Let’s hear it for the Raiderettes: Goooooooo Women’s Labor Activism!

Earlier this month, the Raiderettes who cheer for Oakland’s football team, finally won the right to be employees of the NFL team and to get minimum wage compensation. The passing of AB 202 (“The Cheerleader Bill”) comes after last year’s $1.25 million dollar suit that gave back pay to over 90 cheerleaders for the same team. This is a huge victory for an industry where women have been expected to cheer for anywhere from $0 to $125 per game, not to mention investing time into practice and promotional appearances with no compensation, where some cheerleaders in the league have had to buy their own uniforms. Finally, it has been typical that they endure humiliating and belittling comments and instructions both verbally and in written handbooks. In a profoundly wealthy industry, the NFL is telling women they have no value or, at the very best, interchangeable. 
I think these cheerleader victories are very important for all women. First of all, because it’s about seeing and valuing women’s work. But I think cheerleaders are an archetypal female role that needs more scrutiny in our society. First of all, it is the type of female labor that is made invisible as labor. As a mother, I spend a large chunk of my life as a cheerleader now. I tell my daughter, “you can do it!” about an endless number of things. I sit and watch her participate in various activities. I pay attention to what she’s doing. And then when it’s my turn (like halftime) I do my routine. “Yes! I did see you ________. It was awesome! You tried so hard. I could see how much time you put into it. I’m so proud of you. Here’s the snack I brought.” The labor of encouraging others is women’s work in this society. And it actually is labor to sit there on the sidelines and keep track of someone else’s efforts and channel your enthusiasm into someone else’s dream or success. But like so many parts of women’s work, it is assumed to be just “how we are.” If we want to encourage our children, and our children need encouragement, it is just seen as something we do. And in another culture, where everything wasn’t broken down to an hourly wage (like a tribal society or village) that would be fine. But in our society, all these activities that women do to support others are unpaid, unseen, and unvalued. In contrast to men’s traditional role in supporting families (breadwinner) which is exalted and placed above all else.
It is also a problem when women are relegated to the role of cheerleader and don’t have the option to be in the center of the action. Over the years, I have heard countless female actresses complain about roles in film/TV/theater where their lines were all a version of “you can do it, _____ [insert name of male protagonist].” They were the ingenue girlfriend, wife, lover, sidekick, friend, secretary or—less frequently—the mother. Their role in the story was to encourage the male protagonist at the point in the story arc when everything looked bleak. But they never had dreams of their own.
Finally—and this is the part that irks me the most—is the distorted way that girls have traditionally been conditioned to view and understand cheerleading in our society. I went to Berkeley High School, where the social hierarchy was diverse and decentralized. At BHS, the cheerleaders were mostly black and many were plus-sized. However, in the media, I got a clear picture of more traditional high schools where the cheerleaders were white, conventionally attractive and required to be thin. In exchange for conforming to these standards (and actually being good at cheering) these girls would be on top of the social hierarchy at school. In particular, the top of the traditional social hierarchy is the captain of the cheerleading team and captain of the football team. Extra points if they were dating.
Image result for glee quinn fabray cheerleader finnI grew up seeing these images dating back to the 50s, but recent media, like Glee and Friday Night Lights, show that these social hierarchies are still alive in many parts of the country. Which means that in 2015, girls are being conditioned as teenagers, that they should be aspiring to a position that has absolutely no career prospects. Because the real career is not being the cheerleader, it’s dating the captain of the football team. Because he is the one who has the potential for college scholarships, playing professionally, and huge wealth. Granted, only a miniscule number of high school athletes ever get to that level, but the level exists. The glass ceiling for women in cheerleading kicks in at high school graduation. Starting in college, cheerleaders do not have the same social status as football players, and we see how NFL cheerleaders are treated. By rewarding and exalting cheerleaders in high school, we are teaching women to aspire to financial dependency, and to inhabit a place that’s mostly on the sidelines. In addition, we’re also giving them a distorted sense of the importance of such a role in our society. It’s akin to what I’ve written about beauty pageants, women are encouraged to compete for access to a bridge that goes nowhere. While Title IX gives women a legal ground for equal access in the educational arena, we still have far to go in securing a place for women in the center of sports, as opposed to the sexy halftime show.
The implicit reward of cheerleading for a professional team is access to professional athletes. The women’s professional role is focused on and enthusiastic about the men’s performance. While not all cheerleaders are interested in connecting romantically with a professional player, this is a heavy part of women’s conditioning, and the male players are portrayed as incredibly attractive—physically and economically. Because NFL cheerleading economically exploits women’s desire to be connected to the team and part of the sport, it selects for women who would find the players attractive and appealing. Clearly, they’re not in it for the money. And then it targets and humiliates them for feeling those desires: according to Tim Walker at The Independent,Some of the squads’ cheerleading handbooks provide further details of the condescension and humiliation to which the women have been subjected. A Raiderettes handbook, thought to have been updated since the lawsuit, included instructions not to dally with players or with married men in the team’s corporate office.”
Cheerleading is not sex work. But like modeling or the entertainment industry, being sexually appealing and sexually objectified is part of the job. I write about sex work and the struggle of women doing that work to be respected and protected. Cheerleading is like sex work, in some crucial dynamics: many of the institutions of our society pressure women into these roles, and then the society simultaneously glamorizes and demeans the women. Our culture exploits women in sexualized roles and blames the women for any mistreatment they receive in those roles. I am at work on my second novel, about a group of exotic dancers who fight to unionize a chain of strip clubs in New York. Cheerleading, like sex work, like parenting, is work. We deserve livable labor conditions.
So congratulations to the Raiderettes, and all the women who have been fighting for better labor conditions in the NFL. “Go team cheerleaders–you can do it!”

