2005. I’m performing at the Planet Hip Hop Conference at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ. I’m sitting in an intimate room with one of my most influential hip hop icons, Chuck D. It wasn’t a performance; he was just giving an informal talk about hip hop. And throughout his talk, hardcore old school hip hop fans would yell out opening lines to his lyrics. And call and response style, everyone else in the room would finish the verse. Halfway through his talk, I yell out the opening line to “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, “I got a letter from the government/The other day…” I said never and everyone roars along with me: “I opened and read it/It said they were suckers/They wanted me for their army or whatever/Picture me given’ a damn/I said never!”
In my early teens, I was a peace activist in the mostly white anti-nuclear movement in Berkeley, CA. I found most of my black peers to be concerned with sports, fashion, and socializing. One of the reasons I was attracted to my first boyfriend was because he was a draft resister, the first black draft resister I ever met. But Public Enemy was the voice of my black hip hop awakening to . In that song, Chuck D bridged my two worlds: he was a black man espousing an anti-military, anti-US imperialist perspective within the pro-black hip hop music that I loved.
So it’s been an interesting challenge for me as a writer–no longer being that wide-eyed young girl hip hop fan–coming out publicly and disagreeing with something Chuck D said and calling him out publicly about his sexism. As a fan, I couldn’t initially see his sexism, or didn’t want to see it. But I eventually did become disillusioned. But the love that I’ve always had for him and his vision has meant that I haven’t ever criticized him publicly on a national platform. So, even now, I feel disloyal. Which is part of the internalized sexism that many of us have as black women. Even when men aren’t supportive of us and don’t validate the reality of our lives, we have to be there for them and protect them and not air the dirty laundry. Even though I’ve criticized other black men publicly before, from R.Kelly to Obama, Chuck D is the one that to whom I feel a more personal debt and a duty to be loyal. And it’s good to notice that I’ve disagreed with him thoughtfully, respectfully, in a principled way, with compassion. But the brother is wrong.
And that same song that I loved so much has a femicidal ending. Here’s an excerpt about that from the piece that appears today in xojane.
In the fantasy narrative of “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” Chuck D assumes the first person of a draft resister who ends up in jail, steals a gun, takes six corrections officers (C-Os) hostage, and leads a daring escape.
6 C-Os we got we ought to put their head out [kill them]
But I’ll give ‘em a chance, cause I’m civilized
Got a woman C-O to call me a copter
She tried to get away, and I popped her [shot her]
Now who wanna get nice?
I had 6 C-Os, now it’s 5 to go
What happened here? The female officer is the one who gets shot? What happened to being “civilized”?
I’ve written about sexism in hip hop before, and specifically my moment of disillusionment with Chuck D. As part of my hip hop theater show about fighting sexism, “Thieves in the Temple: The Reclaiming of Hip Hop,” I recreated the scene at a Public Enemy concert where I felt the full impact of Chuck D’s sexism:
Chuck D: All right, all right. I want all the brothers to put a peace sign in the air. Cuz we’re about peace tonight. Yeah brothers. It’s all about peace up in here.
Me: you tell em, Chuck!
Chuck: That’s right brothers, you look good. Now sistas, don’t think I forgot you.
Me: What do you want me to do, Chuck? Put a fist in the air. My fist is ready chuck! I’m down with the revolution! Whatever you say, C huck! I’m ready to battle! Malcolm said by any means necessary, and you just name the means, Chuck. You just name the means.
Chuck D: I want all the sisters in the house….
Me: I’m ready, Chuck. Just name it, Chuck. You just say the word.
Chuck D: All the sisters in the house….to scream.
Me: [whispers] What? You just want the sisters to scream? What kind of revolution is that? That’s what every rapper wants women to do. Every stupid sexist sucka mc. I thought this was supposed to be about knowledge of self, Chuck? You can’t really mean that’s all you want from me. This was supposed to be too black, too strong. That’s too whack and too weak. What about the revolution, Chuck? I was ready.
But even as I criticized Chuck D in my theater show, I knew he would never come to Oakland and see it. Part of what makes this article different is that today’s social media means that he and I are more connected than before. So when I tweet about this, if I use Chuck D’s twitter handle, or even if I don’t, he may read my words about him, and take offense or have an epiphany or respond critically. And there’s something unnerving about that.
