officers as the isolated, inevitable bad apples in the overall good bunch. But this is an institutional problem, national in scope, that is an inherent part if our criminal legal system.
What we see in Ferguson is cops doing their job, and their job is maintaining order. Not maintaining peace, but maintaining the social order. When we see cops moving in to quiet, residential streets, and dropping tear gas on residents’ front lawns, we see them maintaining the social order. These are the tools of crushing dissent. This is a massive retaliation against a community that dared to demand an explanation and show its rage. Oppressed people in our society are not allowed to show our rage against the persons or property of the wealthy without massive retaliation. The imbalance in Ferguson shows whose interests the police are protecting, and at whose expense.
to be continued…
I love twitter hashtags, particularly those about race and gender. There were some great ones this week, starting with the #WarOnWhites. According to the website Crooks & Liars, “When Rep. Mo Brooks(R-AL) said that Democrats are waging a war on white people, he really struck a nerve with some.” As the hashtag trended with snarky sarcasm, I enthusiastically joined in.
Conservative white guy responds: "What if someone made Shaft white?" Fail. Shaft=black character. The others were raceless, white by default—
Aya de Leon (@AyadeLeon) August 05, 2014
Another great hashtag, started by Mikki Kendall, addressed caretaking roles and stereotypes of black women, including body image and sexuality: #MammyWasFiction
(I think this may merit a post of its own in future)
Later in the week, I enjoyed the #FeministsAreUgly tag:
And finally, #APHeadlines, the hastag that started in response to the racially biased Associated Press tweet on the Renisha McBride verdict. The white man who killed the African American McBride by shooting her in the face through a locked door.
People began to post snarky tweets about racism and other forms of oppression:
It’s been a great social media week. Peep also my piece in xojane.com on Decriminalizing Sex Work.
Hey folks, it’s been a rough week for me as a woman artist, so I’m posting a women’s artist anthem I wrote several years back to encourage myself and others. Enjoy!
This is for all the artistic geniuses that are standing backstage in a tube top and tight jeans, pressing against the barricades, lip gloss shining, trying to get some male artist’s attention, hoping to get past security. This is for all the artistic geniuses who are daydreaming while assembling press packets for their artist husband/boyfriend/lover/boss. This is for all the muses, and the sounding boards, and the models who sit still, rigorously athletically stoically still so others can paint them. This is for all the novels that didn’t bring themselves to get written and the visual masterpieces that couldn’t bear to be painted. This is for all the girls who got the message early, often, and brutally that we are to be fans, groupies, guest stars, background dancers and backup singers. This is for every woman who ever thought she was too fat, too dark, too old, too young, too queer, too angry, and too broke to be an artist. This is for anyone who ever thought she didn’t have talent, and for anyone who ever thought it was about talent anyway. Good art is about work, and time and resources to do the work. This is also for all of us who are working artists. For all of us who rage and cry about how fucking hard it is to be a working woman artist and then dry our eyes and keep at it because we know that we are good enough and our art is good enough and our ideas are good enough, and our lives are that important. This is for those of us who work double/triple/quadruple shifts—artist and self-promoter/producer/publicist/secretary/manager/booking agent/bookkeeper plus a day job, plus parenting. This is for those of us who don’t have health insurance. This is for you, whatever your age, whatever your medium, whatever they said about you. This is for every woman who has been busy playing best supporting actress in the movie of her own life. Goodbye ingénue, goodbye cheerleader, goodbye good girl. Time for you to put on your best red tube top and shiniest lip gloss and throw yourself against the barricaide of your own internalized sexism, determined to break thorough. Time for you to be your own groupie, president of your own fan club, swooning in ecstasy every time you see yourself on stage. You need to put a bright shiny life sized color poster of yourself with an electric guitar on the wall above your bed, like a guardian angel, watching over you while you sleep, watching over you while you dream, watching over you while you dream visions of your own creativity, and rocking out all night long.
This piece was commissioned by and originally published in the women artists volume Venus Envy.
