Friday, December 15, 2006

Looking for Mr. White:
Black Women and the “Something New” Movement

Bossip, an urban entertainment blog, recently posted pictures of actress Kerry Washington, a black woman, with her fiancé David Moscow, a white man. Beneath the image of Kerry gazing lovingly at her betrothed is the caption: “You have saved me from all these trifling niggas, David!”

I realize that most of what Bossip and many other black entertainment blogs write is tongue-in-cheek, especially when it comes to interracial couples. But hidden beneath the humor is the notion that the white man is the sister’s savior when it comes to relationships, a white knight redeeming the dark diva in distress.

Lately, I’ve noticed that many black women applaud (if not downright encourage) their sisters’ decisions to date interracially, a move that would have been labeled as selling out just ten years ago. “Sisters can do it too!” seems to be the battle cry of this dating revolution, what I call the “Something New” movement. When Halle Berry started making the rounds with blonde hottie Gabriel Aubry, the response from black women seemed to be: “Go for yours!” As one gleeful female blogger put it, “All the brothas are just mad ‘cause her main man right now is white. She gave negroes a chance, and they screwed up!”

Part of this paradigm shift is in direct response to the growing number of black men/white women relationships. I’ll admit that I’m not immune to being reactionary. I live in Los Angeles, which has been dubbed the “Jungle Fever” capitol of the West Coast, and I often grow weary of seeing Heidi on Hakeem’s arm. For a few months, I was actively seeking a white man to date, even crushing on several white male friends. I was seriously contemplating creating tee shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Looking for Mr. White,” and passing them out to all my black girlfriends in defiance of these clichéd “brothers with others” couplings.

I realize that I’m embracing a double standard. I am loath to watch anything featuring Taye Diggs or Cuba Gooding, Jr. because of the “white wife” factor, yet I give props to Grey’s Anatomy cutie Justin Chambers for having a spouse named Keisha, and to green-eyed soul singer Robin Thicke for flaunting his black wife, Paula Patton, in his videos. I avert my eyes when I see Heidi-Hakeem hookups in the malls, restaurants or streets of L.A. – projecting onto these couples the same invisibility and marginality that I experience on a regular basis – yet I give a fist-in-the-air smile when I see Rasheeda hugged up with Biff. It’s as if these white men are affirming the beauty, value and self-worth of black women in a culture that relegates them to video hos, emasculators, corporate shrews or gold diggers. These couplings are also a slap in the face to a society that places a premium on white womanhood.

Yes, I know that love is – and should be – colorblind, but many black women are crossing the color line in relationships out of necessity. According to a 2005 U.S. Census report, 43.4 percent of all black women have never been married. We are confronted daily with statistics about the shortage of eligible brothers, in addition to the academic and professional disparities that exist between the sexes. In an MSNBC article, Sanaa Latham, star of the movie Something New, shares her own dating quandary. “It has to happen, if we don't want to be alone,” she says regarding the rise of black women’s interracial relationships. Yet she admits that black men can be the harshest critics of said relationships – even those brothers who have white women hiding in their sexual repertoires.

Sanaa recalls the backlash she felt for being with a “white, liberal, educated” man. She says, “There was moments with him where like we would be in Harlem. There would be five brothers on the corner, and this is an awful feeling but you're holding his hand and you want to pull your hand away ‘cause you don't want the judgment. And you're gonna get the judgment even if it's just in looks.”

Why are black women held to a more stringent standard when it comes to dating outside the race? Why are black men allowed to experience color-blind love every time they step out with a non-black woman, while sisters are accused of being race traitors, constantly reminded of our antebellum past when black women were objectified, infantilized and raped by their slave masters? This lack of balance and fairness further serves to marginalize us and reinforces the notion that we aren’t being heard or taken seriously by our male counterparts.

Except for one relationship, my preference has always been black men, and I never imagined being with anyone but a brother. But as I grow older, I’m learning to keep my options open. Sisters have to demystify deeply-rooted beliefs we have concerning our interracial relationships. This will challenge us to rethink the long-held notions of “loyalty” we have regarding black men. I don’t want to go on a quest for “Mr. White” simply to combat the black men/white women pairings I see on the regular. I know society tries to ascribe fear on our hearts based on statistics and the threat of spinsterhood, but I refuse to engage in an inauthentic relationship for fear of growing old alone. I’m not averse to trying “something new,” as long as I do it based on mutual attraction, not redemption.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Between Heaven and the 101 Freeway

So this white agnostic and devout black Christian are on their way to a Jewish wedding…

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke your drunken coworker might tell at a Christmas party, but I actually lived it last weekend. It all started with a simple question:

“Can we carpool to Santa Barbara?” M. asked.

