About this Blog

The title of this blog, "I'm About to do My Thing," was inspired by Jill Scott's introduction to her poem "The Thickness" from her live album Experience: Jill Scott 826+. In this intro, she warns that the content to follow is "real" and proceeds to deliver a beautiful message about self-esteem in young black girls, what can influence and damage that self-esteem, and the entire village's responsibility--"it takes a village"--to elevate its children.

Friday, July 30, 2010

A Bone to Pick

Black men, a lot of people have a bone to pick with you. What did you do? Or maybe it’s what you didn’t do, according to some. I’ve noticed that black men’s roles as protectors and nurturers are being questioned lately, not that this is a new topic. The question came up recently in an earlier post on this blog. Chris Rock humorously alluded to the question in 2004’s Never Scared when he warned fathers that the test of their fatherhood would be whether they could keep their daughters out of “clear heels” (i.e., strippers’ shoes). Toni Morrison raises this question with the character of Cholly Breedlove in my favorite novel, The Bluest Eye (1971). The question is much older than that, though, going as far back as the days of American slavery, when countless black men were left defenseless as a white male-dominated world raped their women and sold their children.

Now, the question rises again—in a world that is fundamentally different from one in which men could only stand by while their women and children were violated. Check out this video depicting audition clips for a reality show featuring rapper Plies. (Shout-out to my bro-in-law for posting this on Facebook!) The women depicted here are clearly proud of their sexual “talents.” More power to ‘em and Lord love ‘em. But note not a spirit of simple competition but of divisiveness that permeates these women’s statements. They’re bragging that they’re better than every other woman in line because of what they can do in the bedroom and because of what they’re willing to let Plies to do them. While there’s some pride in being independent and being able to cook, for example, the emphasis is placed on sexual versatility and skill.

Interestingly, the person who posted this video to YouTube titled it “BLACK MEN RAISE YOUR DAUGHTERS SO THEY WON’T DO THIS!” Black men, fathers in particular, you’re being called out! And all this makes me wonder why it’s the father’s responsibility to keep their daughters from seeking this type of attention and from promoting this type of division. Is it not primarily women who are interviewing other women for this TV show? Granted, these women are working for a man, but they don’t have to. These women are choosing to do a job that exploits some arguably weak-minded women. Is this a complication that should be laid at their fathers’ feet too?

Perhaps, but who knows what kind of fatherly experiences we’re seeing the fruits of, from one woman to the next? There are women out there who were raised by hardworking men who taught their daughters to love themselves and others. Others may have had absent or horrible fathers. Still others may have had nothing but negative experiences with men, to the point that they don’t know how to deal with them or themselves in a healthy way. Then again, while some may have missed their biological fathers in their lives, maybe they had uncles or teachers or neighbors who filled the void. Whatever the case may be, 1) there’s got to be a level of personal responsibility involved here, and 2) women have to bear some responsibility too. That’s not to discount the long-term psychological and emotional effects of absent, deadbeat or otherwise subpar fathers. I realize that men do have an important role to play in helping to shape their daughters’ and sons’ futures, but they don’t play the only role.

Jill Scott tackles this issue from a slightly different angle in the August 2010 edition of her Essence column, “I’m Just Sayin.’”August’s installment, “Boys to Men,” argues that, while women can instill morals, values, and a treasure-trove of knowledge into their sons, there are certain aspects of manhood that boys can learn only from men. The most important point she makes, however, is that so many black boys lack instruction from a community of black men. A community of black men instructing their sons, she argues, is invaluable:
While there are men who take pride in raising and instructing their sons, there is very little communal education. Just imagine if our men taught our boys conflict resolution—how to settle a dispute so that everyone walks away alive. Maybe if our outstanding men shared that one skill with our boys, there would be fewer violent deaths in our neighborhoods. […] What if our great men taught our boys how to nurture women and children with love, respect and understanding? Maybe our artists would be more creative when depicting women in their music and videos. […]
And maybe our rappers would be more creative when depicting women in their reality shows too. Do you see why I love Jill? She’s making a very cogent argument about how a concerted effort of our strong, dedicated, responsible men can turn the tide of negatives in our communities, from violence to relationships. I think she’s right, but the concerted effort of our men and women is really the ticket, and that’s what I’m getting at--an idea clearly not lost on Jill, as she explains her role as a mother. I wonder how many of those women waiting in line for Plies’ show are mothers, and I have the same curiosity about the women behind the interviewing table.