I have been a feminist for over half my life. I was exposed to feminism in my teens as the idea that women should have the chance to reach their full potential as human beings. This would mean freedom from intimate violence, equal access to economic and educational opportunities, to exercise control over one’s own sexuality and reproduction, and honoring the work of motherhood. This also means that women’s value shouldn’t be based in appearance, ability to be sexually objectified, or our ability to caretake and be of services to others. Women should be respected and valued for an inherent worth beyond what we could do or provide for other people. Those are the values underlying my feminism.
As time went on, I began to also see how the system of male domination allows not only for women and girls to be mistreated, but for men and boys to be mistreated, as well. The systematic violence that keeps such a system in place is responsible for attacking, harming, and isolating male members of the society in profound and heartbreaking ways, and that became integrated into my analysis, as well. I came to the conclusion that both men and women would benefit from feminism, and that the fight against male domination in society is in everyone’s best interest.
I also could easily see, as a woman of color, that many people experience oppression based on gender in ways that are inextricably linked with other oppressions. This meant that gains such as legislation for women’s rights in the US, would primarily help privileged heterosexual white women, for whom gender was the main barrier. The rest of us would still have to face the tangle of other obstacles that kept us from having the lives we wanted and reaching our full potential. So intersectional feminism became about extending those gains to all women worldwide.
I have been fascinated by the #WomenAgainstFeminism hashtag on twitter, because it’s given me a chance to engage in conversations with anti-feminist women and men. My goal is to see what we might actually agree on. Here’s some of what I came up with.
One woman said she was against feminism because sometimes she wanted to make her man a sandwich
I wondered, is she saying that she derives pleasure in caretaking? Is she defensive because a feminist has criticized that desire? I have learned that there’s an interesting balance between the feminist value of individual choice and the feminist value of exploring the influence of gender socialization on what we, as women, “want” or “enjoy” or “feel like doing.” Either way, I am here to say that feminism is totally compatible with consensual sandwich making, and while we advocate sandwich reciprocity, we respect everyone’s right to sandwich autonomy.
On a more serious note, many of the #WomenAgainstFeminism are against abortion.
While there are anti-abortion feminists, the right to reproductive freedom is central to feminism, including both abortion and birth control rights, as well as freedom from the forced sterilizations and systematic programs of sterilizations that have primarily targeted women of color. For the anti-abortion feminists, that is often a core value. If the lives of the unborn trump quality of life for living adult women and children, there’s really no room for debate. I have to agree to disagree.
I had a good conversation with a woman who said feminism was no longer needed. She asked about feminism’s recent accomplishments, and then dismissed the need for FMLA (The Family Medical Leave Act, which allows a parent to take time off work to care for young children).
We had a very civil exchange, and when I signed off, I wished her well. Again, we have a core value difference. As an African American woman, I believe in the African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child.” I think that the society should be concerned with the welfare of all of its children. Beyond that, I am unclear on what her plan is for parents who don’t have the resources. It’s one thing to say that the parents should be responsible, but what is the plan when that doesn’t happen? Should their children be allowed to suffer? Taken away? Where will they go? Who will care for them? I am particularly unclear on the logical consistency with this argument when those who hold these beliefs are also against abortion. People should only have children if they have the means to raise them. But if they are accidentally pregnant, they must become parents, even if they are ill-equipped to do so? And how are they to avoid unplanned pregnancy if access to birth control is systematically. Perhaps the logic is that they shouldn’t have sex, but many women report a spectrum of coercion to have sex from feeling pressured to consent to sex they don’t really want to instances of forcible rape. Also, epidemic numbers of sexual abuse of girls means that women have early sexual trauma experiences that directly inhibit our ability to take charge of our sex lives, set boundaries, and expect to enforce them. We can heal from these experiences, but many women make numerous sexual decisions that are not in their best interest before they are able to reclaim their right to decide about their own bodies. How is this reality integrated into the framework of no abortion, no birth control, take responsibility for your kids?