Her query caught me off guard, so I quickly answered in the affirmative. It was a month before our mutual friend’s wedding, and I figured I had three weeks to concoct an excuse to get out of driving with M.: “I think I’m going to take the train.” “I'm going to visit friends in Agoura Hills right after the reception.” But every excuse I came up with sounded lame to me. Since I was too chicken to tell M. the truth, I realized with impending dread that I would end up driving 166.8 miles roundtrip with this agnostic white chick.

It’s not that I have issues with folks who question the existence of God, but M. hails from that new school of agnosticism – shrill, condescending and intolerant toward others who don’t espouse her beliefs – or lack thereof. She has been known to utter such witticisms like, “The Bible is shit,” and “Those damn Christians.” In the past when I politely pointed out that such bluntness might be offensive to some believers, she shrugged it off, saying, “That’s just who I am.”

I’ve always harbored the suspicion that M. could just as easily substitute “blacks” for “Christians” in her comments. Growing up in a working class hamlet in the Badger State, she recalls that there was only one African-American student in her high school. Black women who vote, don’t speak Ebonics, and who forego acrylic nails are anomalies to her. Her way of leveling? She taunts me for allegedly saying “birfday” and “reckanize.” As a result, I’m often reactionary in my dealings with her.

I’m all too familiar with W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of double consciousness – that feeling of otherness many blacks experience while trying to maintain their identity within the majority culture. But as a Christian of color, I have co-opted a trinity consciousness. Around my white peers, I’m acutely aware of how I speak, taking pains to never run on CP time, and putting as much intellectual distance between the ‘hood and me as possible. As a believer, I constantly have to prove that I’m a critical thinker, that I’m kind, tolerant and nonjudgmental – often in the face of folks who act quite the opposite.

With all of these misgivings, I arrive at M.’s apartment to pick her up for the wedding. As I sit in my car waiting for her, I worry that I’m not dressed appropriately for the occasion. I have on a lilac number with spaghetti straps – a bridesmaid’s cast off – but it’s the only decent dress I can squeeze into. Such an unseasonable look wouldn’t cut it on the East Coast, but it’s 75 degrees and sunny, and I live in La La Land. I blend in perfectly with the perennial sun seekers who rock flip flops and shorts year-round.

M. trudges to my car wearing all black and a perpetual scowl. Complaint is eternally etched into the corners of her mouth. Sighing, she sinks into the passenger’s seat, an agnostic with the misfortune of having a biblical name. “I didn’t know what to wear,” she says. “I’m not dressed up enough.” With her black boots, black blouse and black skirt, she could be en route to a Marilyn Manson concert. I’m Spring; she’s Fall. Opposite equinoxes.

Feeling gracious, I tell M. that she can listen to whatever she wants on the radio. She scans stations, stopping on a hard rock channel. The entrance to the freeway is less than a mile ahead, and we make small talk about the upcoming nuptials. We both bemoan the fact that we’re in our 30s and unmarried. “We can at least get some ideas for our own wedding,” I say optimistically. “I’ll be dead before that happens,” M. scoffs. The 101 Freeway unfurls before me like a tattered rug, and I think, “I have to drive 83.4 miles ingesting this negativity?” As if providing the theme music for our journey, “Welcome to the Black Parade” blares through the car as we travel north to Santa Barbara.

Forty-five minutes into our trip, I discover that carpooling with M. is not as painful as I predicted. Our small talk morphs into something meaningful. Against a backdrop of mountains and the rippling Pacific Ocean, she opens up to me about her family, and I open up to her about mine. We don’t share close relationships with our fathers, and our mothers are blunt, cynical, life-of-the-party types. M. is actually quite pretty when she smiles, and her childhood stories crack me up. Aware that she’s been hogging the radio for most of the ride, M. starts surfing stations again, pausing on a hip-hop song. “Did you put that on because I’m black?” I ask. She gives a sheepish grin, busted. I realize that we have a longer journey ahead of us.

