Thursday, October 11, 2007

Karrine Steffans:
An I-Con of Urban Literature

“People just thought I was, like, a hooker … they didn’t know I was, like, an intellectual with a book.”
– Karrine Steffans

I was apprehensive about purchasing The Vixen Diaries, the second installment in Karrine Steffans’ sex-soaked memoirs. Yet, I couldn’t honestly analyze a book that I hadn't read. So last weekend found me sitting in Borders — less than two miles from the former video girl’s million dollar Sherman Oaks home — sipping an inferior soy chai latte as I pored over her latest tome.

Why was I so uneasy about this author, a woman whose first book, Confessions of a Video Vixen, spent nearly a year atop the New York Times best-sellers list? Partly because I take issue with Karrine’s fly girl brand of feminism. In Confessions, she dished the dirt about her sexcapades with A-listers (among them Diddy, Shaq and Jay-Z), and then framed her book as a cautionary tale for vulnerable young women trying to come up in the cutthroat entertainment industry. Despite an absent father, an abusive baby daddy, and countless lovers who bedded her then bounced, she was able to throw off the shackles of patriarchy to become a rich and successful businesswoman in Hollywood.

Yet, for all of her pseudo-empowering pontificating, Karrine comes off as a coon, a hypersexualized Stepin Fetchit in a risqué minstrel show. During her recent publicity blitz for The Vixen Diaries, I caught several of her interviews, and they didn’t make me want to throw a fist in the air for women’s solidarity. On the “Wendy Williams Experience,” Karrinne just sat and laughed as the titular talk show host administered countless verbal smackdowns.

“You are amazingly clean-looking to be such a dirty hooker,” Wendy deadpanned. “Compared to your ‘whory’ acts … for somebody who doesn’t know you, they would think you were virginal.”

Likewise, on Jamie Foxx’s radio show, Karrine's message of self-actualization for black women was eclipsed by cries of “skank” and “ho,” and questions about the penis size of her lovers. In both interviews, Karrine tried valiantly to maintain her elitist demeanor while simultaneously packing switchblades in her responses. “I’m a highly educated woman who just knows how to tap into my nigger side,” she boasted.

The same could be said about her writing style, which is ghetto grandiose. And yet, I found The Vixen Diaries decidedly lacking in passion. In a word, boring. In this soulless stream of consciousness, the artist formerly known as Superhead brags about being a New York Times best-selling author, her appearance on Oprah, her magazine covers, her Sherman Oaks house, her Benzes, her posh red-carpet lifestyle … then throws in a gratuitous romp with an anonymous Hollywood icon, or half-heartedly mentions her lunch dates with B-list celebrities. The tone of The Vixen Diaries is condescending and detached — she could just as easily be signaling for valet at The Ivy. She tries to pass off the lack of spicy sex scenes in this book as emotional maturity and spiritual growth, when in fact, she exhausted the more salacious details of her life in Confessions.

Karrine wants the reader to believe that her journey is both tragic and triumphant, that she is a talented young woman who felt marginalized in a male-dominated industry, but was still able to survive. For her, sex is an equalizer. As a black woman who has struggled to “make it” in Hollywood as a writer, who has felt both invisible and objectified, I wanted to sympathize with Karrine’s plight. Yet her story is lacking in literary integrity, and reads more like self-parody.

“I know the game and what it takes to be respected,” she writes. “I know how to use my intellect and not my body. These days, I walk into a room as Karrine Steffans, mother, New York Times best-selling author, entrepreneur and woman to be reckoned with.”

Although Karrine attempts to shed her Superhead trademark, she is indelibly stamped as a tramp. People pick up her books for mental masturbation, not for intellectual stimulation. She doesn’t realize that folks are far more interested in her sexual roster than in her transformation, hence readers who have trashed The Vixen Diaries for having less libidinous bling than its predecessor. If recent reviews are any indication, the star of this seductive scribe is on the wane.

It’s interesting that Karrine is both reviled and relevant because of her sexploits. She tapped into the zeitgeist, a post-modern hip-hop culture that glamorizes “money, clothes and hoes," and idolizes those smart enough to get rich or die trying. When I attended last summer’s Harlem book festival, I was amazed (and saddened) by the glut of “nigglature” on display. Folks flocked to the tables of authors who exploited every aspect of urban life — pimps, drug dealers, baby mamas and the ubiquitous Prada-rocking club chick on a mission to get paid. I’m not knocking anyone’s hustle. Everyone has a story to tell, and African-Americans are underrepresented in the Western literary canon. But when folks are more familiar with Superhead than with Sula, Houston, we have a problem.

Even Karrine seems to understand that she is a product (and beneficiary) of the very culture she condemns. “The irony is, I have become an icon by sleeping with many of them,” she writes. “Something about that gives me an uncomfortable feeling and not because of my sexual roster but because of the weight that society places on the celebrities on it. For this I am iconic? Jeez.”

Despite seeming disenchantment with her “i-con” status, Karrine continues to capitalize on the Superhead brand. A third book is on the horizon, allegedly a titillating but fictionalized account of her life. Although she fancies herself a rebel and a street heroine who continues to hustle the system, Karrine is simply a narcissistic opportunist whose confessions are better left unsaid.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

National Day of Panhandling for Reparations

OK, so sometimes you can symbolically support a movement, right? I got $6 coming to me from a white friend, and I will definitely reroute it for the revolution!

I saw this on askthisblackwoman.com:

Today is the National Day of Panhandling for Reparations! People all across the United States are taking an hour or two to sit in a range of locations in their communities: outside of businesses, libraries, museums, art galleries, or on busy street corners. We wear signs reminding passersby of the history of slavery in the United States. We collect reparations in the form of money from white Americans for the enslavement and free-labor of Africans and African Americans during the establishment and economic rise of this country. This money is immediately paid out to black passersby. Both parties are offered a receipt. We do this to offer a convenient opportunity for American citizens to acknowledge, apologize and compensate the unpaid labor of African Americans, the travesty of slavery, and the rightful due of reparations."

National Day of Panhandling for Reparations was created by artist damali ayo.

Monday, October 01, 2007

More Than a Photo-Op?
When Pretty Women Go Missing


When surfing for news about black folks, I usually log on to the “ghetto grapevine” before I visit CNN or the New York Times. The black underground was where I first learned about Megan Williams’ rape and torture in West Virginia and the Jena 6. These outlets may not always be objective in their reporting, but when it comes to covering issues affecting the black community, they make the mainstream media look like they’re running on CP time.

