“This is what a Black Feminist looks like” t-shirt, August 24, 2018. (http://youtube.com).
It’s been a different last year and a half for me as a reader. With the exception of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, a woman of color has been the author of every book I’ve read since January 2017. Keep in mind, Cora is the main character in Whitehead’s latest masterpiece, so it’s been since Walter Mosley’s last Leonid McGill mystery that I’ve read a book with a Black man as a protagonist.
This wasn’t a deliberate decision, at least at first. It started with me catching up on law professor Patricia J. Williams‘ critical race theory works from the 1990s, especially The Alchemy of Race and Rights (1992). I fell in love with the book, and found it in so many ways better than anything I’ve ever read from Derrick Bell. Williams is simply a better writer and storyteller, even as Bell hit all the right notes in his incredible allegories. Both have informed my Al Jazeera and Washington Post articles over the past year.
Then I started reading Roxane Gay at the end of last summer. I was going to do both Bad Feminist and Hunger, but after reading through the first chapters of Hunger, my wife ended up reading it and telling me about it in detail. I did the same for her with Bad Feminist. There was quite a bit of overlap on the personal side of things from both books. But boy can Gay write, and edit, and edit, and edit some more! Every word she must’ve put through an acid test, quenched in cold water like a samurai sword, then reheated, cooled, and polished for months on end. In recent years, only Whitehead and Kiese Laymon have polished sentences the way Gay does in her books. I felt her hurt, disappointment, anger, laughter, and intellect throughout. After reading it, even in places where I disagreed, I felt like Gay left me with so much to chew on as a sexist feminist heterosexual Black man.
I picked up Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage in May. It was after reading Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah in early 2018. Cottom’s book is so important, especially in understanding that higher education is far from some idealistic and lofty intellectual enterprise. It is lightly regulated capitalism, plain and simple, and not just among the for-profits, either (more on this at some future date). Cottom makes a generous use of rational-choice theory in her assessment of the limited range of decisions poor Black men and especially African American women living with poverty have in choosing for-profits for certificates and degrees, and for borrowing tens of thousands of dollars.
The book shines when Cottom touches on the journeys of the students she interviewed as part of her research. But like most scholars, Cottom’s writing didn’t bridge the divide between important work and compelling writing. I’m sure that this is an unfair assessment. But given the importance of Cottom’s sociology of education work and the stories involved in it, I wanted more direct interrogation of the systemic sexism and misogyny (even misogynoir) embedded in the enrollment practices of for-profit colleges and universities. I wanted more of Cottom’s personal journey (and not just her professional one). I’m sure, though, that Cottom gave her best, and it was more than what I could typically get out of text genuinely attempting to move beyond the academic’s gaze.
Adichie’s work was disappointing. Not because Americanah isn’t reasonably well written. It’s just too long, too centered on Ifemelu (about ninety percent of the book is from her perspective, when the blurbs make it seem a bit more even between Ifemelu and Obinze), and too self-centered, smug, and elitist. I felt all of the meanings of outsider embedded in Americanah to be sure. As a American Black man, I’ve been an outsider even among other heterosexual Black males most of my life. Adichie doesn’t allow for her main character to interrogate her outsider status, though. As a result, Ifemelu related to her American boyfriends in the most superficial of ways, as if they were perfect robotic representations of neurotic Americans. She related to the world as if she was somehow above it all, both in the US and Nigerian contexts. I guess heterosexism was as acceptable in Ifemelu’s world as it has been in Adichie’s comments in the past couple of years. I must admit, though. Adichie can write sex scenes and scenes of trauma in emotionally demanding and touching ways. But not with the precision of Whitehead and Gay, and not with the intellectual awareness of Cottom.
So when I picked up Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, I was expecting to be fighting with myself over boredom and a glut of words. I was so happy to be so wrong! Right from the first paragraph, Cooper was throwing fastball’s like Nolan Ryan and Vida Blue, or rather, hitting first-serve aces like Serena and Venus Williams. Cooper had me at “[t]his is a book by a grown-ass woman written for other grown-ass women. This is a book for women who expect to be taken seriously and for men who take grown women seriously. This is a book for women who know shit is fucked up.” She welcomed me in and said, “hit this 130 mph serve, brotha!” I couldn’t stop reading until I finished the book. I understood so much the struggles she described and the choices she and others made as Black women. I felt her pain, her joy, her anger, and yes, her rage throughout. I regularly interrogate my -isms as is. But Cooper helped me reach another level in Eloquent Rage (all premature hints at Beyoncé’s superhero feminism aside).