We arrive safely at the Santa Barbara resort, and traipse through the outdoor plaza where the wedding will take place. M. and I know no one besides the bride and groom, so we stay close and try not to look lost. I see a table covered with purple yarmulkes, and realize that they match the color of my dress. I want to don one. Observant Jewish male skullcap as fashion statement. I feel an affinity for Judaism because I grew up reading Judy Blume. I was the only 10-year-old in my inner city neighborhood who knew the meanings of “goy,” “sitting shiva,” and “Mazel tov!”

Sitting on a damp chair yards from the Pacific Ocean, I reflect on the ceremony, and what the briny breeze is doing to my straightened hair. I will have a baby Afro before the breaking of the glass. The Rabbi is hip and funny with a sweet singing voice – a Jewish Aaron Neville. At any minute, I expect him to break into “Everybody Plays the Fool.” During the seven blessings, I recognize a single Hebrew word: Adonai. It simply means “Lord” -- one of the many names of God in both Christianity and Judaism. It’s as if the Creator has followed me up the coast to Santa Barbara, and caresses me from beneath the chuppah.

By the time M. and I head to the reception hall, we have shrugged off the shawl of discomfort that cloaked us earlier. The lead singer of the band is a white woman channeling Alicia Keys. I ask M. if she's going to hit the dance floor, and she replies, “If you go.” We two-step to Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and I’m surprised (but not totally) to see that she has more rhythm than I do. I’m still notches above her on the soul scale because she doesn’t recognize the band’s next cover: Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me off My Feet.”

It’s after 11 when M. and I finally tear ourselves away from the revelers and head back to North Hollywood. In seven hours, religion hasn’t entered our conversation at all. But something is prompting me to get all up in her spiritual business. M. tells me about her Catholic upbringing, and how her mother swears her downfall began when she didn’t get confirmed. “I was looking forward to my confirmation, because all the girls I knew who were doing it got a shitload of money,” she explains. “I was 14 or 15, and I was taking all these classes, when I realized this religion crap didn’t make sense to me. So I told my mom I wasn’t going to do it.” In between catechism and confirmation dresses, God had been ritualized out of her life.

“What happens when you get depressed or lonely? Do you pray?” I ask.


“Who do you pray to?”

M. pauses. “I guess I pray to God,” she answers gruffly. “I’ll say, ‘God, if you exist, and if you can hear my prayer, will you please help me?’”

I want to hug her when I hear this. Not only because she seems so vulnerable, but because I, a Scripture-quoting Christian, have uttered that same prayer. Not too long ago, I was lamenting to a good friend that God didn’t seem real to me. “I just don’t feel loved by Him,” I told her in between sobs. Now here M. is confessing that she feels the same estrangement. Despite our skin color and divergent belief systems, we’re more like sisters than we realize.

Wanting to celebrate our newfound camaraderie, I put on Kurt Carr’s gospel song, “In the Sanctuary.” Over the upbeat chorus, I say, “Come on, sing it with me!” M. raises the roof in jest for a few moments, but twenty Hallelujahs into the song, she grows impatient. “When is this going to end?” she sighs. I want to say, “I sat up here and let you listen to hard rock and pop punk and post-hardcore music for nearly two hours, but you’re tripping over a six-minute song?” Instead, I laugh it off, ejecting the CD. My passive proselytizing has ended … and so have any feelings of kinship. M. quickly flips back to her rock station, and a familiar tune filters through the car:

“If God had a name
What would it be
And would you call it to His face
If you were faced with Him
In all His glory
What would you ask if you had just one question?”

Joan Osborne’s “What If God Was One of Us” is one of the few rock songs I love. I smile to myself, thinking the Almighty does indeed have a sense of humor …

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make His way home ...

A few blocks from M.’s apartment, I feel the urge to say more to her than simply goodnight. I doubt the openness we shared on our road trip will be experienced again. Come Monday morning, we’ll continue to rotate on separate ends of the celestial sphere, Spring and Fall, opposite equinoxes. “Well,” I say awkwardly, “I just wanted you to know that God loves you.” It’s not much, but it’s a seed. An intangible tract dropped into her $5 purse.

M. laughs, albeit with less derision than is customary, as she opens her door. Gazing back at me, she says, “Thanks for the ride … and the interesting discussion.”