While browsing the message boards of one popular black Web site, I came across the name Nailah Franklin. The 28-year-old sales rep from Chicago had been missing for a week at the time and was presumed dead. Cyber prayer circles were forming. Condolences were being offered in advance. Calamity united total strangers.

Then the blow came: Nailah’s badly decomposed body was discovered behind a vacant store. It was so unrecognizable, she had to be identified through dental records. Shock quickly turned to sadness as mourners remarked on how unfair it was for someone so pretty to meet with such a tragic end.

Pretty. Beautiful. Wholesome. These are just a few adjectives used to describe the young woman. I confess, when I first glimpsed Nailah’s picture, I couldn't stop staring at it. In every pose, she looks sun-kissed. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I wonder if Nailah’s case would have garnered national attention if she weren’t so photogenic.

A recent Sun Times commentary said Nailah’s “all-American girl face” humanized her disappearance. That leads my inner cynic to inquire: If Nailah resembled Serena Williams – a woman whose features are not considered as American as apple pie – would her story still be endearing? Are we more sympathetic when disaster strikes pretty people?

Our culture places such a high premium on beauty that missing black women who don’t typify the all-American ideal fail to earn equal face time on the nightly news. "Unless it's a pretty girl ages 20 to 35, the media exposure is just not there," says Kelly Bennett, a case manager for the National Center for Missing Adults.

A story that has not received a significant amount of coverage is the disappearance of 22-year-old Stepha Henry. An honors graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, Stepha vanished on May 29, 2007 while vacationing in Florida. Although she received a paragraph or two in a few media outlets, her story was largely ignored.

Many blacks decried the lack of coverage for Stepha’s case, and considered her a casualty of Missing White Woman Syndrome. This mocking phrase describes relentless media pursuit of photogenic "damsels in distress," among them Natalee Holloway, Laci Peterson and Jessie Marie Davis.

I don't mean to trivialize the tragedy that befell Nailah Franklin. She was a vibrant young woman who was well-loved by family and friends, and she didn't deserve to die. Yet, I hope she is not reduced to a photo-op used to sell newspapers and ad space. Women of color who go missing are underreported in the media, so I’m thankful when these stories get any mention. I hope her case shines a spotlight on other sisters who vanish from parking lots and restaurants and sidewalks across America — regardless of age, economic background or good looks.

I know it’s impossible for the mainstream media to report on every woman who fails to make it home, but I hope future cases aren’t assigned relevance based on beauty.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Saturday Freestylin' and Profilin'

Just checking in and making good on my commitment to write for three weeks straight. Since Monday, I’ve been posting here and on my other blog Crossing Sunset. For the mathematically challenged, I’m on day — or should I say night — number six. I have much love for those writers who have the discipline to sit at their computer and blog every day. It's challenging for a sista! I feel like I'm cheating because I usually labor over a laptop for hours on issues that I find meaningful, or at least humorous. But today I'm freestylin'.

This post is going to be quick and dirty because I'm on my way out to dinner, Zagat guide in tow. I'm in an exploratory mood, which began earlier in the day. I stopped by the California African American Museum in South Los Angeles and became a member. Saw "A Woman's Journey: The Life and Work of Artis Lane," a beautiful exhibit on transcendence and transformation that I'll be examining in depth tomorrow on Crossing Sunset. In the ten years that I've lived in Los Angeles, I'm ashamed to say I've only visited CAAM twice: once to attend a reception for the legendary photographer Gordon Parks, and then for a Brown vs. the Board of Education screening.

I feel like I inhabit two L.A.'s, or rather, I'm acutely aware of the duality of being a black woman in a predominantly white and Latino city. There's the flip-flop rocking, mall-hopping, organic mart shopping Valley Girl, and then there's the south of Wilshire sojourner desperately in need of negroes and culture. There are no ethnic (land)markers on my side of the canyon — no beauty salons boasting "100 percent human hair," no $1 soul food restaurants, no swap meets ... no African-American museums.

I'm torn because I want to finish this post, but my stomach calls, and so does my friend, wondering why I'm late — again.

Time to go profilin'. Signing off ... for now.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Why I Write

My mother often reminds me that my dysfunction didn’t commence when I moved to the City of Angels, but began at the tender age of six or seven. Around that time, I started writing obituaries: “Kristy was killed by her father today…” “Timmy got ran over by the school bus…”

They were pretty morbid stories, the stuff that fills psychiatric files. But the carnage cluttering my literary landscape wasn’t the work of a burgeoning serial killer. Those dark eulogies were simply the means for a lonely little girl to exorcise childhood's demons.

By age 10, I started journaling. I remember trying to erect a time machine from a toy baby carriage and some miscellaneous items around my grandmother’s house. I wanted to document my journey to the past, my voyage from a life of invisibility. It was at that time that I discovered Stephen King, Dean Koontz and the Twilight series — teen horror paperbacks that my mom dismissed as “occult books.” I wasn’t fascinated by vampires or gruesome murders. What enchanted me was the ability of little girls to set a foe aflame from fifty feet, or telepathic teens who could levitate the school bully to another plain.

I grew up in a small town ten miles northwest of Philadelphia, and was often teased for “talking white.” While my cornrowed neighbors were jumping double Dutch on the sidewalk or hanging out on the stoop listening to Salt n Pepa, I was locked in my room penning the ‘hood version of Carrie. I identified with King’s psychokinetic protagonist because she too knew how it felt to be the odd kid on the block.

I still feel like the odd kid, but now I’m learning to embrace my otherness. I enjoy writing essays and novels that celebrate that curious, disenfranchised and marginalized character — the dysfunctional black diva. Yet, I have trouble negotiating my love for the vapid and materialistic with the need to examine more political and intellectual matters. I felt conflicted for not blogging about the Jena 6 case, Bill O'Reilly’s off-color comments about black folks, or Megan Williams’ rape and torture by six white people in West Virginia. I’m sometimes plagued by the notion that I’m not intelligent or informed enough to critique relevant social issues. It’s not that I’m oblivious to racism, sexism, classism and other interlocking systems of oppression. It’s just that I’m more at home with essays that begin: “A funny thing happened on the way to my colonics appointment …”

When I write about the comedic but mundane, I worry that I won’t be considered a conscious writer. I appreciate the politics of Fanon, Cornel West, bell hooks, The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron — in fact, I interviewed Scott-Heron when I lived in Baltimore after his set at the Arena Players. But I also spend hours reading Stephen King or perusing perezhilton.com. I’m an information junkie. I read feminist blogs, Latino blogs, gay blogs, conservative and left-wing blogs, black militant to evangelical Christian sites, Bossip to Slate, Crunk & Disorderly to Salon … and they all inform my writing.

