So what does a psychologically based, pop culture engineered, raping of the mind look like? I sponsored a retreat for college students called “Stirring the Pot” and students were asked to show us what messages society forces upon us about how women should be…Their work included visuals of body image, cosmetics, fashion, weakness, softness, beauty, diet, being ageless, and sex objects.
This is often the American box of womanhood. These messages are so deeply a part of our culture that sometimes its hard to see them as wrong…its difficult to tease out and understand how these images move you to behave and influence the way you think in a very unconscious way. The author bell hooks talks about how if you hold your hand before a flame and absorb the heat eventually your skin will burn, if you stay out in the sun and absorb its rays you will get dark. And if you continuously absorb visual and verbal messages from movies, ads, magazines, and music it will in some way effect you…some completely follow, others become so desensitized that they can dance to it or sing it in the car.
And what about those that do not fit in the box? I’m not talking about resistance yet, Im simply talking you literally and physically don’t fit the bill even if you wanted to. I’m talking about the spirit of Sojourner Truth…a woman that boldly stood up, declared, and claimed the fact that she did not fit the mold of a socially constructed femininity. And she then asked, “But Ain’t I a woman?” I guess that depends on how you define womanhood…what parameters you set on femininity. And today, I often ask this same question as movie after movie pours out of our popular culture painting the African American grandmother, the “Big Mama” figure as comical, buffoonish, and masculine. Whether it was
Martin Lawrence’s Big Mama
Tyler Perry’s Madea
Or Eddie Murphy’s Norbit
The way that women that don’t fit the mold are represented is disgusting. I read a deeper meaning. I see it signifying that to be a big, black woman is to be not seen as a woman at all—a man can play you in a movie. I’m offended by the way that Tyler Perry has made a joke of the very real racial experience that would cause an older black grandmother to carry a gun in her purse. One of my many grandmothers, Grandma Golston, ALWAYS had a gun in her purse—at Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas dinner, while walking down the street. The reasons why a black woman in the south would learn to carry a gun to protect herself and her children both outside and inside of the home are not funny. We’re talking about the realities of racial violence, a history of black women being raped, beaten, and murdered at will. We’re talking domestic violence and alcoholism…the many negative consequences that put black lives at risk—threatened. And I hear Sojourner’s whispers, “Aint I a Woman? Its not okay to present it without context—to make a joke of the women who first died before women like Grandma Golsten were taught to pack their purse.
Aint I a Woman?....Inspite of all that has been put against me; despite how easy it would be to just fold and follow...to just pick up the magazine and go buy the purse; to show the skin that everyone wants to see; to cut, straighten, fry, inject, starve ourselves to conformity; to not speak up or speak out; to not question…its easier to just sing along with the song; to go see the movie and laugh…to not be so uptight. It may be costly, it may literally be unhealthy but it is easy. Its easy to just relax…we all get tired of fighting.
But we don’t have to fight to resist…
A few years ago, I was teaching a class on the representations of women of color. During that semester, the NAACP nationally “buried” the N-Word. The campus was all a buzz with debates about the word. So we departed from the scheduled class topic and talked about this issue. In the end, I asked everyone to think about black people as a community and throw out to me all the words that come to mind. I ran out of board space as I wrote all of the words that they shouted. I asked them to look at that board, at all of the many words that we can call each other…and asked why were we spending so much energy fighting over one.
Why are we giving the negative even more face time? Why do we focus on fighting?
A few years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And everyone uses the language of fighting when they refer to cancer…”You’ll fight this”…”You’ll beat this!” My response was no…I’m not fighting anything. I’m going to love cancer out of my body. Meaning that I’m not just going to focus on cancer, I’m going to focus on loving those parts of my body that were so severely deprived of attention that they allowed cancer to develop. Healthier food, more exercise, vitamin supplements, meditation…Cancer developed because I wasn’t giving something inside of my body the love that it needed.
You see these are two very different approaches to working against something. When we focus on fighting something like cancer we are focusing on killing cancer. And that’s what chemotherapy does. After going through chemotherapy, what I know for sure is that there is a literal war going on in your body. Chemo kills everything in sight. So thanks to the chemo soldiers you win the war against cancer but you don’t feel well in the process. It kills both the bad and good. Your body is a casualty. It wears you out. And that’s what happens when we are in a constant state of rage against the machine. We may indeed “kill” a concept or idea or stereotype but we also kill a bit of ourselves in the process.
So when I talk about the ART of War, I’m not talking about a battle plan. I’m talking about authoring a formula of love. I don’t hate Tyler Perry. I hate the potentially negative consequences of his work. But it’s really not about him…its about focusing on and claiming the millions of ways that we can view womanhood, love womanhood, and be a woman. Its about giving our minds and our spirits the love they need to not be moved by anything society tries to plant there. It is a much more complex experience to deal with the internal…to wrestle with the question,
“Who am I really?”
“What type of woman do I really want to be?”
“What type of woman do I really want to love?”
“Do I truly appreciate the many dimensions of my woman friend?”
“Do I truly love myself…bare and plain?”