Coming from her, that’s high praise. Driving down the street, I re-insert my gospel CD, letting the music baptize me. As Joan Osborne sang earlier, I'm learning to see God everywhere and in everyone, even in an agnostic with a biblical name. Maybe M. will learn someday that He does answer prayers, and He’s always down for the ride. Even in a mobile sanctuary traveling between Heaven and the 101 Freeway.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Becky Got Back:
The Age of White Girl Booty Bling

Oh my God
Becky, look at her butt
It is so big
She looks like one of those rap guys' girlfriends
But y'know, who understands those rap guys?
They only talk to her

Because she looks like a total prostitute ('kay)
I mean her butt, it's just so big
I can't believe it's so round
It's like out there
I mean, it's so gross
Look, she's just so black …

-- “Baby Got Back”
Sir Mix-A-Lot

According to celebrity gossip Web site, Jessica Biel is the new J-Lo – and she’s got the goods to back it up.

Black women are still reeling that Jennifer Lopez was crowned Booty of the Decade – a title they felt had been hijacked from swarthier contenders like Janet, Serena or Beyoncé. Now comes the news that a white B-list actress is redefining bootylicious. To some, that’s almost as blasphemous as plastering Jessica Simpson’s dimpled mug on a box of Dark & Lovely.

“White women with butts like black girls” is a relatively new cultural phenomenon, and some may say – cheekily – fashion statement. In recent years, booty bling has been the must-have accessory to rock from the clubs to the red carpet. Balenciaga bag? Check. Manolo Blahnik strappy sandals? Check. Booty bling? Double check.

Rasheeda has been none too thrilled about Becky bum rushing an anatomical arena largely deemed the province of black women. Sisters still shudder over Bo Derek’s wispy braids and the "Parisian pout" being sported by many non-blacks whose French is limited to Moet et Chandon. Hair, lips and the bootay are racial signifiers, visible symbols of blackness that the larger society has historically viewed with derision. Some wonder which body part will be co-opted next and elevated to high fashion – the nose? According to bell hooks, “Separated from a political and historical context, ethnicity is being reconstituted as the new frontier, accessible to all, no passes or permits necessary.”

So back to the booty. Why all the hatin' on Becky’s newfound butt muscles? "Fat bottomed girls make the rockin' world go round," as Queen informs us, so shouldn’t every woman want to hit the StairMaster or Pilates studio? For many sisters, the issue is larger than simply wanting to look good in a pair of Seven jeans. Bootyjackin' is reminiscent of Elvis Presley "stealing" black music then being credited as the originator of it – cultural appropriation at its finest. Another viewpoint is that sisters struggle with issues of invisibility and marginality, while simultaneously being hypersexualized in everything from Cognac ads to your garden-variety rap video. As author and journalist Lisa Jones writes in Bulletproof Diva, "Black women don’t have faces or souls, just big ol' butts."

The posterior is political. Black women have had junk in the trunk for centuries, yet mainstream America has never given them accolades on the level of La Lopez, and now Biel. Quite conversely, the black female butt has been the subject of ridicule and revulsion throughout the ages. In her essay, "Venus Envy," Jones explores the majority culture's reverence/repulsion toward the booty. She gives the example of Saarjite Baartman, a young South African woman who was displayed naked in a cage in London during the early 1800s. A British doctor brought Baartman from Capetown to exploit her big butt, and she was publicly exhibited for over five years. After her death, the "Hottentot Venus" was dissected, and her genitalia preserved in a jar of formaldehyde. Jones muses that young Saarjite’s preservation "was used to support almost a century’s worth of myths of white racial superiority." Those Londoners who shelled out big bucks to sneer at Baartman’s buttocks would be rolling over in their graves to know that some white women now shell out big bucks to rock that same "primitive" look.

