22 March 2009

Black Women and Violence

The theme of this year's International Women's Day (March 8th) was focused on domestic violence and sexual abuse against women and children. So I wanted to take some time to reflect on how different forms of violence are connected - domestic violence, hate crimes, sexual abuse, and homophobic violence. It is disturbing to think about how much violence is enacted by men because of what they perceive as a threat to their masculinity, sexuality, or authority. I remember growing up and seeing MOST of the men in my family hit their wives and girlfriends. I remember watching my mother deal with abusive men till she passed. I remember how much we accept violence as normal, and how some can sit with a straight face and ask "what did she do" in cases of domestic violence.

These thoughts ran through my head as I read about Chris Brown and Rihanna, and when I heard about young teen girls creating a website and saying in online forums that they support Chris Brown no matter what. On Bossip, the writers painted Rihanna as "the problem" - she gave him something, she was too needy, and other such nonsense. What was striking to me in all the news reports and the gossip sites is that people were looking for "the reason" why this particular event happened, as opposed to any real discussion of domestic violence (and for instance how it crosses class lines). People seemed to sympathize more with Chris Brown and his loss of endorsements, while obsessing over the pictures of Rihanna and whether or not she would take him back (invasion of privacy). Granted they are both public figures and celebrities, so one could argue that they have no privacy. But I have to wonder how much of this invasion has to do with her being a Black female. Certainly, she has much more protection than others because of her celebrity status and her money. Still I have to wonder how the reporting would have gone down if she was white or if she were not extremely popular. If she had no status or money, it would not have received the same kind of media attention, of course, or it may have been painted differently.

Let's think about other public cases of Black women experiencing violence at the hands of Black and non-Black men. R. Kelly's acquittal and how the young Black female (on "the tape") was discussed in the media. Her body was so easily dismissed and rendered "whore," beyond rescue, a non-victim of sexual violence. The Duke Lacrosse case - while the "actual" events remain unclear and contaminated within an inept legal system, what is clear is that the accuser was demonized from the beginning as "stripper" and "whore" - Black woman's word against a bunch of white men - who then became the victims while she got death threats. Obviously these cases are very different, but they are all rooted in sexism, racism, and violence.

Audre Lorde argues this very point in her essay "Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface," and she supports an open dialogue between Black men and Black women about sexism, one that confronts sexism and racism in order to abolish violence in our communities. Published in 1979, this essay by Lorde is still very relevant, particularly in her analysis of the connections between different forms of violence:
"But the Black male consciousness must be raised to the realization that sexism and woman-hating are critically dysfunctional to his liberation as a Black man because they arise out of the same constellation that engenders racism and homophobia. Until that consciousness is developed, Black men will view sexism and the destruction of Black women as tangential to Black liberation rather than as central to that struggle. So long as this occurs, we will never be able to embark upon that dialogue between Black women and Black men that is so essential to our survival as a people. The continued blindness between us can only serve the oppressive system within which we live." (64)
While her context for the essay is the United States, her analysis is useful for other communities of color and post-colonial societies. In other words, her words ring true for me as I think of the Caribbean context and the Bahamas in particular. While things have changed since I was growing up, we still have a huge problem with domestic violence and sexual abuse in our communities. Certainly, this is not only a problem in communities of color; in fact, we know that domestic violence crosses racial and class lines. But what I am pointing out here is exactly what Lorde argued almost 30 years ago – to discuss violence and the abuses that Black women experience must include a dialogue about racism, sexism, and homophobia within the larger context of white capitalist patriarchy. We still experience what Lorde describes as “the systematic devaluation of Black women within this society” (65); and I would include other societies and communities as well, in which Black women and other women of color remain marginalized (economically, politically, and socially).