Maybe a community of men can prevent boys from exploiting females on national TV, and maybe such a community can prevent those females from exploiting themselves. Perhaps, too, the combined instruction of men and women can curb the unhealthy images promoted by “television and hustlers in the streets,” as Jill puts it, and help our boys and girls grow up to be men and women who respect and love one another and themselves: not a selfish love but a love that appreciates one’s inherent value. That’s not the value being promoted by these women clamoring to be “Bust it Babies” or by the women and men seeking to put them on TV.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Death to "Good and Bad" Hair!

Let me start by saying that I’m not going to comment at all on Chris Rock’s film Good Hair. The world has about mutilated that dead horse, right? This isn’t about “Straight and Nappy” from Spike Lee’s classic School Daze, either (although it’s playing in my head right now, high kicks and all). Instead, let me tell you a story.

A woman of a certain age was once describing to me the hair textures of three biracial women she knew. One of them, she said, had hair the most like “black people’s hair,” more on the kinky side of things. Another had hair that was “like good black people’s hair—but better—like a Latina,” and the third had “good hair,” which I assumed meant naturally wavy or straight hair. I smiled and nodded, but I was struck—and slightly saddened—by the enduring idea that a black woman’s hair is bad or somehow lesser. The uses of good and better here imply that a black woman’s hair is naturally bad. And in my experience, it’s not just women of a certain age who use and believe in this idea.

There are women out there who believe the natural texture of their hair is bad for the simple fact that it’s kinky. That’s it. It’s not that it’s damaged or falling out; it’s just nappy hair! There’s a historical dimension to this sense of shame, partly rooted in very old racist ideas about beauty and partly linked with long-standing fashion trends. Both are hard to contend with, but this leads me to wonder: when my sisters look at their nappy roots in the mirror, what runs through their minds?

Back when I used to straighten my hair (never had chemicals), new growth meant, Dangit! I have to straighten my hair again?! After a while, I realized that I didn’t have to do anything, so I stopped straightening my hair. It was intermittent for a while—I might straighten it; I might not—but after a few years it became a firm decision. I noticed that I liked the things my hair did on its own. If my hair didn’t want to stay straightened and downright refused to do so, who was I to try to force it? A very liberating experience.

It’s been an interesting ride. Family and friends alike have ridiculed me, sometimes in the spirit of fun and sometimes in the spirit of flat-out dislike. Here’s one of my personal faves: “What happened to your hair?” I went from having “good” and “pretty” hair—hair that fell mid-back when straightened—to “wild” and “big” hair. (Compare the pics: 2004 with straightened hair and 2008 with hair doing its own thing.) Some people like it, and some don’t, but I’m glad that I got to the point where I don’t care what others think about my hair. It’s healthy and reasonably well taken care of. ;-)

Of course, I don’t expect all sisters to do what I did. Different strokes for different folks. Some people tell me, “Oh, well, you don’t need a perm.” Who does need one? Some women choose to straighten/perm their hair because it’s what they’ve always done. Some do it because they have comb-breaking hair–I broke several combs as a child!—and just don’t have the time and/or desire (in some cases, the ability) to deal with it. For some it’s just more convenient to perm it or wear wigs and weaves. To each her own, but I would encourage my sisters not to base these decisions on notions of “good and bad” hair. If women can be born with “bad” hair, hair that needs to be “fixed” from jump, then countless little girls are coming into the world with a completely messed up sense of beauty. They’re born lacking something because their hair coils up. That can’t be the case; I just don’t believe that’s true. But how many women do believe it’s true?

I love a t-shirt one of my dear friends owns. It reads, “Good hair is healthy hair.” If your hair doesn’t constantly break off or shed a thousand strands a day, then you have good hair, whether it’s nappy, wavy or straight, long, medium-length or short. Wash it, condition it, and trim those split ends. Whatever else you do, consider canning the idea of “good and bad” hair. It’s so passé. Look around: slowly but surely, the world is changing.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Black Girls: Still Big Booties and Pu**y? (That's not putty...)

OK, WTH?! This was my immediate reaction upon coming across the Google search results for “black girls” that are displayed in this image (right). (Note the sponsored links, too.) Mind you, I was searching for an organization, Black Girls Rock, Inc., that I had come across months ago and wanted to revisit. I couldn’t quite remember the name but knew that black girls was part of it.