In my xojane article, I am critical of his perspective on fathers and fatherhood. And yet, the feelings of disloyalty I have toward him are typical of those a daughter would feel toward a father. A classic dynamic in heterosexual families is for the father to dominate, and for the mom and kids to whisper their discontent to each other. For all of Chuck D’s limitations, he was one of the only black men in hip hop who was consistently creating content that didn’t sexualize women and who focused on uplifting the community. There was a refuge that I took in his work and his words as a young woman, and, given the climate and landscape of hip hop at the time and later, I will always be grateful to him for that piece of his integrity. At the same time, I won’t settle for a limited vision of liberation out of some sense of black family loyalty.
Recently, black women have been pushed toward loyalty when Obama rolled out his racial justice initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, and it only addressed problems for boys. Just as many black women like Kimberle Crenshaw, Britney Cooper, African American Policy Forum and many others have pointed out, young black women are targeted also. To that end, and to go with the xojane piece, this black mom stayed up way past her bedtime designing a new image, a parody of the Public Enemy logo, called “Public Feminist.” Enjoy.
As a feminist, one of my central concerns is the well-being of women. I support policies that are designed to ensure women’s health and safety, and this includes sex work policies.
However, I’m not a policymaker, I’m a writer and educator. For the past six years, I’ve been writing fiction about sex work. Since 2009, I’ve been attempting to get an agent and sell my sex worker heist novel. In that time, I have heard one comment consistently from industry gatekeepers: “I didn’t really find the character likable and I couldn’t connect with her emotionally.” A string of literary agents rejected the book with some variation of that comment. They liked the premise, the idea of a former sex worker who robbed corrupt CEOs to fund her health clinic for women, but they didn’t actually like her. Finally this year, I found an agent who loves the book and is now representing me as we take the next steps toward publication. However, I am coming to believe that the book has been impacted by what I will call a crisis of empathy with women in the sex industries. Women outside the sex industries, women who have never been poor, never faced a survival decision about selling sex, are taught to look down on women who have made that choice. Some gatekeepers have had a lot of trouble seeing a sex worker character as a hero.
An important note here is that all sex workers are not female, but sex work is largely about men using financial domination to gain sexual access to women. We need to include male and trans sex workers in policies, but without losing sight of how sex work sits in a tradition of male domination.
There is no shortage of sympathy for women in the sex industries. The sex work activist community has criticized recent rescue campaigns for trafficked women, because they often capitalize on the distanced pity of western privileged women for women in the global South. The privileged western women are manipulated by campaigns of distorted information into giving money to causes that—at best—don’t produce the results they promise, or—at worst—funds don’t even go to the women they are supposed to help. The western-based organizations make a living or a career for their leaders, but there are widespread reports that many anti-trafficking organizations have practices that further disempower the women they “rescue.” The recent scandal that revealed anti-trafficking “hero” Somaly Mam as a charlatan is only one example of many.
Sympathy causes privileged women to give money and in return they are eager for a narrative, complete with photos and videos, that says “it’s helping! Look at the great things your money has done!” But sympathy keeps the “rescued” brown women at arm’s length. The sympathizing western women don’t get close enough to see the cracks in the rescue façade. This dynamic is articulated perfectly in a post by South Asian sex worker/activist Molli Desi on Maggie McNeil’s blog. Desi writes, of South Asian rescue organizations that ostensibly fight sex trafficking; “many donors [to these organizations] from the West deliberately ignore [the] risks to detained women and girls so as to pursue their self-serving agendas.”
The big outrage here is that trafficked women do need help. They do need resources and services and people to care about their abuse and exploitation, but the leftover structures of colonization and racism lead to westerners consistently extracting more from the global South than they give. That is to say, western women donate money and in return, they feel good about the pretense of having done good. Under historical colonization, the resource extracted was land, or labor, or natural resources. Now the extracted resource is feeling superior and heroic. Sympathy—pity really—is everywhere, but empathy is much harder to come by.
Another area where there’s an empathy shortage is between the following two groups:
- current and former sex workers who favor decriminalization
- women formerly trafficked, coerced, and manipulated into sex work.
From my perspective, they represent two categories of people, mostly women, who deserve support and protection. The challenge is that while one group needs to be left alone by the legal system, the other needs increased and intensified effectiveness from the legal system. These are very difficult needs to balance. Canada’s proposed sex work reform, C-36, is a perfect example of the breakdown and fighting between these two groups. C-36 has been proposed and promoted by Canada’s Conservative Party. For example, one of the policies in debate is about whether or not sexual services can be advertised in print and internet media. For sex workers who favor decriminalization, this is critical because it gives workers avenues to reach clients that keep them safer and off the street. However, for formerly trafficked women, their abusers have, at times, used some of the same outlets to advertise the services of women and girls they were exploiting.
