I had blog topics all planned for this month. I just had a great week in theater, that I will get to shortly, and I'm two movies behind writing on independent films. But I had an intense experience today in Leimert Park and can't think about much else.
Leimert Park has always been a safe haven for me. Everybody is welcome there. It has the World Stage, Eso Won Books, Black art, and the Sunday drum circle, when folks in the community get together by the fountain on Crenshaw and play and dance from whenever until whenever. Over the last couple of years a small marketplace has sprung up around it, with people spreading rugs and setting up their own tables to sell everything from bean pies to herbal remedies to bracelets. My partner and I walked past the table of a woman with locks selling healthy seasoned popcorn, cowry shell hairpieces, and t-shirts celebrating home birth. I started a vibrant conversation with her and my partner, seeing that I was going to be awhile, went to take something to our car. A man approached, and complimented the woman on the locks and how he loves to see women in natural hair. I said something in agreement, and had no expectation for how the conversation would soon go.
I'm not going to attempt to document the whole disturbing exchange, how somehow he went from natural hair to completely denigrating women, but he started saying how the kings had done everything and Black women had never done anything significant. I disagreed, respectfully, talking about the pivotal role of Black women in every freedom movement we have engaged in as a people. The more I mentioned specific names, events, organizations, the more irate he got, and the more idiotic things he said (here's a few gems: Rosa Parks was a puppet and the sleeping car porters told her to sit on the bus, Correta Scott King never did anything but be a wife, Black single mothers turn their sons into faggots) the more upset I got. I realize, in retrospect that I shouldn't have engaged him at all. I shouldn't have tried to make sense to someone with obviously dogmatic misogynist beliefs. But I made the mistake of thinking, perhaps because I was in Leimert, perhaps because our exchange started innocently enough, that I was talking to someone halfway intelligent, who would be open to another point of view if exposed to it. By the time I realized that wasn't the case I was so enraged, there was no turning back. He progressed to putting his hand in my face, calling me a stupid ignorant fool who was telling lies and didn't respect men, saying he could be my daddy (what that was supposed to mean I didn't know), ignoring the gentle requests of the woman whose table he had taken over (we never got back to our conversation about natural childbirth) to walk away. I had never called him a name, never gotten personal, but everyone else around had nothing to say, not his friend standing there with two little girls, none of the men and or women nearby watching everything. I felt humiliated, betrayed, let down.
I have had a few hours to calm down. I realize a lot of what I am angry about is that I got angry, that I allowed myself to expend so much energy on someone so obviously foolish. By the end of the whole thing I was certainly screaming and probably incoherent, so I ended up looking like the crazy one, though everyone just nodded their heads as he spit some of the most vitriolic mess about Black women I have ever heard, in a space where I have usually felt assured of a certain level of respect. Even one of my former students was there, telling me to let it go, and it is now humiliating to think about the whole scene, me a professor, a professional woman, in an area where I have many relationships and a solid reputation.
People who know me well know that I am tolerant, diplomatic, mild-tempered...to a certain threshhold that I don't often reach. Today I was pushed there. After a whole life of being surrounded by hardworking, struggling, self-sacrificing Black women, several years of investment in research on the experiences, literature, and perspectives of Black women, a whole summer poring through a reading list focused on gender and leadership in Black social movements, and a ten minute conversation with a doulah interested in the empowerment of women to birth their own children naturally-he pushed the worst button he could have. And what was worse, it seemed to be acceptable. No one disagreed, no one had anything to say in support of an alternate vision.
Now, maybe people already knew the guy and his agenda and realized the fruitfulness of the whole thing, maybe they just weren't paying attention, maybe they just didn't care or feel like it was their business, but I can't help but feel like the situation might have been a bit different if I'd gone on a loud tirade about the worthlessness of Black men. Maybe not. But his viewpoint, while expressed more cruelly than I have experienced in any personal interaction, was not unfamiliar. I've had, while not at that scale, similar conversations with academics who attacked my use of Black feminist theory at conferences, with male acquaintances who blamed Black women's strength, attitude, lack of submission, lack of attractiveness, or some other version of our lack for their choices of interracial matches or inability to commit (why can't you say you chose whoever you chose for who they are, rather than what we are not?), with men who couldn't seem to comprehend how disrespecting the mothers of their children may impact the daughters they love, with street scholars and poets who see women who choose not to have children and homosexuals as traitors because they are not biologically contributing to producing soldiers for the revolution. (A revolution which they themselves cannot clearly define) I'm not even going to get on the rappers, or churches full of women congregants and workers who can't seem to get near a pulpit, or our ability to glorify Black women as queens while refusing to give them credit for the grassroots leadership of our ongoing struggle. If being a queen means accepting either a pedestal or subordination they can have it. Even our so-called positive movies, like Soul Food and Jumping the Broom in the midst of celebration of family and love, send the problematic messages that we belong in the kitchen, that career women are threatening and drive helpless good men into more understanding, less credentialed thighs, that Black mothers are dysfunctional Oedipal matriarchs who can't let go of the sons they have used as replacements for their romantic failures.