Several questions arise out of the renewed interest in the black booty aesthetic: What defines blackness, and can race be appropriated? As a modestly endowed sister (some would say gluteally-impaired), I've got my own issues with the revered/reviled rump. My tiny tush has always made me feel like less of a black woman. Growing up, my proper English, lack of double dutch skills, and flat butt nearly qualified me for white womanhood. So, the irony is not lost on me when I see my perky freckle-faced Pilates instructor sporting the equivalent of double Ds in the back of her spandex pants, and when I tell said instructor that I want a "butt like hers." Not like Beyoncé or Janet, but like Becky. It's almost as if she has more soul than I do, that she has membership in an exclusive club I've been trying to join all my life. But as she grabs a handful of heinie, and commands the similarly endowed white women in class to do likewise and "Give the booty some love!" I realize that having a curve-free butt doesn't make me less soulful than she, and a plump tush doesn't automatically enroll her in the nationalist club. Even though others may see Becky as the total package, I'm not in competition with her. In a room full of booty blinging white women, I found my own shine. To paraphrase Ntozake Shange, I saw the bootylicious goddess in me and loved her fiercely!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Mel's Still in the News **
(An Ode to Black Women's Depression)

Depression hit my sister Nell
(with Mel G. in the news)
Black women know this pain quite well
(but Mel is in the news)
Can’t find no stats on her dis-ease
(while Mel is in the news)
Don’t mean she’s not in misery
(and Mel is in the news)
They tell her “just get over it”
(while Mel is in the news)
'Cause black girls can’t be mentally sick
(but Mel’s still in the news)
Gotta be a strong sis, wife and mother
(and Mel is in the news)
When she’d rather stay under her covers
(with Mel G. in the news)
Wondering if she’d be better off dead
She finally took Zoloft instead
But she refuses to go get therapy
‘Cause that’s a white girl thing, you see
Depression hit my sister Nell
(with Mel G. in the news)
Black women know this pain quite well
(but Mel is in the news)
Never will she give her sickness voice
(hmmm! Mel is in the news)
Just put on her game face and rejoice
(while Mel’s still in the news)

**A shout out to Gil Scott-Heron's
"Whitey on the Moon"

Monday, June 26, 2006

Tired Black Men, Angry Black Women
and the BAPSploitation Phenomenon

I recently attended a event to discuss Tim Alexander’s upcoming movie, Diary of a Tired Black Man. A filmmaker friend living in Japan sent me a clip from the movie two months ago. At the time, I dismissed it as dated and derivative, something an eager first-year film student might promote on MySpace. Then last week, a white female friend forwarded me an NPR article on the controversy Alexander’s project is generating. Judging from the buzz around the ‘Net, old attitudes about the sass-spittin' Black American Princess (BAP) are resurfacing under the guise of serious dialogue about black relationships.

For those who haven’t seen the three-and-a-half minute clip that’s been circulating the blogosphere, it goes a little something like this: Four upscale black women are lounging around the house having girl talk. Through the window, they spy ex-husband, James, the titular character, pulling up in the driveway with his new lady – a white woman. The typical reactionary, combative dialogue that many sisters engage in whenever they peep Heidi on Hakeem’s arm ensues. When our weary hero hits the doorstep to pick up his daughter, his ex-wife lambastes him for dating a white woman, calling him a “weak punk.” Nay, our protagonist retorts, this isn’t the case. He’s footing the bill for his ex’s house and car, taking care of his kid, and if he’s now dating a white chick, it’s because the new relationship has finally brought him peace. “I am not a weak black man. I am a tired black man,” James says with fervor. “Tired of dealing with angry black women like you.”

Granted, I haven’t seen Diary of a Tired Black Man in its entirety – the movie doesn’t hit theaters until later this year -- but from the snippet I viewed, something feels exploitative about the project. It seems to profit from and prey on the fears of the BAP who can’t find a mate. There is a culture of hysteria built on the plight of the single, successful black shrew headed for spinsterhood and the diminishing “good black man” resource pool. Are black women with their fabled ‘tudes chasing all the eligible brothers away?

According to Tim Alexander, Angry Black Woman syndrome is at the heart of the conflict. The director graced the gathering to expound on this “disease.” He likened sisters to “child molesters” who keep going back for their fix of the forbidden – in this case, thugs and bad boys. These women are mistreated for so long that they become hardened, and when a respectable black man comes along, he’s dismissed as weak and irrelevant. In his talk at the Blackweekly fest and in interviews that I’ve read, he also maintains that sisters are embittered, hostile and defensive due to a lack of positive black male role models in their childhood, and this negativity is reinforced as they grow older. Alexander comes off as a ’hood psychologist not only attempting to diagnose black women’s pathology, but reframing it as an epidemic in need of immediate treatment. Enter Diary – his way of sparking a discussion and remedying Angry Black Woman syndrome.