In the various conversations on the hashtag, some people were clearly interested in spreading disinformation about feminism, and would select random websites by unknown people calling themselves feminists, who spewed random, nonsensical rhetoric.
One tweeter took me on & brought up the SCUM Manifesto & I responded:
I also started my own hashtag #ThisFeministWants so that I (and anyone who wants to join me)can identify the real goals of contemporary feminism,as opposed to fabricated, outdated, or fringe versions of feminism that are out there.
One exchange was with a guy whose argument I boiled down as follows:
If someone is determined not to see systematic sexism, it is difficult to prove. Like proving the existence of oxygen. People might just think they are breathing nothing at all.
I found over and over again that if I listened, respected, and went looking for the part of their argument I could validate, that I learned a lot about different views.
Twitter has a snarky one-upmanship culture. I found it took me 2-3 tweets of listening and validating to get them to stop attacking me. But then we could actually converse.
What I learned that was helpful in wading through the hashtag: non-feminists (perhaps I would like to start seeing them as pre-feminists) didn’t like the dismissal of their concerns about feminism or the invalidation of their negative experiences. They didn’t like feminism’s defensiveness about some historical fringe elements. They also didn’t like the name-calling or insults. Fair enough.
I also was able to deepen my analysis about why men are attracted to the MRA (men’s rights) agenda. Because male domination targets both men and women, men feel victimized based on their gender. It’s true that they are systematically victimized by other men and boys from early in their lives. MRA ideology seems to be scapegoating women and feminism for the way men feel victimized. This is a brilliant strategy to maintain male domination: make sure that all those hurt by it are at each other’s throats.
Feminists may want to strategize on a more pro-active way to address men’s concerns, illuminating how sexism hurts them, as well. On the one hand, it seems like yet another way women are pushed to take care of men. On the other hand, part of building an effective movement is to help a broad number of people see that the movement’s goals are in their interest. The positive spin: women have done an effective job of listing our grievances with how our gender gets treated in the society. Men are now getting in touch with their own gender-based grievances, and we need to connect the dots between men’s experiences and ending sexism.
While a lot of feminists said that the hashtag made them want to throw up, I found it really interesting. And hopeful. At the other end of the twitter conversations were people who are thinking. And thinking can always change.
When I first read the article in Time magazine by Steve Friess “Dear Black Women: White Gays Are Your Allies, So Don’t Push Us Away,” I was stunned. He was writing in response to a previous opinion piece in Time by Sierra Mannie, a black woman who criticized white gay men appropriating black women’s culture.
Friess dismissed her, based on the idea that white gay men are the “truest friends black women can have in American society.” He had this idea that gay white men and straight black women are really natural allies and that the only problem is our ability, as black women, to understand that. I thought, great, now I even have white gay men mansplaining to me. I was ready to get outraged: “Based on your attendance at a concert featuring black women you think you know me?”
But I think a lot about allies. I wrote a couple of pieces a while back in conversation with Black Girl Dangerous on the limitations of allies, and attacks on Britney Cooper where allies were MIA. As Yvonne put it in Autostraddle, Friess “offers no actual proof of how white gay men are allies to black women other than they share similar musical tastes.” But then I thought about it. I’m working on being more optimistic. I never thought we’d have a black president. So go ahead, surprise me.
Friess, if you wanna be an ally to straight black women, here’s one basic thing you need to know. Black women are not always good at asking for help. We’ve been taught we don’t deserve help. Even the president left us out of his signature racial justice legislation My Brother’s Keeper. We have been taught that we are the help. As you may recall, there was a bestseller written about it. The Help. But black women could certainly use help. We are overworked in every sector of our lives. I am not in a position to speak for what queer or trans black women need, and when I come across the posts those sisters inevitably start putting up, I will start linking. Here’s a great post from a black queer man Preston Mitchum on Role Reboot. But if you want to be helpful to heterosexual black women, then there’s actually a long to-do list that we could use an ally for:
Watch my kids. I don’t just mean babysit a couple of times. I mean build strong, committed, supportive, relationships with them so you can be in their lives and watch them grow up. And yes, commit a 2-3 hour block of time weekly to be with them, so I can get other things done.