Seven Stages of Bill Cosby Rape Apologists

  1. The woman is lying and of questionable character.
  2. Both women are lying and of questionable character.
  3. All 35 women are lying and of questionable character.
  4. Forget those women, focus on his undeniable legacy.
  5. This is typical of racism! Everyone’s just trying to bring a black man down!
  6. Anyone can make allegations. Where’s the proof?
  7. A confession? Well, obviously, now is the time to pray and find forgiveness.

The Fall of The Father in Black and White: Unwelcome Secrets of Cliff Huxtable and Atticus Finch Revealed

cosby finchIn an unusual moment in media history, two damning pieces of evidence are finally revealed, and two towering paternal icons fall from grace at the same time. The publication of Harper Lee’s scathing book Go Set a Watchman, comes just after a judge’s decision to unseal testimony of Bill Cosby confession about drugging and raping women. While one reveals racism and the other reveals sexual violence, both have incited an avalanche of commentary from apologists, deniers, nitpickers, and minimizers, as well as much hand-wringing about lost legacies and rage that our collective nostalgia should be interrupted by inconvenient reality. While Finch and his transgressions are fictional, while Cosby and his crimes are real. However, both show the same dynamics at work in protecting abusers in our Father-Knows-Best culture.

Of course, this is really about two fictional fathers. If anyone was deeply familiar with Cosby’s body of standup work outside The Cosby Show on TV, they would have heard his jokes in the 60s about drugging and raping women. The Cosby upset is really about Cliff Huxtable, the fantasy dad that brought America comfort and comic relief in the harsh 80s and 90s. He offered the fantasy of friendly, just-like-you, not-angry-about-racism (or even particularly affected by it) black people next door. The image was embraced by black people because it reflected our deepest fantasy of respectability politics. I was embraced by white people because Huxtable could be their imaginary black friend and because show let white America off the hook for the historical and current damage of racism. The fact that his alter ego Bill Cosby ranted against lower class blacks was just a bonus. As I wrote in Bitch Magazine, Huxtable the family man was the fantasy. Cosby, the alleged rapist, is the reality. In a related post, I’ve identified the Seven Stages of Bill Cosby Rape Apologists.