I believe some of the filmmaker’s observations about black women are valid; however, I question the sincerity of his attempts to bridge the gap. Did his protagonist James have to roll up to his ex-wife’s crib with a white woman, or is it just a marketing ploy to fill seats in the theater? What would have happened if our weary hero had brought along another black woman? Would the sisters in the house have been so neck-swiveling and eye-rolling then? And, for a black man to finally achieve some “peace” in his household, is Alexander suggesting that non-black women are the answer? If so, doesn't this play into the stereotype of white women as accommodating and subservient?

During the discussion, participants were asked to come up with possible solutions to the dilemmas posed in Alexander’s film. I came up with a suggestion just as controversial as the premise in Diary: black women should consider dating outside of our race. Not simply to be reactionary to the growing number of Heidi-Hakeem hookups, but to demystify deeply-rooted beliefs we have about interracial relationships. It would also challenge us to keep our options open, and rethink the long-held notions of “loyalty” we have regarding black men.

After I made those comments, I was about as popular as Naomi Campbell at a housekeeper’s convention. One extremely agitated brother accused me of high treason, of attempting to destroy the foundation of the black family. A few other black men approached me at the close of the festivities, questioning my “allegiance” to the race, and wondering how long I had been dating white men. Upon cross-examination, I discovered that these brothers had “others” hiding in their sexual repertoires, but for a black woman to consider kickin’ it with Biff or Beltran is unthinkable. Why are we held to such a stringent double standard? If a black man is in love with a non-black woman – and I say to each, his own – he’s colorblind. But if sisters fall in love with someone outside of their race, they’re sellouts or gold-diggers. This lack of balance and fairness further serves to marginalize us and reinforce the notion that we aren’t being heard by black men. Our rather, we’re not hearing each other.

As much as I dislike Alexander’s exploitation of successful, single black women’s woes – or BAPSploitation – I have to give him credit for inciting dialogue. As evident at the gathering, regardless of whether you loved or hated the movie’s premise, it has people talking. What I’m hoping that the director can achieve with his new film is balance. Diary has been touted as the black man’s Waiting to Exhale, and I hope it can resuscitate a genuine discussion about the dilemmas that really plague our relationships, instead of ascribing blame for the failure of said relationships on the loud-mouthed, conflict-driven, gold-digging Angry Black Woman. Neither sex is flawless, and we need to take accountability for our shortcomings instead of pointing the finger. A movie that seeks to liberate a brother by shutting down his sister will be just plain Tired.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Fear of a Brown Planet:
Blacks and Immigration Reform

“I’ve been wonderin’ why
People livin’ in fear
Of my shade (Or my hi-top fade)
I’m not the one that’s runnin’
But they got me on the run
Treat me like I have a gun
All I got is genes and chromosomes
Consider me Black to the bone…”

- Public Enemy
“Fear of a Black Planet”

When Chuck D. rapped the above lyrics with his trademark fist-in-the-air inflection, he was not only affirming his blackness, but also rhythmically rebelling against police brutality, racism and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. It was 1990. The socially conscious hip-hop movement boldly ushered in a brand of nationalism that appealed to young blacks who otherwise felt powerless. It was hip to be as visible as an Afro pick and just as defiant. Red, black and green medallions abounded, sentences were peppered with Malcolm X rhetoric, and tee shirts gleefully proclaimed, “It’s a Black Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand!” The revolution thrived on the majority culture’s perceived fear of empowered minorities, and it declared to the world that blacks were on the come-up and would no longer be marginalized.

The recent Latino-led protests over immigration reform are tinged with the same bravado of that hip-hop movement. Mexican flags and culturally conscious tees like “I’m in my homeland” and “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us” at the marches signify that brown folks are no longer trying to get in where they fit in. Like blacks, they are affirming their identity and broadcasting their disenchantment with a society that seeks to criminalize and dehumanize them.

So, I wonder why as an African American, a member of a fellow oppressed group, I don’t feel solidarity with the struggle of mi hermanos and hermanas. I try to pinpoint the emotion I feel when faced with the televised spirit of la raza, the sea of chanting, protesting, marching, Latinos.

I’m ashamed to admit that it is fear.

I wrestle with this because it’s not like I’m some xenophobic, ultra-conservative, border-patrol fanatic. I consider myself conscious (semi, some would say), have friends of all races, have dated Mexicans and know that the struggle for human rights is not “their” struggle, but our struggle. And yet, I can’t shake this feeling of uneasiness when I see Latino students leaping over schoolyard fences to join protests and watch brown crowds shutting down traffic on the 110 freeway.