Sometimes, I return home from a full-time job and sit at my laptop until four or five in the a.m. Writing is lonely work, but it’s also redemptive. I want to explore the struggles of women who not only battle bigoted bosses, but who also have hair care woes. Like bell hooks says, “There is a world of thoughts and ideas women have yet to write about in nonfiction — whole worlds of writing we need to enter and call home. No woman is writing too much. Women need to write more. We need to know what it feels like to be submerged in language, carried about by the passion of writing words.”

As trite as it sounds, writing is my passion. Little did I know that as I was killing off the neighborhood bullies in those childhood obituaries, I was also writing myself into existence. There is healing in humor, and I’ve found a safe place to be zany, reflective and vulnerable — all at the same time.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Branding Colorblind Love:
New Frontiers in Interracial Dating?


"I Heart White Men."

You probably won't see that T-shirt hanging from a kiosk in the Crenshaw District or on 125th Street in Harlem, but merchandise marketing black women’s interracial relationships may be coming to a cyber store near you.

Earlier this year, I joked about creating a line of
“Looking for Mr. White” tees for black women. My idea was a tongue-in-cheek response to the proliferation of black male/white female couplings, and also a nod to what I called the “Something New Movement” — an increased number of sisters choosing to date outside the race.

The
blog Black Female Interracial Marriage appears to be on the verge of a similar movement – branding colorblind love. Created by Evia, a black woman married to a white man, the site recently posted information on this campaign: “Sistas, what words would scream IR interest yet be subtle enough for you as a bw to wear or have on your totebag?” Evia asks. “I will be selling gear (tote bags, caps, shirts, etc.) here that will signal to others in a subtle way that you are receptive to the possibility of an IR relationship of varied types.”

I must confess, reading Evia’s blog has become a guilty pleasure for me. The sidebar of her site features photos of famous and not-so-famous sisters happily embracing their white partners. Evia often pontificates on the beauty and desirability of black women, and encourages her readers not to limit their dating options to black men. She comes across as the Harriet Tubman of outmarriage, leading her charges to the Promised Land of Interracial Love.

In this world, black chicks rule. Her site celebrates black women – in all their hues – and provides balance to IR mainstays Heidi and Seal, Tiger and Elin that saturate the pages of US Weekly and People. Her space offers kinship and community to interracially involved black women who feel ostracized by society, or who simply want to see a loving representation of their relationships.

I get Evia’s message. I really do. But I’m uncomfortable with the idea of preference as product. Do sisters really need a discreet logo or badge to signify that they’re open-minded about relationships? And why does the insignia have to be “subtle”? Is there an unspoken fear that black women will catch a beat-down from black men for flaunting their interracial desires on designer totes, mugs and key chains? If this trend takes off, what’s next? A secret society complete with handshakes and passwords?

Just as I have issues with brothers who exclusively date non-black women, I am also suspicious of sisters who omit the color black from their kaleidoscopic courtships. People should be free to love whomever they please. But is interracial love still colorblind when you actively seek out mates based on skin tone? I would have a problem if Hakeem passed me on the sidewalk wearing an “I Heart Becky” hat. Although Evia often says black women should be open to potential suitors in a variety of races, not too long ago, she featured an “I Love Vanilla” button campaign on her site.

Here’s a suggestion: For those sisters who want to alert others that they’re open to dating out, why not purchase an orange awareness ribbon? The ribbon not only promotes cultural diversity, but also symbolizes solidarity with those fighting world hunger, lupus and Multiple Sclerosis. You can be an activist and get your interracial flirt on at the same time. Doesn’t that sound better than endorsing walking product placement?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

My Dirty Little Secret

“What pornography is really about, ultimately, isn't sex but death.”
- Susan Sontag


I watched my first adult film at age 13.

Spending the night at my older cousin’s house promised to be an evening filled with girl talk, Jiffy Pop and Sixteen Candles in the VCR. But what transpired over the course of six hours was more hardcore than any Molly Ringwald movie.

My uncle and his girlfriend at the time were headed out on a date. To my shock, he dropped a dime bag of weed into my 15-year-old cousin’s lap, and admonished me not to tell anyone. Then, grabbing his jacket, he closed the door behind him and locked us in.

Claustrophobia was a hazy noose tightening around my neck. I was sandwiched between my cousin and her 15-year-old girlfriend on a love seat as they passed a joint back and forth, inches from my startled face. Instead of Sixteen Candles, we watched The Exorcist. I grew fearful that we weren’t alone in the apartment, a paranoia spurred by the contact high I was getting.

After a few hours of horror movies, my cousin decided to lighten the mood. Rifling through videotapes, she inserted one of my uncle’s pornos in the VCR. I felt like the heroine in a Donald Goines novel, trying valiantly to resist the pimp’s attempts to turn her out. But it was a battle I was slowly losing. The video was laughable, featuring ugly white guys with thick moustaches and corny names like “Dick Goezinya.” Yet, I was impressed by the skills of one fat, curly-haired man who could lean over and perform fellatio on himself. Ron Jeremy, as I later learned, was an unlikely icon in the porn industry.

More shocking than the sex acts appearing inches from our faces was my cousin and her friend’s reaction to the flick. They seemed stoic and bored, like restless kids trying to stay awake in church. But I became aroused by the moans and gyrations on the TV screen, even replaying the tape after the two girls had passed out on the couch in a bud-induced stupor.

Over the years, my flirtation with pornography became a full-fledged love affair. The video I watched that night at my cousin’s apartment awakened some dormant sexual desire in me. At 14, I would raid my older brother’s hidden stash of dirty magazines, and sneak them to my room to masturbate. When I went to the bookstore, I would buy soft core “Victorian romances” to supplement my diet of Sweet Valley High and Judy Blume novels. My favorite offering from Blume, the beloved teen author? Wifey. I had to hide my dog-eared copy in the back of my closet.

As a freshman at Hampton, I had a small library of X-rated titles “borrowed” from friends that I conveniently forgot to return. But I was growing bored with my hobby. Because I considered myself a critical thinker, porn was viewed as anti-intellectual and anti-woman. I didn't want to see myself as a hypersexualized underclassman who couldn't stop masturbating. I didn’t watch another X-rated movie until junior year. I got drunk with some homies and we picked up a Heather Hunter flick at the video store as a joke. I remember dozing off during her sexcapades, believing that my addiction had indeed fizzled out. For a few years, I developed an aversion to the Caught from Behind and Debbie Does Deliverance films of the world. Around that time, I started attending church, developing new friendships, and disdaining my dance with debauchery. Whatever comfort porn offered shriveled up like a raisin in the sun.