Atticus Finch, on the other hand, is entirely fictional. He has been immortalized for over half a century in To Kill a Mockingbird as the good white father, fighting racism. Now, with the publication of Watchman, he is revealed as a bigot. I’m struck so much by Harper Lee’s story of starting with the more morally complex Watchman and trying to get it published. Watchman, the original story, is of the daughter returning to her Alabama hometown as a young adult, only to become disillusioned with the heroic version of her father from her childhood. The editor told her to turn the flashbacks of her father’s heroism into the novel. Lee tried to tell the truth, but got sucked into being clebrated for the lie. Perhapps, like so many of us writers, she thought I’ll give the industry what it wants in order to get the first book published, then I’ll be able to write the more challenging material I really want to write. However, the Pulizer Prize for the sanitized version of Atticus Finch was the nail in the coffin of Harper Lee’s creativity. She never published again.

Only with the long overdue publication of Watchman, do we finally see Lee’s original vision. And in response we hear a cacaphony of voices insisting that Lee should have maintained the lie. Jane Ciabattari showcases many of them (along with Watchman supporters) in a great review of the reviews in LitHub. Shortly after that was published, Carolina De Robertis took a strong stand for the truth in the SF Chronicle: “We need the real, racist Atticus Finch.”

It seems hindsight vision is clearer. I notice how narratives like The Help or even Mad Men allow us to be fascinated with exploring racism or sexism from at least a generation ago. It seems as if it takes 25+ years for public opinion to shift enough that we can reflect on an era with enough consensus about what it looks like to expose or take a stand against oppression at that time. In the 1950s and 60s, the acceptable parts of Watchman were the stand against the racism of the 30s. But Lee was attempting to stand against the contemporary racism of the time in which she was writing, which struck too close to home.

What an irony. If she had never published …Mockingbird and if she were publishing Watchman for the first time now, it would probably be heralded as an amazing book, because it looks back at the racism of the 1950s. It maintains our comfortable distance. Unfortunately, our culture has built a cult of worship around the fantasy of Atticus Finch—the white man who stood up to racism. Now, we’re left to face the reality of Atticus Finch, the bigot, and witness the reality that the book actually reflects the racism of its time, via the editor who colluded with racism.

But whether it’s Finch in the 50s or Huxtable in the 80s, the fall of these two fathers had forced our country to consider the fallability of the great father. Except, of course, for the apologists, nitpickers, minimizers and deniers, who—despite all evidence—will always desperately cling to the fantasy, the illusion and the lie.

Summer writing – big novel edit & random blogging…

Hey folks! So it’s summer vacation for me as a teacher & I’m hard at work on the edits for my novel. It’s going great! One challenge, however, is that I keep being distracted by wanting to comment on stories in the news and media. And then I want to pitch them to different news outlets, which gets me caught up in the journalism hustle. And even if they say yes, then they have feedback and want edits. And then there goes a half day that should be spent on my novel.

So…I’m putting myself on a social commentary diet. If something feels urgent to comment on, I get 40 minutes–start to finish, including tweeting about it!–to post on this blog. No more pitching. No more nitpicking and perfectionism. No half-hour internet searches to be better informed on the topic. And instead of posting every Friday, like I do during the schoolyear, I’ll post whenever.

So you can find more off-the-cuff blogging from me this summer. And meanwhile, I’ll be working on my book which comes out next summer!!


Her own worst enemy: how Serena Williams sabotaged her fashion model career by being black and too good at tennis

Maria Serena[Satire Alert!] Serena Williams Needs lessons in priorities from rival Maria Sharapova, who plays tennis as a hobby to score sexy modeling contracts. Serena’s 6th Wimbledon win at the cost of developing actual muscles is typical of black women’s bad choices and lamentable priorities. Just like her choice to be black in a society that doesn’t like black people. Please, Serena. Stop the self-sabotage.

Remember, it’s your milkshake that brings all the boys to the yard, not your Wimbledon trophies. And there’s no higher calling than having a yard full of boys, right?

Look at these two photos, above. Serena has the nearly zero percent body fat of a fashion model, but then she went and ruined her thin frame with muscles. And for what? Her tennis hobby? But Maria has the right idea. Arm muscles are for boys. Only long sinewy abdominal muscles are for girls. 

“I always want to be skinnier with less cellulite; I think that’s every girl’s wish,” Sharapova said. That’s right young ladies. So stop wishing for magical powers, creative success or being president. Every girl who doesn’t put thinness first needs to get those wish priorities back on track. Every girl. 