Sadly enough, I’m not alone. An observant blogger at mused over the lack of black faces at the 500,000-strong protest in Los Angeles, and also the silence of black leaders on immigration reform. Author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson explores this growing sentiment (resentment?) in his three-part article “Why So Many Blacks Fear Illegal Immigrants.” In the piece, Mr. Hutchinson observes that black frustration with immigration is nothing new. In 1994, nearly fifty percent of African Americans backed Proposition 187, a measure that denied public services to undocumented immigrants. He also points out that in California, Blacks have significantly supported anti-bilingual ballot measures.

Is it that we fear competition, and these political moves are our way of keeping Latinos in their “place”? I don’t belong to that frustrated black chorus accusing illegal immigrants of taking “our jobs.” By and large, Hakeem is not cleaning toilets, washing cars, slaving over a stove or engaged in other menial tasks. Hector is. Besides, many of the posts I’ve been reading in support of tightening our borders are from middle- to upper-class blacks who are liberal in their politics. It’s distressing to admit that we can be just as biased and intolerant as the majority culture can be.

I wonder if rising black-and-brown tension over immigration reform is simply masking an unspoken, perceived threat of African-Americans being supplanted as the “default” minority in America? After all, statistics remind us that Latinos now outnumber blacks in this country. Advertisers are going after their dollars, politicians are going after their votes and the entertainment industry is capitalizing on their culture. Do we hesitate to link arms with our Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters and sing “We Shall Overcome” for fear of contributing to the “Latinoization” of America? Do we fear that it will no longer be a black thing, but a brown thing – from hip-hop to ‘hood films to Capitol Hill?

These are difficult questions, and I don’t have any easy or quippy answers. What I do know is this: As members of historically-disadvantaged groups, Latinos and blacks can each relate to feelings of displacement and an outside fear of our respective cultures. As much as we scorn the American nightmare, we're all hustling to achieve the American dream. We want better lives for our families, better jobs, and an acknowledgement of our individual contributions to this country. Border control should start with eradicating la linea that separates us.

In “Fear of a Black Planet,” Chuck D. also raps: All I want is peace and love/On this planet/(Ain't that how God planned it?) This admission almost seems like a non-sequiter considering the defiance and separatism inferred from the previous verses. And that’s really a metaphor for the dialogue on anti-illegal alien legislation going on in the black community. As compassionate, conscious folk, I really believe that we seek to build bridges with other minorities, and yet we still want to maintain our identity and nationalism in this patchwork quilt that is America. I wonder if we will ever get to a point in the discussion where it’s not a black thing or a brown thing, just an us thing? Now that would be revolutionary.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Looking Back:
Reflections on The Resurreccíon of Vida

I didn't set out to write a novel.

I moved to the City of Angels in 1998, dreaming of a career as a wildly successful screenwriter. Naively optimistic, I hit the pavement with my scripts and a smile, hoping to make my mark on Tinsel Town in a matter of months. When that didn't happen after seven years of living in La La Land, I began to wonder if writing was really in my future, if maybe I wasn't better suited to a career in telemarketing.

Along the journey, I realized that I was on a deeper quest, not just for celebrity, a fabulous wardrobe and a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but for community and acceptance. I was battling some serious body image demons, ultimately tipping the scales at 171 pounds. One thing I've learned is that LA is not kind to women in double-digit dress sizes. On the East Coast where I hail from, a sister is considered "thick" at 150 pounds, but out here, she’s a candidate for lipo and augmentation.

Eventually, I was able to shed those pounds through a vegetarian lifestyle, however, the emotional residue – a crushed body image and a lingering sense of self-doubt and insecurity – was harder to purge. In 2001, I was battling anxiety attacks, which sent me scurrying to the emergency room on a weekly basis. With a combination of fear and foolishness, I would stand at the registration desk hoping the harried attendant on duty could assure me I wasn't dying – at least not that night. The attacks – heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath and tingling sensations – had me questioning my sanity. I don’t think there's a history of mental illness in my family, and I wasn't eager to start the legacy.