Lorde suggest that in order to stop the abuse, we must begin the dialogue. And we cannot accept some forms of violence and condemn others. In other words, we can’t fight against domestic violence and sexual abuse and do nothing about homophobia. So now that the media attention on Chris Brown and Rihanna has “renewed” the issue and perhaps reminded the public that domestic violence crosses class lines, let’s use this moment as another spark. Let us push the dialogue forward, change the conversation, break the silence, and hold the media accountable for what it chooses to focus on. Let us search for and promote organizations that hold men accountable for violence (Kevin Powell was recently on Oprah talking about his work on this very issue and his new organization for men). Let us spread the word about the important documentary NO! by Aishah Shahidah Simmons. Let us talk in our own families and communities about violence. Let's make everyday International Women's Day.

winter blues & spring dreams

So I've been under a rock - February flew past me and now we are deep into March ("where in the world is all the time") and I'm so ready for winter to be over... dreaming of spring... tired of the cold. I've been terribly busy with teaching and writing and everything in between. I have some exciting projects and events coming up (will post more on those later). Meanwhile, I've been hard at work on my writing, and I had a great reading on March 6th. I performed at Rivers of Honey (a cabaret featuring women, two spirit and trans artists of color the first Friday of every month at WOW Cafe in NYC). It is such a supportive and affirming space - I wanted to be present in the moment and bring my energy, spirit, & passion through in my reading. And I think I was successful :) The evening reminded me of why its good to work in multiple mediums and venues in our art; that we must find balance and be in spaces that nurture growth.

I went home for a short visit last week - for warmth and of course to visit with my peeps/friends/fam. Had a wonderful time - I enjoy home so much, but every time I visit I am reminded of all that keeps me away from home. I leave sad with this longing to move back, but then fear sets in and I wonder if I can ever really move back home. Reasons dash through my head - the pros and cons, the stuff I can't share, the stuff that is hard to talk about... hard to fully explain - it's not just one thing - it's religion, it's christian fundamentalism, it's family shit, it's hyper male dominance, it's sexuality, and it's about how do I do the work I want to do - in the space of home - a space that can be so constricting, suffocating, narrow, and yet so amazing.

The amazing things are easy to list and remember and love... it's the other stuff that is hard to hear and hard to take. Stuff like - young men getting acquitted from murder charges using the "gay defense"; stuff like - The Bahamas is now the highest per capita in the world for sexual crimes and domestic violence, but somehow (some) people (Bahamian men) feel as if Bahamian women don't need any more rights; stuff like - "gayness" is a disease that you can catch; stuff like - (some) people are so threatened by sexuality and feminism and women who speak intelligently, that our words are dismissed before they are spoken.

I write these winter blues of home, winter blues of a desire for change, winter blues of a snapshot of my experience hearing/watching the filming of a Bahamian tv show with two young Bahamian men "debating" sexuality and homosexuality. I wanted to scream, but they could not hear me. They would not hear my female voice, my queer voice, my Bahamian voice; and so I did not speak, I was silent - for the first time in a REALLY long time, I held my tongue. I sat and watched and listened. It was not my platform, I told myself. It was not my time to speak. It was in fact my friend who was being interviewed, and so I silently rooted for her and sent her positive wibes through the show. I know my strengths, and dealing with quotes from The Bible and damnation is not one of them. Honestly, I was amazed at how she dealt with them with patience and intelligence, even as they were dismissive, combative, and condescending. This experience made me really understand the battles I would have to face living at home on a daily basis - not only because of my sexuality, but also because I am critical of organized religion & fundamentalism, and on top of everything, I have radical views about tourism and development (that counter dominant perspectives - I do not believe it is our savior), and my deep investment in feminist movement that is anti-racist and class conscious.

Not that I don't have (these) battles where I live now, and will no doubt have battles wherever I live. Homophobia and sexism are alive and well everywhere. So I'm not saying that it's so much better here than there. But what I have come to accept is that there are battles I am willing to fight and others I can't - at least not on the ground, at least not right now. And while I want to be home, I know that I will continue to do the work I want to do from wherever I am. I have to believe that I can make a difference through my writing, through my poetry, through my community work. I have to believe that I can be a part of change at home, even as I live abroad - my spirit is always home. So my spring dream is that I can be and live at home at some point... soon... But in the mean time, I'm gunna keep writing and working and saying the stuff that is hard to say. I will not hold my tongue.

I have felt how dangerous it is to be (outspoken) female, queer, Black, and feminist in all the spaces I have lived. But I'm gunna keep it movin' anyway. In the words of Audre Lorde, "it is better to speak, knowing we were never meant to survive." And so even as we speak, we must sustain ourselves and spirits first in order to be in healthy in the struggle and in all the work we do.