Sharapova also said she “can’t handle lifting more than five pounds,” and that she considers lifting weights and adding muscle to be “unnecessary” in tennis. So it’s just as well that she lost to Williams, because that heavy trophy might just topple her over!

According to an article in the Daily Beast by Tomas Rios, “American racist tropes tend to be constructed in ways that render black women one-dimensional,” says writer Mikki Kendall. “So when Serena refuses to be the kindly self-effacing Mammy, the over-sexed Jezebel, or the harridan Sapphire, media organizations don’t know how to handle her.” That’s right, Serena. Every fashion model has a type. You had three awesome choices, but you blew it. So sad.

You know what they say, Serena, black women have to be twice as good to get half as far. Well isn’t Sharapova and her higher earnings the proof of that.

In a culture that so worships white mediocrity, Serena needs to stop shooting herself in the foot with her ill-advised pursuit and achievement of black excellence.


An interview with novelist Naomi Jackson on her debut: The Star Side of Bird Hill

NJstarside_sidebyside_blueWhen I got pregnant, suddenly I saw pregnant women and babies everywhere. Similarly, now that I have a book coming out, I see debut novelists everywhere. Over the last year, I have been noticing black women debut novelists in particular. Last year, I interviewed Toni Ann Johnson about her first novel. This week, I have the pleasure of interviewing Caribbean-American novelist Naomi Jackson, whose debut The Star Side of Bird Hill was just released.

Aya de Leon: Tell us a little about yourself. What island(s) are your parents from?

Naomi Jackson: I was born and raised in Brooklyn by West Indian parents and spent several childhood summers at home in the Caribbean. I like to say that I’m a pan-Caribbean mongrel – my mother is from Barbados, my Dad is from Antigua, and my stepmother is from Jamaica. All of these places influenced my writing.


Tell us about the book. What was your inspiration, or the thought or idea that bugged you so much you had to work it out in a novel?

The Star Side of Bird Hill is a coming of age story set during the summer of 1989 in Barbados. It follows two sisters – Phaedra, 10, and Dionne, 16 as they spend the summer with their grandmother Hyacinth after their mother can no longer care for them. The characters in this novel showed up one day and demanded that I pay them attention. I worked on the novel’s opening scene for several months, and the book began to take shape over the next few years.


How long did it take for you to write it?

I started writing this book in December 2009. I finished the final draft in December 2013. So it took about four years from start to finish. The last few years have been focused on getting the book (and myself) ready for publication.


I see that it’s set in ’89. Are you an age contemporary of your characters? I have a couple books set in the 80s, and that’s my go-to decade of the past. If it’s not set today, it’s set back then. Could your book be set today? If so, why did you pick ’89? What is it about the 80s that is so compelling?

I am a child of the 80s, and the summers I spent in the Caribbean were in the 80s and 90s, so the Barbados of this book is in part the Barbados I remember visiting as a child. I don’t think that my book could be set today as so much about the island has changed over the last twenty-five years, and so many historical events that mark the time period this book is set in (for example, the AIDS crisis) have really evolved.


Can you speak to the deep and ongoing relationship between Brooklyn & the West Indies? I was in an area of Port of Spain, Trinidad & was like, OMG, this is just like being in Brooklyn! (except everyone is Trini).

There is a deep symbiotic relationship between New York City (and other diasporic outposts like London and Toronto) and the Caribbean. I affectionately refer to Flatbush, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, as being “all West Indian all the time.” Most of the kids I grew up with there had families like mine—blended, intergenerational clans that included children born in the States and people who’d recently immigrated alongside others who’d been in the States for 20 or more years. I was recently in Trinidad for the Bocas literary festival and felt at home there; there are parts of Port of Spain that feel familiar as well as some distinct differences (language, culture, landscape, music, etc.).