But even dried fruit can be reconstituted.

Earlier this year when Ray-J’s sex tape was leaked, curiosity got the best of me, and I went online to find a copy. In my quest to view the R&B singer’s home video with Kim Kardashian, I discovered several Web sites that boasted free porn. Religious beliefs aside, another reason I stopped watching flicks was the embarrassment of coming out of an X-rated store and being spotted with a tell-tale paper bag in hand. But my laptop became a portable sex shop, and I could browse all the three-minute videos I wanted.

At first, I convinced myself that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. After all, I had been celibate for six years, and at least I wasn’t sleeping around. But I was spending an inordinate amount of time on the computer – sometimes three to four hours a night – surfing sex sites. I knew I had a problem when I started watching online videos at 10 o'clock one evening, and didn’t shut down my computer until 6 in the a.m. After a while, I viewed the choreographed sex acts with the same stoic expression my cousin and her friend wore that fateful night so many years ago. But I couldn’t look away. Disaffection became a disease, and even when it was apparent that some of the women were being roughed up during intercourse, and several of the teens looked suspiciously underage, I didn’t avert my gaze. “MILF,” “facialized” and “cumshot” were unwanted entries in my mental dictionary. I started to feel corrupt, like a pedophile in a raincoat and shades, handing out hard candy to children in the park. But that didn’t stop me from logging onto my laptop every night.

A part of my spirit dies every time I stare through the window of my monitor into someone else's bedroom. I used to cry out of guilt when I did it, but I don't anymore. I know that, at 13, I was an unwilling participant in a perverse rite of passage, yet emotional tribal scars run deep. Maybe it's sexual repression, loneliness, excitement or an addictive personality that makes me turn to pornography. Sometimes, I fancy myself as Sula, the detached anti-hero who mourns, yet wholeheartedly embraces, her own fragmentation.

I mentioned this addiction to a girlfriend, and she warned me about the dangers of forming soul ties with my cyber partners. Her words hit home recently. I turned off the lights and got into bed after hours of net porn, and for several minutes, naked couples copulated against the darkened screen of my closed eyelids.

Here's where I'm supposed to insert: "But my relationship with Christ delivered me from this sinful compulsion." Sadly, I'm still looking for redemption. Sunday mornings have found me strolling the seedier online communities until it's time to get dressed for church. I know that I have many spiritual (and sisterly) bedfellows. According to 2006 statistics from Family Safe Media, 9.4 million women access adult Web sites every month, and 47 percent of Christians say pornography is a major problem in their households. That’s a whole lot of bawdy bandwidth being broadcast into the home.

I’m not proud of my dirty little secret, but I'm working hard to remove this cloak of shame. Instead of three to four hours a night of illicit net flicks, I’m down to 30 minutes every other day. Last night, right before I clicked on a porn portal, my finger hovered above the mouse, unsure. After moments of indecision, I went to my Favorites, and selected an Internet sermon on forgiveness. For me, this is deliverance … and not the kind that Debbie does.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Redefining the Rainbow:
How it Feels to be Colored Me

“But I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it … No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
– Zora Neale Hurston
“How it Feels to be Colored Me”



I love being a woman of color.

That might not be such a P.C. thing to proclaim in today’s color-blind utopia, race-is-a-social-construct society, but I love blackness in all its permutations.

There, I said it.

Recently, a very dear friend observed that I am hyperaware of pigmentation, particularly the dark variety. In other words, I'm color-obsessed. Guilty as charged. What can I say? I’m a writer dedicated to exploring the richness and complexity of African-American culture, particularly as it impacts black women. I notice race. I argue about race. I'm a racy chick.

The first op-ed piece that I published in the Baltimore Sun at age 22 was titled "The Multicultural Whirl of Racial Identity." This is the first line from that article: "The other night, an MCI operator called from New Mexico. In the course of haranguing me about the value of switching long-distance calling plans, the topic turned to race, as it frequently does in my conversations ..."

As a black woman living in the multicultural mosaic that is Los Angeles, sometimes my otherness stands out like a knock-off purse in the Prada store. But to crib from Zora Neale Hurston, I am not "tragically colored." I love being a card-carrying member of the sistagirl club, an identity that I am reluctant to exchange for simply being "human” or "American.”

But I didn’t always have a love affair with my melanin. Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood in southeastern Pennsylvania, I wanted to swap skins with my playmates Christie and Joey. I thought I was white, or at least Asian. A grade school teacher assumed I was part Chinese and I promptly went home and asked my mother. I felt proud that someone else knew I wasn’t an ordinary black girl with thick lips and woolly pigtails.

The quasi-exotic illusion that I operated under was shattered at 10 when my family moved to a predominantly black part of town. I tried to fit in, but I found no kinship in my new community. I didn’t have any ethnic signifiers. I couldn’t dance, jump double dutch or speak slang as a second language. The kids I rode the bus with were always loud and menacing, bullying me for speaking “like a white girl." Blackness was as ugly and second-rate as my hand-me-down clothes.

I wouldn’t morph into a baby nationalist until my freshman year at a historically black college. But well before I started rocking “It’s a Black Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand!” T-shirts at Hampton University, a Jewish English teacher tossed me a lifeline. She perceived that I was struggling with identity issues, and recommended that I pick up some books by Zora Neale Hurston. As I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, I heard the dialect of my grandfather, my great-grandmother. Initially, I thought Zora’s works were a caricature of the black idiom, but later realized that she saw a lyrical beauty in the black vernacular, in black culture. She was unabashedly colored.

Zora’s contemporaries didn't view her so highly. Richard Wright of Native Son fame, wrote a scathing critique of Their Eyes, saying, "Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the 'white folks' laugh."

Black feminist writers, among them Alice Walker – who resurrected Zora’s works from obscurity – regarded her as a foremother. Walker believed that Zora’s male critics viewed a black woman’s self-determination in the 1930s as insignificant and unworthy of a platform. Yet, Walker saw a sense of “racial health” in Zora’s writing. She once wrote of Their Eyes, "There is enough self-love in that one book — love of community, culture, traditions — to restore a world."

Growing up in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated all-black town in America, Zora was surrounded by folks who celebrated blackness. Proud and self-governed (Zora’s father, John, was once elected mayor), they didn’t think themselves inferior to the white people who occasionally drove through their dusty back roads.