It's all bull. I've been a Black woman all my life. I'm sure we are as prone to screwing up our kids as any other group but I can point to hundreds of sons who hold up their mothers, who made good home lives out of determination and scraps as the reason for their success. For every friend I have seen wronged by a trifling girl I can point to at least 20 young Black women who are sweet, intelligent, well-adjusted, beautiful, driven, about their business- and thoroughly SINGLE, not because they don't want partnership, marriage, and family, but because the brothers just don't seem to see them. I know because for most of my life that has been me. I have been incredibly blessed with a loving, like-spirited, open-minded man willing to support me in everything I do, even rush into the unknown fray of a fight in Leimert, no questions asked, a fact for which I am eternally grateful. I love Black men, I am daughter, sister, lover, aunt, friend, colleague and more to some caring, smart, hardworking, giving, just good Black men. When I hear sisters ranting about all Black men because of the shortcomings of the ones they have dealt with, I speak up on it, just like I think men should speak up for us.
But back to the problem. We have an issue with sexism in our community, that runs strong through our institutions and culture. And there is a strand of it that is particularly prevalent in the half-digested Black Nationalist dogma of those that perform consciousness in arenas such as the spoken word community, arts district, and Leimert Park. What drove me crazy about this guy was that he considered himself enlightened, claimed to be an educator, was clearly used to walking up to crowds and dropping his incomplete factoids and seeing heads nod in agreement, had never seriously and openly engaged someone who might be critical of his perspective, and was extremely threatened that I contradicted him publicly, a crime that required swift and brutal chastisement. I made the mistake of arguing my point because it made me sick that that was what he was preaching to others, who may have found it credible because it was swathed in a pseudo-Afrocentric discourse that those who frequent such spaces find familiar. His lack of real research or real understanding (or any desire for it) reflects what I often see in both our street and ivory tower scholarship-a refusal to seek the whole story. A refusal to adjust worldviews to new information, to truly listen to each other rather than to push our own vendetta, an inability to reconcile criticism for a hero, foundational scholar, or idea with acknowledgment of the usefulness of his, hers or its contributions. The male reverend and community leaders in the bus boycott were very brave people, but silenced or made symbols of the women who had jump-started their efforts. MLK was a great man, a brilliant and courageous man who may have had an issue with strong women. The Black Power and Black Arts Movement had incredible liberatory potential and effect but also, in their focus on the reclamation of manhood, subordinated and stifled the activities and voices of Black women. These aren't claims I have gotten from one book, one interview, one writer, they are drawn from a multitude of varied sources. Scholarship is continual learning, of willingness to acknowledge the good and bad, the complexity of our history and contemporary existence. And its important. This hostility towards women affects our community's relationships, our discourse, the way we behave as citizens and participants in making public policy, our lives. It certainly affected my quality of life today, turning a quite pleasant day relaxing with my boyfriend to one of the most emotionally draining of recent memory. But I suppose it also did something else, it made me realize how my scholarship is changing me as a person. Had this guy been someone reasonable, my research would have equipped me to engage in a productive dialogue. Without it, I would have known he was wrong but been frustrated in my grasp for the words and evidence to convey it.
My partner says I need to learn that everyone in the world doesn't have good intentions, that many people think they have nothing to learn. I have to accept that, and become better at identifying when I am fighting a losing battle, realize when I am wasting effort that could be better spent. But he also told me he was proud of me for standing my ground. I'm not sure how proud I am. I kind of lost it. But I am glad for the experience in the sense that it has made me realize how important this Black feminist consciousness I have been stewing on for a few years is becoming to my identity. I am a bit down, a bit regretful, and exhausted tonight, but I am excited for the future, when the opportunity will come to make a stand in a more effective way, and to develop this passion into a program that can actually change this world.