On Top?: 21st Century Black Women Handling Business

I strolled into the boardroom looking like Olivia Pope’s baby sister. Hair laid. Makeup just left of perfect. I had low, polite heels that Coretta Scott King herself would have worn proudly. The room was spacious, the atmosphere, frigid but polite. In the middle of the conversation, I realized that I was the only black person there, one of the only women present, the youngest by far, and–due to a conversation we had–the one with the most education.

Bars from Kanye West’s “Mama I Made it” played in my head while they made polite chit chat. It was the last moment of the meeting where I felt *that* good, however. In a short period of time, I fielded racist and sexist comments and gestures.

*

The climb up to the top of the mountain was always steep for me. You all know the tale: working class turned upper middle class, scholarship kid, hard work and miracles opening up doors my Daddy’s pocketbook couldn’t. And suddenly, I stumbled out of a PhD program, a little wrinkled, a little tired, but not much worse for wear.

I’m sure that older women told me that, regardless of if I was in a boardroom or classroom, I would find a viper’s nest of isms. Racism. Classism. Sexism. And yes, even pesky Ageism. I knew it. I studied it. Didn’t I dedicate my life to black women’s experiences as expressed through literature and popular culture?

But I never, ever, truly experienced the bile that rises when one hears something bitterly racist, presented as absolute fact.

 

 

Nor had I experienced hearing a racist statement, while facing the ridiculousness of being silenced–a sexist move–at the same dang time.

 

Nor was I ever forced to maintain a polite look of agreement to ideas that were egregious.

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Nor was I ever asked to present racist, neoliberal ideas as my own.

It felt as though a noose around my neck was tightening. I am used to academic freedom. I am used to working with people who respect my beliefs as a Christian, and a black feminist. I am used to people being silent when I speak, and respectfully and thoughtfully responding to my ideas.

I am not used to being silenced. I am not used to feeling powerless in my own skin. I am not used to stopping myself from visibly recoiling from the advances of a man in a professional setting. I am not used to jealous, passive aggressive comments made about my PhD.

*

If you’re a fan of any of the shows I mentioned two weeks ago, such as How to Get Away with Murder, Empire, Scandal, or Being Mary Jane, you know that the black female leads all are facing trials (both literal and figurative) of their own. Annalise Keating was on trial for the murder of her husband.

Cookie has to fight for everything in her profession or in love.

Ms. Pope, the character that wields the most political power, was sold on the black market.

And Mary Jane keeps wetting the bed.

 

They are all financially well off and good looking. Yet, each one of them is in highly dysfunctional relationships with coworkers, family members and lovers. The creators of these shows have a responsibility to create drama we respond to, of course; however, there is also a nugget of truth to these narratives.

From where I sit, with all the other PhDs, MDs, Directors, Managers, and the rest of impossibly important positions, I know that black women on top are remarkably privileged. Most of us have money and nice homes. However, we also occupy contentious spaces.  We are the only black people/ the only women (or the only black women) in the boardrooms, hospitals, and in college classrooms (THERE ARE ONLY 17 BLACK PROFESSORS IN THE U.K. 17.)

We are often asked, quite problematically, to be representatives of an entire race and gender of people–thus negating millions of individual experiences. We are forced into silence, or dealing with the circumstances of speaking out, when coworkers make racist or sexist jokes.

Because of our presence in a company, misguided people think that the company is diverse, or that “black people made it” or “women made it,” when there is still so much work to be done.

Some of us have healthy romantic relationships, but there are still some whose relationships with family members, friends, and romantic partners have been severely compromised due to the struggle to stay on top.

The problem with being on top of the mountain is that the air is thinner. There is less support. Shoot, some women, regardless of race, would throw you off the mountain themselves so they can continue to maintain trophy status. I’m painfully aware that some of the men grinning in my face are doing so because they think I’m attractive, not because they’re excited about the quality of my work.

Maybe the best part of being on top is having the option of leaving a situation that doesn’t suit you. After that meeting, I smiled, shook everyone’s hand, and walked out the door to a much better opportunity.

Dr. RJD

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my kanye moment

I’m supposed to post another essay about 21st century black womanhood, but I’m still irritated by Beyonce’s performance of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” I’m irritated that Ledisi wasn’t on that stage, doing her own, haunting rendition, which still gives me chills.