It’s an issue of the spirit. And it’s through the spirit that we resist. Resistance is a gut wrenching experience. You feel its importance in your gut. It’s when the negative constructs of society are literally eating away at your soul that we are inspired to create a politic of social critique…to author a recipe of resistance. This is why I use the kitchen as a metaphor in so much of my work. The kitchen as a metaphor is a space of resistance. It is a space where everyone belongs. You know how the social gatherings go…everyone gravitates to and hangs out in the kitchen. Even those that can’t cook…can eat. There is no marginality there…everyone is welcome. But the kitchen is also a creative space. It’s a space of innovation. To take dry ingredients and give them life, give them taste, give them a new sense of purpose is an amazing thing. And this is what we can do with ourselves. That’s what Grace Potter meant when she said, “There’s hope for me again.” We can cook up a new image of what it means to be a woman. We can stir the pot of pop culture and shake loose its hold on our psyche. I love the imagery of the kitchen, of home, of family as space of resistance—philosophically and literally. Family is a space and venue through which we learn the most basic forms and images of resistance through their model and their lived experience.
My mother is a large black woman…I always saw her as beautiful, intelligent, and skilled. We need to resist the notion that leaders, educators, and artisans reside outside of the homestead. My own parents never went to college but they were brilliant examples of how to make ends meet when both ends are ragged and cut short. Before Suze Orman, for me, there was Bennie and Joyce. They never made more than 40k total household income a year, but we never wanted for anything. They never had debt—ever. They never lived above their means. So when school trips, instruments, and other opportunities were crucial we could always “afford it.” They were brilliant financial advisors. And beyond that, my mother was a teacher that also sewed clothes, grew gardens, and cooked incredible meals. We didn’t go to art museums as a family but undoubtedly art was a domestic experience for me…if you saw her gardens you would agree it is a work of art. It is a show of love. It is a form of resistance. My mother, like Sojourner grew up farming and she like sojourner can labor as hard as any man. My father was never the one to do the household repairs…renovate a kitchen, fix doors or the plumbing…that was my mom. But cooking was also my mom. She fed our family by growing and cooking good food. I now realize how important cultivating health is for your family. My mother was her full and authentic self. She never felt the need to choose an identity…her success was experiencing all of it…not privileging the help that she gave others over the help that she offered to her own family.
In all of my classes, I have my students write cultural self-portraits…a paper that tells their cultural life story. This has become my signature form of data collection for my research and they are all incredible to read. I thought of one portrait in particular as I prepared this speech. One student shared how his grandmother intentionally did not teach his mother to cook to ensure that she wouldn’t be confined to the role of homemaker…you can’t be what you can’t do. I understand the ethic behind his grandmother’s actions—and it is one form of resistance. It was her bold way of opening up hope and opportunity for her child. It was undoubtedly an act of love. But I do still lovingly challenge the ethic of what was being resisted. This is another way that we have fallen prey to society’s propaganda. In our society, professional life and careers are privileged and domesticity and the homestead is often devalued. The ways in which both men and women have been encouraged to sacrifice time at home so that they can overwork for their employer is draining our quality of life. In effort to experience liberation, many women began to view the home as an oppressive environment and sought more in their lives. I just question if it has to be an either career or family scenario rather than trying to embrace both work and home.
I think we need to resist the idea that to spend time cooking and cleaning for your family, whether you work outside of the home or not, requires you to sacrifice who you are. We need to resist the pressure to resist the kitchen. The kitchen is one of the most important rooms in the house. It is literally the life-blood, the link to our health. I’ve spent many years transitioning to a vegetarian, organic, lifestyle. And with my significant health challenges, I know for sure that the kitchen is as important as my doctor’s office. Some days are good, some entire weeks are a challenge…but I know that in general I am doing okay because of the food that I am eating…whole plant based food, nothing processed, nothing boxed or microwaved, knowing the exact nutrients that I need each day and giving them to my body as a gift. When you are preparing a meal for your family you are doing more than just making meatloaf you are chopping, blending, and stewing the gift of life. Spiritually you are doing more than cooking a casserole you are feeding hungry bodies. And in a spirit of servitude hungry bodies count even if they are in your own home. Many folks will volunteer at a soup kitchen feeding the homeless a healthy meal and grab McDonalds for their own family on the way home. What is that? Whether they are oppressed or privileged all hungry bodies deserve healthy whole food. The kitchen is the last place we need to resist. And one of the most essential and important lessons all of us will learn is how to cook….it’s a skill that goes a very long way.
Our families give us counter images counter narratives of womanhood. Our families show us that we can be all that society tells us that we can’t be and still be a woman.
Because of our families we resist
Through our art…whether its the artful way that we live our lives, the domestic beauty that we create in our homes, or the incredible way that we make words come alive in our conversations and cultural production…we express…we speak…we stand…we love…we laugh…we cry… and we resist. To resist such strong and deeply ingrained ideals will take a lot of arguing, talking, laughing and crying. Good thing we’ve got home training…
And that’s all we really need…