I’m intrigued by the inclusion of birth & your midwife character! Any comments about midwifery in the Caribbean and the US? I had my daughter at home w/ a black midwife, yet I see that this is an unusual choice these days, largely b/c it’s more expensive than a hospital birth if you have insurance…

Most of the people in my parents’ generation were born at home with midwives, and I heard lots of stories about my stepmother’s foremother who delivered babies in her country district in Jamaica. It was a vocation for her (she had other ways she made her livelihood) and she had deep networks within her community. She’d take whatever people could afford to give her to thank her for her work – food, sundries, and sometimes money. I drew inspiration from these stories when I was drawing the character of Hyacinth, the grandmother who is also a midwife. I’m not a mother myself, but while I was writing this novel, I was transformed by attending the birth of my sister’s child. I wanted to find ways to write about the truly awesome nature of that experience as well as the stories I’d heard about how people gave birth in the Caribbean before folks turned to hospital births.


I see that you’ve written about Edwidge Danticat’s work. Any comments about pan-Caribbean connections across Anglophone/Francophone/Hispanophone differences? My own Caribbean heritage is both British West Indian and Afro-Latina, so I’m always curious about other folks’ perspectives who engage more than one tradition. Obviously colonization has made arbitrary borders and lines, and each nation has its own history. Any significant ways in which non-Anglophone Caribbean traditions or writers have influenced you or your writing? 

Since my native language is English and I have limited second language proficiency (I can read and speak muddled French and I know some Spanish I’ve picked up from living in New York), I’ve mostly read writers who are in English translation. I wish my language skills were stronger so that I could enjoy literature in more languages from the region. That said, I certainly have an affinity for writers outside the Anglophone Caribbean. Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz are two prime examples, and I’m very glad to see them speaking out about forced deportations of Haitians from the Dominican Republic. Other writers who’ve influenced me include Maryse Condé and Patrick Chamoiseau, Veronica Chambers, who I believe is Afro-Panamanian, as well as the Cuban writers Achy Obejas and Rachel Kushner, and the legendary Julia Alvarez.


Clearly your book engages a Here and There between Bklyn & Barbados. What are some of the Here and Theres of your life?

There are so many here and theres for me! I have traveled a lot in the last few years; this book was written in cities that couldn’t be more different from each other – Iowa City, where I spent two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; Bridgetown, Barbados, where I spent a summer researching and writing the book; Philadelphia, where I wrote the final draft; and finally, Cassis, France, where I reviewed copy edits and tied up a few loose ends. I also worked on the book at PowderKeg, a space for women writers in Brooklyn. I believe that Maya Angelou said “home is between your teeth.” That’s certainly been true for me recently and likely will be for some time to come.


It takes so much to write a book! What are your practices and support systems to make it happen?

I’m glad you asked this question. Writing is a solitary act, but completing and publishing a book require lots of support. I have a rock star crew of people who I’m in community with, including my partner, family, friends, and other writers and artists. Staying grounded by making time for the folks I’m closest to has been an important ingredient in my happiness. In the most intense stages of writing and promoting the book, I’ve learned to make time for yoga and to allow myself small luxuries like the occasional cab ride.


Because your book deals with tough stuff in families, any comments on that?

Families can be tough. I hope that my book is a balm for people struggling with relationships with their families, and perhaps even a jumping off point for reconciliation.


What have been the biggest surprises (both +&-) about being a debut author?

I didn’t expect the novel to speak to so many different kinds of readers, and to be a source of both inspiration and connection for them. I’ve received a couple notes from readers who say that they were moved by my depictions of Barbados, and I’ve also met a few writers who say that they feel inspired by my work. I’m not sure why I didn’t expect this to happen, but this has been one of the more surprising and rewarding elements of the publication process.


What are you working on now or next?

I am working on my second novel, a multigenerational family saga set in Brooklyn and the Caribbean from the 1930s to the 2000s. I am also working on a screenplay adaptation of my short story, “Ladies,” with Bajan filmmaker Lisa Harewood.


Anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks for this interview! I really appreciate your thoughtful questions and your support of me and my work.