If I’m single, go meet straight black men and vet them for me. I’ve been following Peechington Marie trying to date on OK Cupid and these brothers is crazy. So please check them out. Make sure that they like black women, they are interested in a relationship not just quick sex, they have an overall positive response to feminism, and above everything, confirm that they have emotional intelligence/communication skills. By the way, if you see anyone with potential, feel free to mentor them to see if they can make the cut with a little assistance.
If I’m in a long-term relationship or marriage with a black man, can you PLEASE build him a community of progressive men that he can express his feelings with? The heterosexual drinking buddy relationships can only get him so far. I mean a group of men who really express their feelings. Think of it as Queer Cry For the Straight Guy. It’s nice that you claim responsibility for the metrosexual trend, but I actually need help transforming men’s insides, not their outsides.
If I have a day job, come by my office and pretend to poach me. Nobody gets taken for granted in the workplace like women of color. Remember, we are supposed to be the help. Doesn’t really matter if we’re the executive director or CEO, everyone is still looking for us to take care of them at some level. We are underpaid, underpromoted, undervalued, and our leadership is undermined. Come by and act like some bigwig from a competing company who might hire us. See if you can help drum up a little respect for us in the home office.
If I’m an artist, pose as my agent/manager when I go to events. Gatekeepers will more likely take me seriously if they think a white man has invested in me. Or you might pose as an interested patron or audience member. The prevailing understanding of creative industries is that men in general and white men in particular don’t care about women of color. That you all don’t read our stories, see our movies, buy our visual arts, attend our theater. We know you love our singing, but doesn’t everyone? Are you listening to the lyrics? And while you’re at it, don’t just pose as a consumer, patronize our work and support women of color artists. And that would NOT include using a massive platform like Time Magazine to dismiss and criticize our analysis. I didn’t mean that kind of patronizing.
And while you’re at it, support feminist media and movements. Subscribe to our publications, join feminist organizations that support issues that disproportionately affect women of color. Turn up at our rallies. Sign our petitions. Donate to our Kickstarters.
You’re hooked on Orange is the New Black? Great! Go volunteer some time in a women’s prison. Women of color are being disproportionately locked up. We need legal support, moral support, spiritual support, educational support, creative programming. Whatever you do out in the world, come do it for some women in prison.
Write a letter to Marissa Alexander. The black woman who’s doing time for shooting in the air to defend herself against her abusive partner and whose “stand your ground” defense was ignored. Stand our ground with us when the government won’t
Come with us to defend abortion clinics. Now that SCOTUS has struck down the buffer zone law with the McCullen decision, we may be seeing more anti-abortion violence. Can you squeeze a little Saturday outdoor time into your schedule?
If I’m receiving any government assistance, come with me to visit my social worker, parole officer, or other bureaucratic institution for food stamps, general assistance, section 8, disability, court date. Come see how I get treated by the system. And, if there’s an opportunity, please speak up on my behalf.
Be in the car with me when cops pull me over. And with my male partner or son if they’re driving.
Finally, please come clean my house with me. Let me be clear, I mean clean not decorate. I know you have ideas of what could really highlight the lovely wood features of the space, but I’m not going for Better Homes and Gardens, I’m going for Reasonably Clean and Orderly. It would be a welcome novelty to have a white man cleaning by my side.
So after a long day of being an ally to my black womanhood, we’ll be pretty tired. We may not have a lot of time to sit around at retro concerts drinking and hanging out while you get points for having a cool black girlfriend, but my life would actually be much better. And that’s the whole point. Right, ally? In other words, unless you’re prepared to roll up your sleeves and really help a sista out, don’t act like you know me and that your alleged allyship entitles you to appropriate my community’s culture.