 

I’m irritated that there are a bunch of articles saying that Beyonce was amazing. Just because a black woman can sing, and sing well, doesn’t mean she can saaaang like she’s in church. I’m irritated these people didn’t better acquaint themselves with Mahalia Jackson or Aretha Franklin or Shirley Caesar.

I’m irritated that people attempt to appropriate the black church and throw it on top of everything. The black church is not bacon. You cannot just take a tambourine, and take a black person, give them a mic, and think you’re in church.

And I’m TIRED of black people being called in to get everybody hype. Black artists do all the hard work of bringing a great show and energy, without any formal recognition for it. Beyonce’s Drunk in Love was good, but the thoughtfulness and hard work she put into her album, not to mention the sales, deserved better attention.

And, since I’m complaining, I’m irritated that Ava Duvernay wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award as Best Director for Selma.

Is it me, or does 21st century black power seem limited? Yes, we can buy records, and we can go to the movies, but we aren’t really on the awards boards, voting. And our stories are rarely awarded because those voting have no context to understand the narrative presented to them. It is so much easier to see beauty in something familiar. The stories which use, recycle, or update trite stereotypes are praised, but ones that attempt to break those stereotypes don’t get shine.

Don’t get me wrong: the NAACP Awards is great. It is so necessary to value the art that reflects the experiences of African Americans and other black people in the USA. But no one ever grows up thinking, “I want one of those.” They grow up thinking, “I want an Oscar. I want a Golden Globe. I want a Grammy.”

We’re still on the outside, folks. Except for Beyonce. She’s on the inside, singing to all the folks who have never, ever heard a real gospel song.

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Ms. Pope, MJ, Cookie, Boo Boo Kitty & ‘Nem: 21st Century Black Women on the Small Screen

In 2000, I was a skinny 15 year old girl who loved to watch Felicity and Dawson’s Creek. The scripted series representing black familial life such as Family Matters, The Cosby Show, and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air disappeared by 1998. With a decidedly whitewashed television line-up, I compared myself to Joey and Felicity instead of Laura and Rudy.

15 years later, however, I’m a 30 year old who anticipates the season 2 premiere of Being Mary Jane. I’m hooked on Blackish, Empire, Scandal, and How To Get Away with Murder. All of the shows feature beautiful, powerful black women, somewhere between their 30s and late 40s, determined to take over their respective fields while rocking fierce hair, outfits, and usually breaking hearts in the process.

It is empowering for me to see so many different representations of black women on television.

I get chills when Cookie says what everybody’s been thinking, especially when she’s talking to “Boo Boo Kitty.”

As an avid watcher of these shows, I’m a part of a larger community of people who are interested in what these characters will do next. It isn’t enough to watch the shows; we tweet about them, post memes on Instagram, hold watch parties and have excited conversations over drinks.

 

Representations of black women’s lives in popular media are important. At a time when black people are unfairly targeted by police enforcement, and sometimes killed, it is important to remind the world that there are black women who have interesting and varied lives, that we’re human. We’re flawed and make mistakes.

Except–we don’t really want the world knowing that we’re flawed and make mistakes, do we? There is always some lingering complaint about the representation of black women on these television shows. On Scandal, Olivia Pope slept with the President of the United States,  and had the nerve to reject the black man who watched her straighten her hair. Mary Jane made some “ratchet” decisions by continuing to sleep with married men. Cookie loves her son, who is rejected by his father because of his sexuality; however, she hurls slurs at him and his boyfriend, almost non-stop. So Olivia and Mary Jane are critiqued for being overly sexual with married men, for being the side-piece, and never the wife.

We cut Cookie a side eye for hate language and wish she would tone it down. But we never celebrate Bow Johnson, the loving, zany Doctor, wife and mother.

In other words, we’re here to critique, to shut down, and slam the writers for showing black women who make decisions that most consider immoral. Yet, when there is a ‘respectable’ character, we don’t loudly celebrate them.

Let me be real: Respectability is not fun to watch. Nobody wants to tune in and watch someone do everything right. We love the drama. We love watching Mary Jane get drunk and ride around in Uber, show up to David’s house and yell at him for choosing a white woman after he dated her. The writers of these television shows are walking a razor thin path. They are representing what they believe is real about black women’s lives; however, they also have to satiate the desire of upper middle class black viewers who want to see glimpses of bourgeoisie respectability. 