I largely credit Zora (and The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, bell hooks and Malcolm X) with helping to ground me in this identity. My love affair with black culture doesn’t mean that I run around with a fist-shaped Afro pick and green-black-and-red medallion, shouting “Fight the Power” in my best Chuck D. impression. It means that I don’t back down from discussions of race in polite company. It means that I’m not afraid to confront racism for fear of offending (or scaring off) my non-black friends. For the longest time, I only believed I was a worthy writer if a white person said I was good. Not that I don’t respect the opinions of my non-black homies and mentors, but a white stamp of approval held more weight than a black one, or even my own.

As we move toward a more homogeneous society, the concept of race seems romanticized and antiquated. I support multiculturalism – I probably have more non-black friends in L.A. than black friends – and yet I wholeheartedly maintain my own identity. When I wrote my first book, California Schemin’: The Black Woman’s Guide to Surviving in L.A., a well-meaning friend suggested that I omit the word “black” from the title. It was more important to him that my book appeal to a wider fan base (read: white folks) than it was for me to articulate the unique struggle against invisibility and marginality that many black women face in La La Land. A tiny coda occurred a few years later when another friend called to say that a gay white couple was reading my book at the table next to her in California Pizza Kitchen.

Some may think I'm more Elle than Essence, more Valley Girl than around-the-way girl, but I am indelibly marked. Interestingly enough, this sense of racial pride was informed by my mother, a woman wholly liberated from racial labels. There is a bit of Zora in Lola, who doesn’t eschew her blackness, but finds humor in it, an inside joke she shares with her sistafriends. I see this in the way she nicknames them: Big girl. Chicken. Puddin’. Colored girl. Using identifiably ethnic monikers, she doesn’t transcend the culture, but revels in it. I, too, share this naming with my own sistagirls, and it symbolizes our collective journey, ascribes us to a healthy, vibrant, colorful history. We are Sojourner. Harriet Tubman. Miss Celie. Colored girl.

There’s a colored girl in every community, but as Zora would say, we are not weeping at the world. We are redefining the rainbow.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Loving across Color Lines

When I first moved to Los Angeles in 1998, KKBT The Beat was heavily promoting its “No Color Lines” campaign. At the time, I thought the movement's mantra was clichéd and overly simplistic.

That is until I heard Theo, the leader of the revolution.

Theo was a honey-throated DJ who figured prominently in my fantasies — and this was on the strength of his voice alone. Sexy, thuggish and effortlessly popular with the ladies and the homies, he was the golden boy of the city's hip-hop radio station. If the brother was promoting tolerance, I was all over it! So it was a major shock to come face-to-face with him at a club and discover that, for all of his 'hood markers, my future baby daddy was Asian. I quickly recovered from that bombshell, however, and decided that Theo Mizuhara was too alluring to exclude from my daydreams.

Fantasies fade, but even those interracial imaginings of mine wouldn't have been possible without landmark legislation that took place 40 years ago today. In the Loving v. Virginia ruling, the Supreme Court overturned a Virginia statute that prohibited whites from marrying nonwhites. At the heart of the case was a black woman, Mildred Jeter, who smacked down segregated society to marry Richard Loving, a white man.

June 12 marks a day of remembrance, a mixed-race lovefest. Although I appreciate the Lovings' struggle to desegregate relationships four decades ago, I'm still trying to emanicpate my inner interracial-dater hater. I don't suffer from Angry Black Woman Syndrome, yet I still feel a tad apprehensive when I spy mixed-raced couplings, particularly of the black male/white female variety.

Ironically, this nation's path to color-blind love was paved in part by a sister. Yet, according to the 2002 Census, black women are less likely to marry outside their race than black men. In 2002, there were 279,000 white female-black male marriages compared with 116,000 black female-white male marriages. Black men stroll down the aisle with non-black women at a greater rate — nearly 10 percent — than any other racial or gender group except Asian women.

A Korean writer reached out to me recently for my thoughts on interracial relationships. He read my article "Black Men, White Women, Mixed Emotions," and could relate to my ambivalence: a belief that love conquers all, and yet feeling that many, many brothers are jumping ship in search of it. Because I live in Los Angeles, the "Jungle Fever" capitol of the West Coast, one is hard pressed to find Heidi/Hakeem-free zones. I explained to this writer that even in the midst of my dating dilemmas, I didn't want to become that hostile chick who sucks her teeth and gives the side eye to Kobe, Tiger, Seal, Taye and other brothers (and yes, I include Tiger in that category) for loving non-black women. That stems from a belief that my relationship options are limited, that white women have the dating game on lockdown, or that I have a lease on the love life of black men. None of the above are true.

The swirl of racial politics surrounding dating and marriage is often hard to unravel. I joke about black women starting a "Something New" movement, but I realize I'm being reactionary ... and hypocritical. There are several blogs and Web sites that wholeheartedly encourage sisters to expand their dating options, particularly with white men. With statistics showing that 43.4 percent of black women between the ages of 30 to 34 have never experienced matrimonial bliss, "Looking for Mr. White" looks more and more like a viable option.

Misgivings aside, there is a part of me that wants to embrace the "No Color Lines" credo. Even though I haven't realized it fully, I am indebted to the Lovings for their sacrifice, and for reminding us that love is, and should be, colorblind. On this Remembrance Day, I pledge to keep my apprehension in check should I see Bilal cruising down the 101 freeway with Becky. I will not avert my eyes and act like these couples don't exist. Although I probably won't hug them and sell them a "Remembrance Day '07" tee shirt, I am going to remind myself that, ultimately, people have the right to love who they want to love. Theo would be proud of me.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Pole Dancing 101:
Bringing Sexy Back … Front and Center


“Sometimes, when I'm alone, I put on six inch heels and wear nothing else, and dance around in front of the mirror and do my little stripper dance.”
- Tori Spelling

“You gotta keep her off the pole!”

- Chris Rock



Vanilla-scented candles dotted the North Hollywood loft, and Guy’s “Piece of My Love” pulsated from speakers in the dimly lit room …

Sounds like the opening scene from a ghetto erotica novel. Now add to it four stainless steel poles and eight mats strategically placed on the floor and you have X-Polesitions, a pole dancing studio where women can bring sexy back, front and center.

“It’s expressing your sexuality through exercise,” says Leah Daniels-Butler, founder of X-Polesitions. Leah is a woman whom brothers back east would call “thick.” She doesn’t mind pointing out her problem areas, but drapes confidence about her like an old shawl. A former TV and film casting director with 16 years in the business, she opened her doors last October as a means of helping women feel comfortable in their own skin. “Sexiness is an attitude,” she says with a smile.