Certainly there are solutions that could respond to the needs of both parties, and I am certain they have been proposed. But part of the challenge, as I see it, is that the legal reformers don’t have a feminist commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of all women (and men and trans people) involved. Therefore, the debate becomes more about which group of women’s needs will be prioritized. Instead of working together to create solutions that both groups can live with, the two groups are pitted against each other to win the favor of the parliamentary decisionmakers, many of whom are male and none of whom have personal experience in the sex industries. Further, because violence against both groups is so real, both groups feel a real life-or-death urgency to make their case, and the battle escalates.
As a fiction writer, I step into this battlefield to write about sex work. In my novel, I have made the clear decision to present a range of experiences in the sex industries. None of my characters could be described as “the happy hooker,” who enjoys it so much that she’d do it for free. Part of a heist novel is that characters are motivated by the lure of wealth that could lead to financial independence. None of them plans to do sex work after the big score. In the meantime, however, some of my characters are perfectly happy with their choice to do sex work, now that they’re high-priced escorts who are well-paid and well-protected by a crew of women who work together.
There is also a character who has been trafficked and manipulated. She’s not a tragic character, but she’s having difficulty getting out of a bad situation with her pimp. In her, we see how the vulnerability of young people is used by predatory men to exploit and abuse them. Her pimp also uses the immigrant status of young women for leverage, as well.
Finally, the protagonist is the most complicated. She became a sex worker at seventeen when she and her sister were orphaned. She made the choice, in order to keep her sister out of foster care. No young person should ever have to make this choice. Her sexual experiences with clients are all legally statutory rapes. However, for her as a sexual trauma survivor, the agency she felt in being able to use her body to keep her family together was a powerful choice, one that she stands by even years later, after she is no longer a sex worker. I think both sides of the sex work debate would agree that she needed and deserved better options. But part of the missing empathy is that we need to understand women’s choices to do sex work—even underage women’s—as happening in a context where, sometimes, sex work is the best option. As in real life, she was a teen who had been failed by so many institutions: the family, the school system, the healthcare system, the social work system, the colonization of her home country that led her family to come to the US, and on and on. Her decision to do sex work was about protecting her sister from becoming a ward of the state. As I said in my article in The Feminist Wire “Young people are abused and exploited inside of the child welfare system…We want to turn our lens out onto the street, but we need to turn it into the home as well — both the foster home and the nuclear home.” In this context, I think it’s vitally important to have policies on sex work that build toward the world we want—where no teen would ever have to make this choice—but also address the realities of the world we have. It’s not fair to compare young people’s brutal realities to our fantasies of how the world should be.
And not only is that the world that young sex workers live in, it’s the world that we all live in. One of the effects of looking down on sex workers is that the rest of us get to think that our lives are so much better. And there are many privileges that we may have. But we haven’t escaped sexism. We haven’t escaped male domination. Without the contrast of women who are terribly victimized, we see that we haven’t truly found all the power and freedom that we might want in our lives. One of the ways I look to building empathy for sex workers is to locate sex work on a continuum of transactional sexual activity. As I wrote in my article advocating sex work decriminalization in xojane:
There are important criticisms that can be leveled at sex work: any institution where women are rewarded to act out men’s sexual fantasies is part of male domination. I believe that. But these criticisms can be leveled at many different institutions of our society. This happens across the board in media, and in heterosexual dating, relationships, and marriage.
Every woman who’s ever faked an orgasm, or rallied to have sex to put her male partner in “a good mood” before they discuss an important issue in the relationship, is a colluding participant. Few heterosexual women can say that every moment of every sexual experience they’ve ever had was bursting with sexual fulfillment. If there were no male domination, a woman would never feel any obligation to please a man or have any fear of reprisal.
And I want to live to see that world—one without male domination. Ending sexism, and economic exploitation would change everything. It’ll take a lot to get there. And we need to work to keep all women safe in the meantime.
This post was developed out of a twitter conversation I had earlier this week with Alexandra Kimball, Natasha Falle & Seani Fool.
me nursing in the classroom my first year of motherhood.
The fall semester started this week & I’m back to teaching. Reminds me of when I first went back to work after I had my daughter. To that end, I’m reviving one of my early mom poems.