By representing flawed versions of black womanhood, the writers of these television series demonstrate the individuality of these black women. They’re pushing the boundaries so that, when Olivia Pope sleeps with the President, she isn’t necessarily doing something that all black women would do. She’s doing what Olivia Pope would do. And when Mary Jane goes after a married man, she’s not doing something that all black women would do. She’s doing what Mary Jane would do.

Each of these characters display autonomy. They make decisions we disagree with or, at times, don’t even understand. We need not think that they are a stand-in for all black women. 

After all, that’s one of the many benefits to having  so many black woman characters on the small screen. It’s the 21st century. There are so many famous black women on the small screen that the white people I meet no longer have to compare me to Oprah. Or to any of these women. I have the opportunity to just be me: an autonomous, fully human individual.

Dr. RJD

This month, I’ll explore different aspects of 21st century black womanhood. Look out for another entry next Monday night!

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the “blizzard” of 2015

the van chugged through the snow-slogged streets. shovels, salt and ice breakers rattled around in a cavernous trunk. our silence was a collective prayer to God; we would not die on unclean roads. we slowed to a stop in front of our old house, and wildly cleared the sidewalk and stairs for tenants still snug in their beds. our voices rang out on the quiet street. a cop car did donuts in a Wendy’s parking lot.  the bodegas were still open. they were lighthouses on streets where houses were shuttered against the wind.

Photo by Jaime Rojo

writers need snow days too. we need the time to recuperate, to curl up and read a good book, to pack snow between mittened hands and hurl it at a sibling, to un-freeze in the bosom of a home, with the boiler and fireplace roaring in competition, to drink too much hot chocolate and eat slightly burnt bacon with thick slices of fresh bread and pads of real butter. we need hours to sleep and laugh and talk and worship and live.

the artist must be fed.

Dr. RJD

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Ingredients for a Perfect Sunday

1. Adventure on Saturday night. Friends. Frenetic dancing to live trumpets and drums. A DJ that takes you back to BedStuy, 1998.

2. Move in the Spirit to 19th century hymns. Picture the cross. Feel its power. Remember Jesus.

Selah.

3. Laugh with the sharply dressed brothers after service. Sit before the wisdom of the older sisters.

4. LAID Edges. Eyebrows on FLEEK. High heels.

5. Home. Spareribs and crispy chicken, gooey Mac and cheese still hot to the touch. Loud laughter and testifying to the goodness of Jesus.

6. Drive. Ten minute love song on WBLS. Windows cracked. Air sharp, eyes squinting against the sun.

7. Beach and rocks and wet sand.

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joy.

Dr. RJD

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in celebration of #blackswag

I’m still energized after watching last night’s State of the Union address. Of course, President Obama has always been an excellent orator who is a pleasure to watch. Even if you disagree with his statements, his poise and the conviction with which he speaks makes me want to be a more active participant in building a better America.

I know. That was a little sappy.

The Republican majority who desperately wants to see Obama leave cheered loudly when he announced, “I have no more campaigns to run.” President Obama’s rejoinder, “I know ’cause I won both of ‘em,” was epic. And it was the perfect example of black swag.

Black swag: when a black person’s dress, gestures, stance or statements remind everybody of his/her superiority. It’s a reassertion of power through style.

This is what Swag Looks Like

Now, I know people have called Obama’s statement ‘sassy’. But I suggest that his stance, his cut eye, and the quickness of that put down, is a little bit more than ‘sassy.’ It’s a one-liner worthy of Jay-Z, or Denzel. Obama’s statement reminded everyone that, whether or not they liked him, or his leadership, he is still the President.

And if that’s not #blackswag, I don’t know what is. Dr. RJD

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Flawless?: Makeup Sorcery + the Fragility of Perfection

A few months ago, little black girls stopped me at the library. They shyly approached me while my head was buried in books, and said, “we like your hair,” giggled and ran off. I heard them whisper, “it’s so long,” in awe. I never had a chance to tell them that it was fake. I regret not telling them that they, too, could grow or buy hair just as long as my own.