Confederate Flag 2 – How to Talk to Small Children about Racism: Celebrating Bree Newsome

Last night, our family ate dinner with another family, and their kid had seen a video of Bree Newsome taking down the confederate flag. Yesterday, I wrote a satire post for adults about the confederate flag, but I wasn’t sure at first how to explain the anti-flag activism to my daughter. For some time, I have been working with a group of parents in the Bay Area to create Black Lives Matter activism activities for children 0-8. I have been adamant that our work to help them understand racism be developmentally appropriate. I believe they need to be given information about racism where the concepts are broken down to build on concepts they already understand. Our country’s history of anti-black racism and current police violence is terrifying—even to adults. The brutality of these histories and current realities should be handled gently with children. Part of racism in the US for black children has meant that our children don’t get to have a childhood. From early on, we learn that our lot in the US is to be targets of brutality. This is early training in being terrorized. I want to do a slow and gradual job of explaining the brutality of racism to my daughter. And let’s be clear, this is only a recent privilege (segregation meant learning about brutality early for survival). And everybody doesn’t have this privilege. Small children in families of black people who are abused and killed by police learn these lessons early and brutally. The reason I choose to go slow with imparting this information is two-fold:
First, because young children are very literal. For example, if I explain that people with black skin were held in forced servitude or are being targeted by police, black children run the risk of being confused that their skin was the cause of the enslavement or the violence, not racism. My focus is on learning about the inequality in language they can understand. When she’s older and has a clear grasp on the dynamics of mistreatment and exploitation, I can explain that skin color was the pretext for the mistreatment, not the reason for the mistreatment. 
Second of all, I take this approach because I am trying to raise a leader. I don’t want her to be so terrified by information about racism in her early childhood that she develops the idea that she is powerless to change it. I am constructing a narrative of explanation that emphasizes people’s power to transform injustice. And I believe that. Which is why I am attempting to raise a leader. Bree Newsome is a great example of bold leadership.
So here’s the story I wrote–with pictures!

Image result for confederate prate flagA long time ago there was a mean group of pirates. This is a regular pirate flag.  And they took some people prisoner on their ships and sailed far away. And they made them work all the time and didn’t let them play. And didn’t pay them any money. And they wouldn’t let them leave. And they were mean. And the people they were mean to said, this isn’t fair. We’re gonna get out of this. And the fought back and a bunch of them escaped and other people helped them. And they had a big war about it. pirate flagAnd this was the flag that the pirates used in the war. And the pirates lost the war. And the people they had been mean to got the right to be paid and leave if they wanted to. But the mean pirates were mad. Because they didn’t want to do their own work. So they remembered the pirate times as good times, because they got had other people doing all their work for them. But the people who did all the work and didn’t get paid and had pirates being mean to them remembered those times as bad times.

Image result for confederate flagAnd years later, some of the kids and grandkids and great grandkids of the pirates were in charge of some things and they were still flying the pirate flag as if the pirates were still in charge.

 And the kids and grandkids and great grandkids of the people the pirates had been mean to, and their friends all said that’s a flag from bad pirate times, and the pirates lost the war and you don’t get to fly it anymore. Take it down! But the people on the side of the pirates said no, we’ll fly our pirate flag if we want to because it’s our heritage. And the other people said that flag reminds us of meanness and our ancestors being treated bad.
But the people on the pirate side wouldn’t take it down. And they put it on a high high flagpole and they put a lock on it.

Image result for confederate flag protest take it down

Image result for confederate flag protest take it downAnd people were mad and they shouted about it, and wrote articles and sang angry songs and spoke poems, but the flag stayed up.

So a brave woman named Bree Newsome and some of her friends said that’s enough, pirates! And she got her climbing gear, and her tools and she wore her helmet. And her friends helped her. And she was so strong and so brave. https://encrypted-tbn3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcT-x82mwQSgaAf2U83Ij6ChDhA8gIoIiJlfcd9S7ls3I1JzmkPU Image result for confederate flag protest take it downSo, She climbed to the top of the pole and cut down the flag. And the people cheered. But when she climbed down, the people on the pirate side were so mad, they had some people who work for them take her prisoner. But most people thought she was a hero. And people all over began noticing pirate flags and making people take them down. And the people got Bree Newsome out of jail, and she went around telling everyone why she did it. she said:

As you are admiring my courage in that moment, please remember that this is not, never has been and never should be just about one woman…This is a multi-leader movement. I believe that. I stand by that. I am because we are. I am one of many.

I did it because I am free.


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