Working Mama Blues
U reachin for me every time that I go
Lil brown starfish hand reachin each time I go
Ocean of hurt in my heart when I walk out the do
Grandmas lap is a warm safe place
My own mamas lap is a sweet soft place
But it ain’t good enuf from the look on yr face
When I get to the job work is backed up n late
Scramblin to teach class half prepped n late
Disappointin my students n making them wait
In the middle of class feel my milk letdown
Standin at the blackboard my breastmilk let down
Remind me that my baby on the other side of town
Wish I was in Sweden where they treat mamas right
18 months paid leave to raise a baby right
But Sweden’s too far and too cold and too white
Got only one body but two jobs to do
Got a part time body but two full-time jobs to do
In these united states of the working mama blues
My latest spoken word parody performance about Ferguson, MO.
Dear Ferguson law enforcement,
People are demanding that cops use cameras on the job. Don’t think of it as surveillance, think of it as one big #selfie!
(full text below)
I was rushing to get to a conference, so both the video & text are a little rough, but I feel so strongly about what’s going on. As an artist, I can’t wait to make it perfect while so many are putting their lives on the line. May all residents, activists & journalists in the Ferguson area stay safe.
Dear law enforcement officials,
I know some of you are upset about how this whole Ferguson thing has led to a demand that you wear body cams as part of your uniforms. You feel like it might cramp your work style or something. But don’t think of it as surveillance, think of it as one big selfie. #glasshalffull.
I mean, in today’s social media world, who wouldn’t want the privilege of having a livestream of their professional life? Most of us are busy recording our lives every single second outside our jobs and being asked to do less social media during work hours, but you’re being asked to do more. #lucky.
Okay, I know what you’re going to say. The body cams don’t record the wearer, they record out. Come on now, in this day and age, every camera can be flipped around. #readtheinstructions
And all these contractors are making so much money selling more equipment to law enforcement. Body armor, tear gas, tanks. Who wouldn’t want camera’s as part of the package? #shoppingspree!
If law enforcement got selfie privileges, you’d be like the envy of every teenage girl in America. In fact, this might lead to more women in law enforcement. #girlpower
But for now, I’m sure this could be good for everyone. Just think. When the officer of the national guard in Ferguson was talking with Don Lemon’s white CNN producer and used the N-word about all the protesters, I’m sure he meant it in the most cool, ironic, these are all my N-words, bro type of way, and the body cam would have helped everyone understand his friendly intentions. As it is, the producer and don lemon are going around telling everyone that he said the N-word. he said the n-word. totally out of context, and my god, he sounds like some ku klux klansmen from Mississippi in the 1960s. This is 2014, not the civil freaking rights movement. #BullConnor
I mean, it’s like when you have a fight with your boyfriend, and you’re like, you totally promised you would call me last night. And he’s like, no I didn’t and totally denies your reality and asks if you’re on your period. and you’re wishing he had texted it to you that so you’d have a record, but he said it on the phone and you’re like oh my god, I wish I had a recording of our call, but see in your situation you would have one, and you could play it for him. #busted
See, a body cam would have totally cleared up the misunderstanding about the micahel brown shooting that started this whole thing in the first place. I mean, the officer explained how he was just defending himself. And he wouldn’t have had to spend days in total anonymity while Michael Brown was trending and no one even knew the cop’s name. It’s Darren Wilson by the way. #fiveminutesoffame
And here these witnesses to the shooting, these young black kids coming out of the woodwork, or juvenile hall or middle school or the honor roll or being totally traumatized seeing one of their peers shot or whatever to contradict the officer’s totally believable story about how he had to shoot Michale brown like six times. Of course that makes total sense. Why didn’t he have a camera to document his completely understandable actions. Because it’s not like we live in a nation where grown, armed white men just gun down, just murder, just go around exterminating unarmed black teenagers in cold blood and end their lives just as they are on the brink of adulthood and get away with it. That would be a brutal, inhuman, racist, hypocritical, rogue nation. #whatabouttheconstitution
Anyway, I got a little heated there, but you cops need to look on the bright side. These days, everyday citizens are all under surveillance, but we don’t know who’s doing it or where the recording devices are. But you would totally know. Because you would be carrying the camera. And you would know you were being recorded so you could look your cutest and act your most courteous all the time on your job and totally impress your boss. #employeeoftheyear
So in conclusion, don’t think of it as surveillance, think of it as one big selfie. And NSA if you were eavesdropping on my phone convo with my boyfriend, can you please send me the clip where he promised to call. I’m sure you already have my email address. Okay, lucky law enforcement I hope this legislation comes through. #PermissionToUseDeadlyForceDeservesASelfie!
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.
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.