Last night, I took my first stroll around the pole. The invitation for X-Polesitions’ free intro class had been sitting in my inbox for months, but I never deleted it. To me, pole dancing conjured up clear stilettos, G-strings and crisp dollar bills. It seemed too naughty an activity for an upstanding (read: single and celibate) chick to be indulging in. But my inner siren got the best of me, so I scheduled an appointment.

On my way to the class, I shared the elevator with a 45-year-old white woman who was also attending. “You only live once,” she said, proudly displaying her new boob job. “What do you have to lose?”

Inhibition, for one thing. Seven dimepieces were lounging around the studio, half of them wearing Daisy Dukes and tight halters. I felt decidedly unsexy in my penitentiary gray tee shirt and elastic-waisted jogging pants. But I assured myself that if I felt too uncomfortable (if, say, an orgy erupted), I would discreetly grab my things and hit the door.

The first 30 to 40 minutes of class were spent warming up and doing stretches on the mat, albeit erotic ones. We learned techniques called the “Cat Pounce” and the “Ship’s Bitch.” During one position, Leah instructed us to slowly slide our hands down to our "chocha," a move that felt awkward for me. I couldn’t put my heart into the techniques because I just knew my cellulite was showing through the gauzy sweat pants.

The whole time I was sweeping my chocha across the mat, or bouncing my backside to Ludacris’ “What’s Your Fantasy?” I reflected on the love-hate relationship I have with my body. Since I’ve gained weight, I have to sneak up on my reflection in the mirror, and I try to hide my girth in bulky clothes. Yet even when I was 125 pounds, I never felt truly happy and at peace in my own skin.

Finally, it was time to work the poles. Although the X-Polesitions Web site boasts that its routines will help “build muscle strength and build cardiovascular ability,” we weren't there for the health benefits. Every woman in the room was eager to swing around that stainless steel like a veteran stripper, but we had to earn our stripes. Forming a circle, we were instructed to saunter sensuously across the parquet floor as “Make it Rain (I Make it Rain on Them Hoes)” blared in the background. We giggled. We bumped into each other. We felt clumsy getting our sexy stroll on, little girls trying on Mommy’s heels.

Satisfied with our performance, Leah had us assume the position. I know my limitations. I’ve been called “uncoordinated” since the fifth grade, and was never chosen to turn the rope in Double Dutch because I’m “double-handed.” But I approached the pole like my name was Candy and I was two months behind on the rent. The first five attempts, I could only manage half swings because I forgot to lift my right leg off the floor. But Leah was patient. “You have to trust that the pole is going to hold you,” she said, giving me a maternal nudge.

Finally, I let go. Both feet left the floor and I was hugging the pole like a long-lost lover. At that moment, I wished I still had a weave down my back and a fresh pedicure. I felt – dare I say it? – flirty! I wasn’t going home that night to practice my new tricks on some boy toy, but every woman needs to feel sexy, if only for herself.

After Leah pried us from the poles, we were treated to a collective lap dance by Antoinette, another instructor. Contrary to my initial thoughts, the women weren’t cast-offs from the strip club looking to make an extra buck. Antoinette has a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, and she trained with a Cirque du Soleil dancer for a year and a half. We oohed and aahed as she sidled sinuously up the pole, performing backflips and splits like an urban aerialist. We admired her grace … but more importantly, her body was bangin’! We had co-opted her curves and her confidence as our own.

I know I’ll never wear Daisy Dukes or make my booty clap at the club, but as I donned my socks and sneakers after class, I realized that, despite my imperfections, I can find the courage to dance naked in front of my mirror again. I don’t need a pole for validation, but there’s nothing like candles, dim lights and 15 feet of gleaming stainless steel to bring out your inner sexpot.

I signed up for six more classes.


X-Polesitions, 5355 Cartwright Avenue, Suite 203, North Hollywood, CA 91601. For more information, visit the Web site: www.xpolesitions.com

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

De-Icing the Cryonic Woman:
The Journey from Abuse to Love


cryonics \kri- ä- nīks\ n. plural but usually singular in construction - the practice of freezing a dead diseased human in hopes of bringing her back to life at some future time when a cure for her disease has been developed.


I took a much needed break from composing my wedding vows to write this article.

How does a woman who hasn’t been on a date in two years leap from abstinence to the altar? I’m still working on that transition, hence the vows but no groom in sight. There is nothing wrong with being single, but the desire to be in a relationship, to be in love, has been strong as of late, as persistent as the sun piercing the smoggy Los Angeles skyline.

Why aren’t you dating?

I’ve been fielding that question for years, and lately, have been asking it of myself. Why aren’t I dating? I’m not a lipstick lesbian, and I’m not that picky, in spite of what some friends insist. I don’t buy into the “good man shortage,” and believe that yes, black women can find love in the City of Angels, despite statistics to the contrary. I don’t think I’m unattractive or undateable. The deli technician at Whole Foods calls me gorgeous each morning as he prepares my quarter pound of sesame kale. Every other day, unsolicited e-mails arrive in my inbox from strangers (complete with resumés, head shots and six-packs on display) wanting to do coffee or dinner. Random Negroes and non-Negroes alike stop me in parking lots, at supermarket checkout lines, in the stairwells of office buildings, at traffic lights, on studio lots and in department stores to get my number. There is no scarcity of potential suitors.

So why aren’t I dating?

I don’t believe all men are dogs, deadbeats, thugs, or abusive on some level. And yet, when it comes to intimacy with the opposite sex, I struggle to contain my inner ice queen. She emerges to sabotage relationships, deliberately pushing folks away and testing the limits of their loyalty, or more insidiously through cynical comments and aloof gestures. Although I can be loving and I want to be in love, my reality belies that desire. When I look around, I notice that I don’t have close relationships with my father, brother, uncle or male cousins, and my guy friends are few and far between. It’s as if the queen of ice has frozen me into indifference, and my heart has yet to thaw.

I don’t hate men, but I have been conditioned not to trust them. At 17, I lost my virginity to a man I both detested and feared. Jeff was one of the neighborhood drug dealers, an underling to his cousin, the kingpin. He used to cruise the streets of our small town in his mud-colored Pontiac, a giant beetle in search of other invertebrates. I knew he was trouble the minute he lowered his tinted window, and in another world, I wouldn’t have given him a second glance. Instead, I gave him my phone number.