I spent most of my childhood lamenting my appearance. I knew I was pretty at 5 years old, but between 8 and 18, longed for skin that wasn’t marked up by acne, teeth that weren’t perpetually crooked, a tummy that didn’t poke out and over ugly jeans, hair that would be bone straight and shiny instead of wavy. I was in awe of older, prettier girls like Tatyana Ali, whose beauty seemed unattainable.

I’m keenly aware how the current day standards of beauty can make little girls feel inadequate. I wrote about it here. Shoot, most of the women on Instagram make *me* feel inadequate, and I’m a grown woman. The collection of images, when seen together, can be an assault on one’s self-esteem.

Nikki from Love and Hip Hop Hollywood

Further, terms like “bad b****es” and “basics” are cruelly used to mark those who come close to society’s version of physical perfection, and those who do not. Both terms are derogatory and exacerbate competition between women (usually) for a man’s attention. With even some career experts suggesting that all women should get plastic surgery to get ahead in their careers, it appears that natural beauty is still under attack.

The only way to counteract the onslaught of these images is to be transparent–to make visible the ways in which women become beautiful. Unfortunately, the images that demonstrate how women become beautiful through the addition of makeup, hair, waist trainers, and fake butts are framed as examples of ‘sorcery’.

“waist training”

underwear butt lifts

before and after on “Makeup Sorcery Men Should Be Aware of”

The way these pictures are framed encourage others to ridicule a woman in her ‘natural state. The headlines read, “Men Beware!”–problematically assuming that the person photographed did this solely for the attention of men.

According to these articles, and the comments that follow, men feel injured that a woman would ‘lie to them’ through the creative use of makeup/hair/girdles. Women commenting on these sites rush to protect their own reputations by saying “I never had to do all that to be pretty”.

Furthermore, the pictures increasingly value smaller noses, lighter skin, tiny waists, and large butts and breasts–a mashup of different types of racial beauty. One of my best friends is convinced that all the plastic surgery and contouring is an attempt at ethnic cleansing.

We don’t value women as they are. The expectations of beauty keep escalating so that only a few can attain them. Women are expected to be naturally pretty when they wake up, and when they fall asleep, and they have to be super intelligent, and they have to know how to cook in 8 inch heels, and they have to run to the plastic surgeon to make parts of their bodies larger, and run to the gym to make other parts of their bodies smaller.

Women have the right to do whatever they want to be beautiful–but we must be thoughtful in the ways we present our choices to little girls, many of whom have fragile egos, who are struggling to come into their own. Let’s not forget that Judy Blume’s Margaret was praying to God for larger breasts, and Toni Morrison’s Pecola was desperate for blue eyes. When the beauty standards keep changing, we have to remember to tell our little girls that they are beautiful just as they are.

One of my goals in 2015 is to be more transparent, especially with teenage girls who are feeling awkward about what they perceive as their physical imperfections.

This is what I would tell any girl about these pictures:

 I never wake up like this.

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    I’m not at all flawless.

That’s not my hair–it’s a human hair and synthetic blended wig, and you better be sure I took it off before I went to sleep. My skin looks lighter than it is because of the bright light in my apartment. I’m wearing foundation, liner, and mascara. I use Colgate Whitening, but my teeth look that white because my lipstick–Mac’s “Ruby Woo” is really, really red. Underneath my coat is an atrocious outfit. I was wearing leggings, a shirt that sports a tiny hole in it, a zip up parka and snow boots that survived 6 Western Mass winters. The whole affair made me look like a mom on a coffee run, and meant that I lost the silent competition between me and the other girls at the bar, who had the good sense to wear cute clothes and earrings. But I was smiling so hard because I got to spend time with my dear friends, because my ugly snow boots didn’t at all matter, and because I was happy that I stumbled into the life I have now.

In fact, this is how I look when I go to sleep: in an old, beat up hoodie, my hair tied up, and t-shirt, with no makeup on whatsoever.

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I will never be perfect or flawless when I go to bed, or when I wake up, and that’s okay. In fact, as I get older, my skin will wrinkle. My physical beauty will fade over time, and I will turn less heads when I walk down the street. I’m not afraid, though, because as a former ugly duckling, I learned to invest in all the other things that make me beautiful: my indefatigable spirit, intelligence, positive energy, sense of humor, and belief in God.

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.–Proverbs 31:30.

Dr. RJD

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