So where does The Resurrección of Vida fit into my physical and emotional maladies? The novel really began as a journal, a way of chronicling my zany adventures in La La Land. The more women that I talk to out here, the more I realize that I am not alone. Vida has many sisters. Despite the seemingly emotional instability of my protagonist, I thought it important that she embody a sense of strength and endurance. Even though Vida is convinced she’s dying, she discovers that in the midst of death (or really bad heart palpitations), there is life. And sometimes, she has to be the life she was seeking in other people and experiences.

Viva la Vida!

Click here to read an excerpt, or buy the book

Monday, February 06, 2006

Adventures Out of Veganism

Okay, so it’s official … as of Sunday, February 5, I ended my six-year stint as a vegan.

It was a decision that I’d been grappling with for several months. Despite subsisting on fruit, veggies, rice, tofu and pasta (with a few chips, cookies and Slurpees thrown in the mix every now and then), I was steadily gaining weight. I had gotten up to 152 pounds, was feeling quite unhealthy, and was craving carbs and sugar like crazy. But the most damning evidence came from a trip to the beauty shop this past Saturday. Upon arriving home and inspecting my ‘do in the mirror, I noticed that my hair was thinner than it’s ever been, and looked decidedly unhealthy. As a black woman, my hair is much more ingrained in my identity than my desire to skip meat and dairy products. Baldness is not my destiny. It was time for a quick trip to the seafood section of Whole Foods market.

Ironically, when I first became a vegan in January 2000, my weight was the impetus for such a drastic lifestyle change. At that time, I was tipping the scales at 171 pounds and struggling with chronic adult-onset asthma. I started following the principles of Fit For Life by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond. That book touted the benefits of vegetarianism/veganism along with proper fruit consumption and food combining. After two months on that diet – or lifestyle change, I should say – I dropped 30 pounds. By the end of 2000, I was down to 125 pounds, and was able to rock size 4 clothes to the clubs and industry parties.

More so than just flaunting a tight new figure, I was proud to embrace a vegan lifestyle because it seemed like I was doing something revolutionary as a black woman. I was rebelling against my community’s love affair with fat-laden, overly processed, unhealthy food: collard greens with fat back, greasy bacon, fried chicken and fish, macaroni with layers of cheese and overcooked vegetables swimming in butter. I enjoyed perusing the shelves of the organic market, on the lookout for marinated seitan, teriyaki tofu and barbecued tempeh. I could even put up with the constant ribbing from well-meaning family members and friends who thought I was trying to "act white" and accused me of appropriating La La Land values.

Given the dearth of organic markets and vegetarian restaurants in our ‘hood, blacks seem reluctant to embrace alternative ways of eating. When I cruise down Crenshaw on my way to Simply Wholesome, the black-owned natural foods restaurant, I am struck by the abundance of rib joints and chicken shacks cropping up along the urban landscape. The line to the $1.00 soul food eatery is usually out the door and down the block, and the smell of catfish popping in hot grease is more overpowering than exhaust fumes. Even though I realize that cardiovascular disease and diabetes disproportionately impact my community – and largely as the result of unhealthy, slave-mentality diets – I also recognize the need for balance. I'm not blaming my thinning tresses on a meatless diet, but just as I explored veganism as a pathway to better health, I am once again on a journey for wellness, which may include some meat products.

So, after months of struggling with losing a part of my identity, I decided to take the plunge. My sweet princess friend, Jeannette, was kind enough to prepare a feast for a king -- or a queen -- last night -- baked salmon with garlic, swiss chard with marinated red peppers, brussels sprouts, yams and salad. For the longest time, I pushed the fish around on my plate – a condemned woman, toying with her last meal. I secretly assumed that my organs would rebel against me for such outrage, but now that I think about it, salmon is hella healthier than a 32 ounce Slurpee or a bag of potato chips, for that matter.

I woke up this morning and guess what? I’m still alive. I went to the gym at 5 in the a.m., then cruised to Whole Foods like I do every morning and got some fruit and a salad for lunch. Is meat going to be a regular part of my diet now? As Whitney so succinctly put it, hell-to-the-no! I will indulge in salmon (preferably farm-raised) maybe once or twice a week, but I’ll still turn my nose up at milk and other dairy products. Gotta maintainin’ for the Movement. Who knows? Maybe I will return to veganism if my hair continues to thin out even after I incorporate fish into my diet. I might end up as a weave-wearing, tofu-eating, soymilk sipping LA diva, but one thing’s for sure. I will never again let my diet define me.