My descent into apathy didn’t begin at 17 between the fists of a minor hustler. Years before, I had learned to be uncomfortable around men, so I made myself invisible in their presence. At 10, someone I loved, revered and was related to told me I had “a nice ass,” and fondled me between my legs. Fast forward four years, and I’m sitting on the staircase of my rowhouse wearing a Hershey Park tee shirt and jeans. Alone. An older male friend of the family drops by to chat about homework and grades, while glibly extolling the wonders of prostitution, or being a “skeezer” as it was called back then. I had recently developed breasts, and was conscious of how tightly the tee hugged my bosom during his “recruitment” speech. Those experiences, among others, taught me that men were both nice and nefarious, and I had to insulate myself against any emotional intrusion. I learned that I wasn’t worthy of love or respect, so at 17, by the time Jeff spun into my life in a brown haze, I was waiting for him.

I “dated” Jeff for one year, and God only knows what would have happened had I not escaped to college. Only a few friends were aware that I was being abused because I was too ashamed to ask for help. I was too frightened to dump a guy who slapped me publicly, attempted to smother me, yanked my hair, tried to break my arm, and who tortured me in his bedroom for three hours one winter night until I fled down three flights of stairs, out the front door, and down the street with no coat or shoes on.

Jeff never left black-and-blue marks on my skin, but not all scars are on the surface. Many women walk around wounded, like cosmopolitan Hester Prynnes, scarlet letters of Abuse embroidered into their Coach bags, Prada blouses and Victoria’s Secret bras. The summer of my junior year at Hampton, I hung out with three such sisters from my hometown, girls I had not associated with in high school. Our coming together seemed strange since we didn’t have the same interests or friends. I later learned the one thing we all had in common was abuse. We shared tales of mistreatment over dinner at Dennys, or while giggling nervously into drinks at the club. Stephanie’s* man beat her while she was pregnant, and she later lost the baby. China’s boyfriend used to perch on the roof of the building across the street from her rowhouse, like some thugged out, Kangol-wearing Spiderman, and watch her every move. Natalia, as short and cute as she was, used to get slammed against the wall by her lover at house parties. In some warped way, we were relishing our pain. For us, abuse was so normalized that we traded dating horror stories with all the gusto of old vets crowing over their Purple Hearts.

My first boyfriend was the only man who physically abused me, but after I left him, I kept attracting others who were violent on some level – emotionally, verbally, and psychically. I’m not a victim. I’m just trying to deconstruct the attitudes that enslaved me to dysfunctional relationships, and prevented me from believing I was worthy to give or receive love. Despite my past, abuse is not my identity. I have forgiven Jeff. I am told the man who choked me until I nearly passed out is now a police officer in a suburb of our small town. I have forgiven him, which is an ongoing process, and I have extended that same pardon to all the men whose names are tattooed on my inner thighs.

After years of hating men, fearing men, not trusting men, blaming men, it’s as if my heart is slowly defrosting, an ice floe sliced from a larger berg by a shaft of sunlight. I want to be in love! I want to do all the clichéd couple things: taking romantic walks on Venice Beach; chatting on the phone for hours; visiting museums; pretending to be all absorbed as I listen to jazz in Leimert Park and going restaurant hopping, Zagat guide tucked firmly into my purse. I contributed my share of toxins to relationships -- the oppressed rising up to become the oppressor – but I’m working hard not to contaminate future friendships. Despite my wounds (and those I have caused), there is no lack of love in my life, no lack of intimacy. Armed with this knowledge, I have begun reaching out to the men in my circle in an attempt at recovery. Real healing takes place in knowing that I may have nicks and bruises, but I’m not damaged goods, not damaged for good.

So pardon me as I resume my wedding vows. I hope to recite them one day soon … and not just to my own face in the mirror. I can’t divulge all the silliness I’ve penned so far, but this quote from Mari Evans’ poem “Celebration” sums up my covenant: “I will bring you a whole person/and you will bring me a whole person/and we will have us twice as much/of love and everything …”


* names changed to protect privacy

Monday, April 23, 2007

Race Face of a Killer













One week after the tragedy at Virginia Tech, the nation still struggles to make sense of the senseless. But even grief is filtered through the prism of race.

Yesterday in church, the pastor offered words of solace in this time of mourning, and urged his parishioners to pray for the families of the 32 victims. Although he informed his predominantly black congregation that Cho Seung-Hui’s race should have been insignificant, the preacher expressed relief that the gunman who committed the worst mass shooting in U.S. history wasn’t “one of us.”

Asian-Americans have not been able to breathe so easily. Last Monday, when early reports speculated that the killer was a South Korean immigrant, the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) rushed to do damage control. Fearing backlash, AAJA implored the media to avoid using racial identifiers, and issued a press release stating, “There is no evidence at this early point that the race or ethnicity of the suspected gunman has anything to do with the incident, and to include such mention serves only to unfairly portray an entire people.”

As I read articles on the VTech tragedy by writers with Asian surnames, surprise, disappointment and fear permeate their commentaries. It's as if Cho's crime brought down the race somehow. Chinese journalist Lisa Ling, who covered the story for Oprah, prefaced her report by saying, “As an Asian American, my heart sunk,” and she worried about reprisals toward anyone with Asian features.

African-Americans reacted similarly upon hearing that the snipers who terrorized D.C. a few years ago were black. As people of color, bizarre violence puzzles us, and is viewed as the domain of crazy white men. Give us a back alley knife fight or a garden-variety driveby, but we don’t do mass murder. Or if, perchance, we become trigger-happy, there is always a rational excuse. When Jamaican-born Colin Ferguson gunned down six people on a Long Island train over a decade ago, his defense was that “black rage” drove him to temporary insanity. Although African-Americans condemned Ferguson’s cold-blooded spree, many still gave him a pass. His killings didn’t qualify as mass murder, per se, because The Man made him do it.

Minorities often feel personally responsible for the lunacy of fellow minorities. It’s as if a random act of violence taints our racial scorecard. But for the majority culture, there doesn't appear to be the same sense of guilt and shame. When the identities of Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were released, I doubt white men went around wringing their hands, saying, “My people, my people.” On a deeper level, “white madness” has long been a source of consolation in communities of color. In the face of our disenfranchisement, it serves as an equalizer. Let white folks have their money, power and prestige--at least people of color don’t go around shooting up school yards.

Until now.

Although most Asians, like most blacks, are decent, hard-working folks, it’s inevitable that they will become the butt of gallows humor and/or attempts to sully their reputation as “the model minority.” Engineering and rocket scientist stereotypes aside, the VTech massacre serves as a reminder that no culture is exempt from deviant behavior. Although Cho wasn’t “one of us,” how will blacks react if the next mass murderer is?

