Tuesday, November 18, 2008

To my Sisters...

Every so often, I have to stop and check myself. Just to make sure, that "I," am still there. And even though “I” strays sometimes (What? I'm human!), it’s happening less and less on this journey of “me” upon which I embarked some time ago (Stay with me here, there’s a point coming!).

I saw this plaque on my neighbor's wall a while back and I asked her to let me scan it (see new, little picture in upper right hand corner of page). What it says is true on so many levels, not only for me, but for all of us - but particularly, for my Black and Latina sisters.

Reading the comments on my Valerie Jarret post today, I said to myself, “Man, Michelle Obama's behind is on the minds of quite a few people today!” I’d just read Erin Aubry Kaplan’s, "First lady got back at Salon a little while earlier. The piece began:

“I'm a black woman who never thought I'd see a powerful, beautiful female with a body like mine in the White House. Then I saw Michelle Obama -- and her booty!”

My first reaction was, “What the hell?!!” But I kept reading because I wanted to see what she had to say. Since Election Day especially, it seems the sleeping giant that has been the Black community, has awakened - awash in ObamaLove.

Much of it just makes me shake my damn head and sigh, understanding how having that “foot on our necks” for such a long time has seriously contorted the self-esteem of my people, particularly my sisters. Having a Deep South understanding of the psychology of that foot-on-our-neck thing, I get Ms. Kaplan’s exuberant celebration. But some things just jump up and slap me on the forehead sometimes, kinda like the new V-8 commercials.

Por ejemplo, Ms. Kaplan saying, “Michelle rose up like Venus on the waves…” Why is that so contorted you ask? Because of “The Sable Venus on the Middle Passage: Images of the Transatlantic Slave Trade" by Michael Vannoy Adams (see photo above). I think his version of “Venus on the waves” is decidedly more accurate than the one Ms. Kaplan is portraying and I’m with him on this one – pure contortion. Read it and decide for yourself.

All this butt-talk flooded my consciousness with yet another "Venus," a contortion of our self-esteem writ large in the life of Saartjie Bartmaan. I prefer to use her name despite the fact the English named her, Hottentot Venus,” - or maybe because of it. IMHO, the sordid fascination whites had/have with the way our bodies look is a direct correlation with the often negative and/or hyper-sexualized ways in which sisters of a darker hue, to this day, are viewed by others – and ourselves. We, myself included at times, tend to beat each other up, not over differences that are concrete and germane, but over the ever elusive idea of perfection that’s been hammered into our skulls by the patriarchal, white supremacy upon which this country was founded.

Just because those colonists broke away from England and founded this new country, doesn’t mean they totally overhauled their way of thinking. If they had, the Transatlantic Slave trade would never have happened and we would not have been considered chattel nor three-fifths persons in the Constitution around which we all rally as if it was initially written with us in mind. Hell, they needed free labor and four-legged livestock couldn't cook, clean, build or pick a damn thing!! But I digress.

While I attribute most of the contortion to patriarchal, white supremacy, I would be remiss if I did not mention the patriarchy of the African cultures from which our ancestors came. Patriarchy is patriarchy no matter the color and plenty brothers in this country engage in that same shit. Only difference is, as a result of slavery and Jim Crow, they’ve had theirs drenched in the white image of perfection. Hell, I get why sisters feel and express some self-hatred at times what with all these crazy messages twisting our self-esteem in the wind!

Though I’ve not read "African Queen: the Real Life of the Hottentot Venus" by Rachel Holmes, Marisa Meltzer’s January ’07 book review, “Venus Abused” helps to further my point about the contortion so deeply imbedded in the psyche of Black women. And for all the positivity her throaty celebration of Michelle Obama’s butt brings, this statement by Ms. Kaplan screams the opposite for me:

“It turns out that Sir Mix-A-Lot, he of "Baby Got Back" fame, was not a novelty but a prophet. Who knew? Give that guy a Cabinet post.”

I guess I can see, on some level, how she'd feel this is an appreciative tribute to our, uh, form but - a prophet??? I don't know about any of you, but I neither need, nor do I want the prophet's validation to appreciate my own behind! Meltzer makes a great point about this at the end of the review:

“Now we can scoff at the clueless Valley Girls in the intro to Sir Mix-A-Lot's asstastic "Baby Got Back" ("I mean, her butt, is just so big. I can't believe it's just so round, it's like, out there, I mean -- gross. Look! She's just so ... black!"), but does it mean that we've come a long way? In the simultaneous lasciviousness and curiosity we've lavished on Jennifer Lopez's posterior, have we never stopped searching for that scantily clad totem goddess after all? We can pat ourselves on the back and feel disgusted by the story, and yet what made people leer at Baartman has the same effect on us today.”

Now, here’s that point to which I alluded in the first paragraph. I know you’re glad I finally got to it with all my ramblings! To my sisters...

For too long in this country, patriarchy has been the - sometimes alabaster, sometimes not - “hand on the wheel,” driving the way Black women think about themselves and one another whether we want to admit it or not. And while I don’t feel one bit of guilt in ROFLMAO about a comparison to a little bird embryo or to Aunt Esther from Sanford & Son if the resemblance is uncanny (which it is for both women), we really need to stop allowing things borne out of patriarchy to pit us against each other - like brown paper bag tests and euro-centric ideas of beauty.

We certainly don’t all have to love each other, but I do think we need to respect each other enough to be clear about our reasons for not doing so. As I've walked along this journey of "me," I've learned to revel in the beauty of our differences and I continue to try very hard to draw my own line in the sand when it comes to the perpetuation of the patriarchy that has already so badly divided us. As I said earlier, I'm human (and a little over half-a-century old!), so I guarantee I will slip now and again. When I do, check me - we'll both be better for it.


brotherkomrade said...

This piece is wonderful. Thank you for this. I referred to the comments of the previous post, "All-Things-Obama" as being troublesome because neither poster, Catty or Sugar, brought any ideological or political issues to the table as to why they hate either of these women; but they wrote plenty about their appearance of all things.
Even if someone looked like Aunt Esther, why is Esther considered ugly? She is in the eyes Eurocentrists and assimilated self-hating people of color. If Michelle does have a big butt, (a mere part of her body) I ask Pastor "Porkchop" Manning and Sugar, why is that considered an offense and to whose eyes does the butt offendeth?

Deb said...

brotherkomrade...You're welcome and thank you. I'd started to reply to your comment with a comment, but I realized I was writing wa-a-a-y more than a comment. So I thought I'd dedicate the next post to you and the excellent point you raise. As you can tell from the last one, it'll probably take a while. Feel free to check back.

ea said...

My plea to our sisters is that we help each other, not tear each other down. That does not mean we have to agree all the time. That does not mean we let each other off the hook for things we should be held accountable.

Be women not girls.
Mirenlo y honrenlo, el poder de las mujeres.

Hi, brotherkomrade.

Deb said...

ea...¡Estoy de acuerdo contigo totalmente, porque hay tanto poder alli!! Please, help me out by correcting my humble attempts here! :-)

Divide and conquer has wreaked havoc among all who hold "minority status" in this country. And it works every time! Because the power is in the patriarchy, women of all ages and races seem particularly subject to its insidiousness I think. It's hard to overcome, but not impossible - if we all work at it. Like I said at the end of the post, check me when I slip. I welcome and expect it.

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