Now, I really don’t want to get into a ramble about historical depictions of black women as lusty, animalistic, lewd sex-toys—trust me, I could go there—but the irony of this situation is troubling in itself. For the last few years, I’ve been mulling over the idea of a non-profit organization designed to help young black women combat the afore-mentioned negative images, particularly as cultivated in various aspects of hip-hop culture, music videos, films, and print media. Black Girls Rock, Inc. is an organization that does such work, and I wanted to peruse it for inspiration. (Adding inc. to my search got me to the right site, by the way.)

But alas, of the first seven entries that appear in these Google search results, only one of them does not relate to black women as purely sexual objects. And these are the top results of 276 million. What causes this particular content to appear first in a search for “black girls”? Well, I had to do a little research.

Determining search results and ranking them are complicated processes that involve some pretty fancy computing (all kinds of algorithms and such that I know nothing about), but the quality of web pages is an important consideration in ranking search results. In a newsletter called Librarian Central, Google gives librarians various teaching tips, one of which deals with search engines. In an issue titled “How Does Google Collect and Rank Results?” Google offers this information after having provided material on data collection:

Now we have the set of pages that contain the user's query somewhere, and it's time to rank them in terms of relevance. Google uses many factors in ranking. Of these, the PageRank algorithm might be the best known. PageRank evaluates two things: how many links there are to a web page from other pages, and the quality of the linking sites. With PageRank, five or six high-quality links from websites such as www.cnn.com and www.nytimes.com would be valued much more highly than twice as many links from less reputable or established sites.
This is interesting information. According to Google, it prizes foremost the number of sites that link to pages containing the items in the query (in my case, the number of sites linking to sugaryblackpu**y.com and the like) and then the credibility of those sites. This leads me to wonder, Where are the “quality” portals of information that positively discuss black girls? That’s not to say they don’t appear somewhere in those 276 million results, but they’re clearly not as prominent as those sites linking to pages that perpetuate an idea of lewd black female sexuality.

Apart from the numbers and quality of web pages that link to the words in a searcher’s query, Google states that relevance is a key determiner in ranking results:

As a rule, Google tries to find pages that are both reputable and relevant. If two pages appear to have roughly the same amount of information matching a given query, we'll usually try to pick the page that more trusted websites have chosen to link to. Still, we'll often elevate a page with fewer links or lower PageRank if other signals suggest that the page is more relevant. For example, a web page dedicated entirely to the civil war is often more useful than an article that mentions the civil war in passing, even if the article is part of a reputable site such as Time.com.
Because the sites that link black girls with hot sex are so much more abundant than those that don’t, the relevance factor appears to be more important than the reputability factor here. What’s relevant regarding black girls appears to be those who are involved in porn. Hmmm…

I’m not out to attack Google, though. The company is only collecting and sorting data. My concern is that, in 2010, so many users of the World Wide Web are more interested in black girls for their big booties and pu**ies than, say, for their creativity, beauty, or anything not related to their anatomy.

It’s not like black girls are unaware of this interest. Any given day, you can see young black females in skin-tight, low-rise, hip-hugging jeans or shorts that look like underwear with their booty cheeks all out (check out Jill Scott's "The Thickness"!). Why? Is it because such looks are trendy, attractive to males, or plastered all over videos and magazines? It’s likely that all these possibilities hit the nail on the head, but the important thing is that so many of our girls want to emphasize their sexuality when they walk out of the door. The curves are given top priority, and this valuing of the body isn’t spawned in a vacuum. It’s cultivated by so many forces in the world we live in.

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with females embracing their sexuality. In fact, the ability to do so is one of the triumphs of feminism and other movements that now allow females the freedom to express themselves. However, when that freedom privileges sexuality, then we have children growing up placing their self-worth in their curves and in attracting interest in those curves. Where’s the true self-love in that, the value of a woman’s essence that doesn’t reside in her anatomy?

That’s also not to say that young black females are the only ones who wear revealing clothing. Of course, women of all shades, sizes and ages dress this way. But I’m focusing on this style of dress in conjunction with the historical images of black women (that have not died) and the clearly continued fascination with black women’s supposedly animalistic lust, as evidenced by the associations that web users make between black females and their sexuality.

It’s clear that if we parents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, preachers, and friends don’t educate black girls about their inherent value, apart from their bodies, then there’s a whole world, a whole culture out there willing to educate them instead. Maybe my now-foggy ideas about an NPO will eventually become a real entity that counteracts these views of black females. Thank goodness for programs like Black Girls, Inc. and Hot Girls, Inc. that are undertaking this work now. But the truth is this: we have to do this work for the good of our daughters and their progeny, or else we’ll never see the end of centuries-old ideas that encourage black women to love their big booties and their pu**ies while truly hating themselves.