Strong Black Women are Women Too

Ironically, I’m writing a post decrying ‘angry black women’ because I’m feeling bitter and black tonight. It’s been a tough couple weeks for American Blacks with both Mike Brown and Eric Garner joining the scores of black people killed at the hands of police. On a depressing episode of the Read the hosts tried to keep our spirits up with news of Black Excellence. To support beautiful black women, I went out to buy the new W Magazine with Iman on the cover, but it wasn’t out yet, instead I bought a copy of bitch magazine with an article on ‘the Myth of the Strong Black Woman.’ In it, Tamara Winfrey Harris describes the myth of the sassy no-nonsense ladies, “the cold, overeducated, work obsessed woman” who is “half as likely to marry as white women.”

I just finished reading Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Americanah,’ which lived up to all the hype, as far as I’m concerned. I was excited to hear what my Slate friends had to say on the Audio Book Club (like all podcast listeners I have an imagined relationship with them) and was so disappointed to hear their criticisms. While I loved the book, I think there are many things you can criticize it for. I too felt like the romance was not the strongest part of the book. But The Audio Book Club argued that it wasn’t believable that such a strong female protagonist would do something so weak, selfish and cruel. Emily Bazelon, friend to the blacks was the strongest champion of this opinion. I am so disappointed that these critics, even after reading a book that exposes and challenges these stereotypes, could not get past the idea of the strong black woman. It was unebelievable to them that a woman could be strong in her sense of self, but be ‘weak’ or vulnerable. Haven’t they seen the new stereotype of a woman who has it together in her work life, but can’t get it together in her personal life (have they missed Mindy’s character on the Mindy Project)?

What will it take to convince people to stop thinking of black people as animals? We are strong women, we have to be to withstand the racism and sexism of this culture. Some American blacks come from a line of women who survived the middle passage, who survived the back-breaking work of slavery. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel pain the same as whites. We are independent and capable, but we aren’t invincible. Strength should not be the only positive attribute a black woman can own, we are sensitive and vulnerable too and this is not weakness, this is powerful, this is what it means to be human.

Updated 10/13/14:

In which other white people on slate have trouble understanding why black people idolize white people (hint: there are a lot more white people in the US to idolize than black ones):

from the Gawker Review of Books Interview of Charles Blow:

First comes the recognition that we are devaluing black and brown bodies. And that that is not even a new phenomenon, that that is an extension of an American phenomenon, in fact it is even a world phenomenon. There is a mountain of social science that ranges from doctors not prescribing pain medication to black kids at the same rate as they do for white kids with similar illnesses to spanking being more prevalent among black boys. When you think about that body, and the violence that it must endure—

Right, like the word Ta-Nehisi Coates’s constantly used in his reparations essay, “plunder.” It’s similar to what he was getting at. I keep thinking about how there is not only always something coming at us, but something being taken from us.

Right. And endurance becomes this ambient thing in your life; it becomes your constant. It is not just to play and grow up and fall in love, but it is to endure. It becomes the paramount motivation in your life. The tragedy when you hear young men say, Oh I never thought I’d be 18 or 21 without going to jail or being in the grave. I’ve heard this too much. If that is being drilled into your mind, what kind of psychological damage does that do to you, and to your relationship to society? And in addition to that, whatever damage is being done, society is amplifying the damage by misconstruing the data and concepts so that we overestimate black crime, we overestimate black hostility, we overestimate black aggression. We ascribe it everything dark and negative. In that kind of hostile milieu of black bodies that have been tortured in a way, in a system that is designed to destroy it, these concepts of black being dangerous and wrong, you can have the unfortunate crossing of those wires and you get shootings. I don’t know how to fix that. I don’t know if I’m equipped to answer that.

Maybe not “fix,” but you’re in a very powerful post at the Times. You have a platform every week to talk about whatever you want, or at least what’s topical in the news, do you—

Well, my job is to shine a light. Illuminating and educating as best I can is the tool that I have. Other people have different tools. And hopefully they can use what I do in their advocacy, in their boots-on-the-ground sort of work in neighborhoods, changing minds person to person. Other than that, I’m not sure how it changes.

On Criticism

I wish that I could tell you that it’s all alright
Glass of the Microscope – Yeasayer

I like to think that I’m all about tough love and hard truths. When it comes to self awareness, everyone has their blind spots, and I tend to think that it’s the job of a good friend to help you see them. I think if someone asked you whether you wanted to know the thing that was holding you back, almost everyone would say yes, they want to know what their thing is. But not everyone wants to know, even if they say they do. Harsh criticism is hard to take, especially from a friend (a good friend of mine sent me a critical email 3 months ago that I’m still processing it).

When it comes to harsh criticism, what are the exceptions, is it okay to criticize the dead? is it ever okay to tell someone you don’t like their art? In a way, since you’re not criticizing their person, but something they did, it should be easier. But in our culture, art is such an extension of someone’s personhood that it’s never really appropriate.

There has been a spate of articles about book criticism lately, on one side is Slate’s case for more critical critics and Dwight Garner for the New York Times Magazine, while Laura Miller at Salon and Heidi Julavits at the Believer make the case against harsh criticism and snark in their field. Miller argues that there should be an exception for fledgling writers, people don’t read that many books anymore and it does more harm than good to squash these new authors before they get their bearrings. While Julavits argues that no one should review a book until they write one (To hear a great wrap-up of the debate check out the Slate Culture Gabfest). With art especially, there is a particularly vile type of criticism that says ‘this isn’t even art‘. There are certain contexts where it’s considered a matter of taste, and others where it isn’t. I think I tend to be on the side of hard truths but I think it’s not a coincidence that the call to be harsher is coming from men, and the call to be nicer is coming from women. This isn’t because women are thin-skinned and can’t take criticism, I think it’s because they know what it’s like to be on the outside in an industry that still privileges men’s opinion.

Let’s look at criticism in a field I know a little more about. I’ve never wanted to be a writer or a literary critic, but I love music and particularly music analysis. It’s no secret that my favorite band of the past 10 years is Yeasayer. I’ve been anxiously anticipating their new album which dropped this week. The album was panned by Spin and Pitchfork, two of the most respected music magazines. Reviews matter (someone once told me something about the Beach Boys that has tainted almost every listen since), you internalize other peoples’ tastes and they become your own. But what are these magazines really saying? Maybe pitchfork’s reviewers are as racist and sexist as their readers. Yeasayer’s may be too gay for them. I had a friend who wrote reviews and someone criticized him for referring to many albums as ‘the best I’ve heard all year.’ He stood by his statements, arguing that music doesn’t hurt, if you listen to an album once and don’t like it, it’s not the end of the world, you didn’t waste any time, no harm no foul. I agree with Julia Turner on the Gabfest, you don’t have to listen to every album, (or read every book), be discerning in what you review, then you can be as harsh as you want.

It struck me on a second listening to the Gabfest that this can also be framed as an East Coast vs. West Coast Debate. Although born in Boston, Dave Eggars has become a distinctively West Coast literary figure, as has his magazine McSweeny’s is one of the few major magazines published in California and NOT New York. It’s a classic debate between the straight talking New York art critic and the laid back California surfer/stoner/hippie. Coming from Oakland, I feel it’s the best of both worlds, it’s sunny California for sure, but maintains its urban grit and certainly a diversity of opinion. I like to think this represents my views, I can take the harsh truths but only in the warmth of the supportive sun.

p.s. Apologies to the Russian’s Mom, no wedding pictures, just decided to go meta.