After Cooper, I made the deliberate decision to read more feminists of color this summer. I read Morgan Jerkins‘ This Will Be My Undoing and found her a wonderful writer on her coming of age with her own Black feminism, if a bit too young (I am middle-aged, after all). I finally read Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens and wanted to beat up every man she and the women she interviewed encountered over the years. It was compelling (if at times uneven) reading, and it left everything in question regarding the West, Islam, the Arab world and misogyny. There were no sacred cows with Eltahawy. She even addressed her relative privilege in addressing the latticework of gender, LGBT, and sexual oppression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UK, the US, and elsewhere in the world. I wish I had gotten to her book three years ago, when it first came out.
I snuck in Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s book on Ona Judge, Never Caught. I’d been wanting to read it since I heard Dunbar talk about it on WAMU’s The Kojo Nmandi Show Valentine’s Day 2017. Plus, I decided to assign it for my upcoming African American History to 1877 this semester at American University. Dunbar puts the use of narrative nonfiction writing to the test in Never Caught. I can only imagine what my academic historian colleagues would think, as most of their writing is the equivalent of a pressed protein bar made of unflavored soy powder and coated with ground mealworms. Although Dunbar provides many more questions than answers around the inner thoughts and everyday actions of George and Martha Washington eventual escaped slave, I did sense that Dunbar was converting research into a form of textual humanity. So much so that when the moment for Judge to escape came, I said, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Dunbar compelled me not to be too excited, though. For “Judge knew that…She would transform from a trusted house slave for the most powerful American family to a criminal, guilty of stealing her own body away from her owners.” (p. 112).
Embedded in Dunbar’s narration are the issues I’d been reading about for the past year. Misogyny, misogynoir, enslavement, rights to one’s own body, intersectionality, American history and its mythologies, and the long legacy of American racism, still very much alive in 2018, as it was in 1789 and 1796. To be sure, Dunbar lacks Gay’s precision, and the passion found everywhere with Cooper and Eltahawy is more subdued in Dunbar’s work. But the latter is only true if readers choose to ignore the smoldering billows throughout.
I finished up this month with Ijeoma Oluo’s So you want to talk about race, a primer on basic do’s, don’ts, and don’t-give-ups, regarding starting and sustaining conversations on race and racism in an American context. After the previous reads, I hoped for more, but there wasn’t any more for me to mine as a reader. There were several points, though, where a more careful edit would have made this a clearer read. As a blogger for the past eleven years, I have no room to talk regarding editing. Then again, I presently do not have an agent or editors looking over my work, either.
My biggest criticism (which actually isn’t a criticism) is that the book is geared toward the White man or White woman who believes themselves to be a liberal, colorblind non-racist. Because this is Oluo’s stated intent, her book reads as if I’m an outsider to my own topic. The compelling personal issues with which Oluo contends around race and intersectionality (specifically, Black feminism and relative privilege) aren’t well treated until the last quarter of the book. As someone who once help manage a national social justice fellowship program, I wasn’t expecting to learn anything particularly new about starting and sustaining conversations on race and racism. I hoped, though, to learn more about Oluo, to find her writing more impassioned, to see her use real punch in bringing to bear the reasons that race conversations quickly devolve into White accusations of “reverse racism.” The elements are there, but weren’t mined in sufficient quantities to make this book more than a “Race/Racism Conversations for Dummies,” I’m afraid, for me.
That’s not to say that nothing resonated at all. Oluo early on hits at a theme common to everyone I’ve read over the past eighteen months. That need to find one’s true, authentic voice. Those moments when the people you know now find your writer’s voice too loud, too demanding, and too impractical.
I also started writing. I…started saying all the things that everybody around me had always said were ‘too negative,’ ‘too abrasive,’ and ‘too confrontational.’ It did not go over well. My white friends…some of whom I’d known since high school, were not happy with the real me. This was not the deal they had struck. Yes, they would rage over global warming and yell about Republican shenanigans, but they would not say a word about the racial oppression and brutality facing people of color in this country.
I’ve found this and so much more to be true in my own writing journey. Thanks to all of you who’ve helped make me feel younger, my feminism fresher, and confirmed so much I’ve found wrong (and right) with myself and the world.