“No one deserves a tragedy,” poet Nikki Giovanni reminds us in her Hokies convocation address. This pronouncement is true not only for the victims of Cho’s rampage, but for the Asian-American community as well.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Rasheeda’s Blues: Black Women and Anxiety

have we gone crazy? I can’t hear anythin /but the maddening screams & the soft strains of death/ & you promised me/ you promised me … somebody/anybody/sing a black girl’s song/ bring her out/to know herself/to know you/but sing her rhythms/carin/struggle/hard times/sing her song of life/she’s been dead so long/closed in silence so long/she doesn’t know the sound/of her own voice/her infinite beauty/she’s half-notes scattered/without rhythm/no tune/sing her sighs/sing the song of her possibilities/sing a righteous gospel/let her be born/let her be born…

-Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf


My first anxiety attack struck in April 2001. I was the editor of a radio trade magazine, and was wrapping up a phone interview with Luther Vandross. Any other time, I would have been thrilled to chat with the legendary crooner, who had recently released an album on J Records, but I couldn’t shake the free-floating dread that taunted me during our conversation.

The minute I hung up the phone, pain flooded my chest and my left arm went numb. Believing I was in the throes of a massive coronary, I grabbed my keys, told the startled receptionist that I had a doctor’s appointment, and fled the building. Once I arrived at my doctor’s office, where I did not have an appointment, I informed the nurse that I was having a heart attack. I was promptly given an EKG, which read 151 beats per minute. The average resting heart rate for women is 75 bpm. My doctor went into her bag of tricks to calm the palpitations – massaging my carotid artery and telling me to exhale forcefully with my mouth closed. Nothing worked. My traitorous heart raced on. After 20 minutes, the paramedics were called, and I was given another EKG. When the reading showed my heart rate was still around 150, an EMT said, “Let’s take her for a ride.”

Hearing those fateful words, I knew I was going gently into that good night. My body felt preternaturally cold and my palms were turning blue. As I sucked oxygen on a stretcher in the back of the ambulance, I thought about all the writing projects I’d left undone, how, at 30, I didn’t have a will, my family was 3,000 miles away, and my apartment wasn’t even clean.

At the hospital, I was given a blood test and a third EKG. For two hours, I nervously awaited the results, trying to decide how I would react upon hearing that I had a terminal illness. Finally, the grim-faced ER physician, a dead ringer for Bela Lugosi, appeared at my bedside. He delivered this shocking prognosis: there was nothing medically wrong with me. Further, he seemed miffed that I was even admitted to the emergency room. The doctor handed me a small medicine cup of Valium, along with the admonition to learn how to “calm myself.” I was offended by his insinuation that I had some sort of mental issues. Any fool could see that my heart had been beating twice the normal rate for no apparent reason.

When I visited my doctor the next day and relayed the ER physician’s diagnosis, she surprised me by agreeing with him. Apparently, Bela had notified her that my emergency room EKG was far below 150 bpm. My physician explained that I was probably suffering from anxiety, and wrote a prescription for Zoloft. Surely, she jested. My name wasn’t Becky and I didn’t live in Beverly Hills. I didn’t know any black chicks on medication, and I wasn’t going to start the dysfunctional diva revolution. I kept the hateful prescription in my purse for two weeks before tearing it up and feeding it to the wind.

Over the next few months, it felt like my brain was unraveling. Each week found me driving to the emergency room – to either sit in my car and cry, or stagger all the way to the front desk. I just needed someone to assure me that I wasn’t dying – at least not that day. I had to rotate hospitals so I wouldn’t become familiar to the ER staff. I went to seven different hospitals in seven different cities. Yet, I refused to believe that my issue was a psychological one. I was working 10- to 11-hour days with tight deadlines, writing screenplays at night, going to two or three industry parties a week, and living on Slurpees, potato chips and veggie fried rice. I was convinced that I was just supremely stressed.

One night a major panic attack struck while I was getting ready for yet another entertainment gala. I was reclining on my couch listening to Les Nubians as I waited for my painted toenails to dry. Suddenly, my left arm dropped to my side, like it was filled with wet sand. When I stood up, my legs buckled, as if boneless. On top of having a heart attack, I was certain that I had developed a neurological disorder, like Multiple Sclerosis. I just knew I’d have to dial 911 with my tongue.

I called my neighbor, who was accompanying me to the party, and begged her to sit with me until the paramedics arrived. They knocked five minutes later, puzzled, I’m sure, by the sight of the fully dressed club diva stretched out on her chaise lounge, and the chic friend checking her pulse. After asking the usual questions – age, history of heart disease in the family, smoker, high cholesterol – the younger paramedic said it sounded like I was having a panic attack, but there was no way to be 100 percent sure unless I was examined at the hospital. “Go to your party,” his partner chimed in. I took his advice.

After that night, I finally admitted to myself that I might have some mental health issues. But I refused to be a victim; I decided to get proactive about my “condition.” I searched the shelves at the organic market for alternatives to medication. I couldn’t bring myself to buy the popular St. John’s Wort, because suburban chicks had co-opted it, and I didn’t want to align myself with a “white woman’s disease.” I settled for Valerian, an herbal remedy for anxiety. At home, I would surf the net for hours, trying to find more information about my disorder. I was discouraged by the accounts that I read on panic attack message boards. Suzy suffered from anxiety for a decade and couldn’t leave her bedroom. Bob had been taking Prozac and Xanax for years and still felt melancholy. Those boards weren’t relatable or empowering; it was a cyber dumping ground for the neurotic.

I was searching for community and kinship. I wanted to hear about Rasheeda’s blues. I needed to know if other black women – their fortitude as legendary as Samson’s locks – were driving themselves to the emergency room, or were overwhelmed with a constant fear of dying, and how they coped. The lack of information, resources and even statistics about sisters suffering from anxiety was frustrating.

My time spent on the Internet did more harm than good. I became hypersuggestible. If anyone casually mentioned a disease or illness – even one common to children or the elderly – I would read about those symptoms for hours, trying to self-diagnose. According to my research, I had seven major ailments: lupus, MS, sickle cell anemia, diabetes, leukemia, ovarian cancer and Alzheimer’s – all at the same time.

My social life was in shambles. I didn’t feel safe anywhere but on my denim couch. To paraphrase Ntozake Shange, my universe was becoming one room long. If I did go out with friends, I had to know the proximity of the club or restaurant to the hospital. It wasn’t that I was afraid of people. I was afraid that I would faint or die in front of them, and they would laugh at me. I didn’t want to become a spectacle.

Only a few friends were privy to my pain. I was too ashamed to admit that I was wrestling with something that I could not handle – smart, successful and superfly as I thought I was. One day while attempting to go to the grocery store, I got as far as the garage when tremors coursed through my body. I ran back into my apartment and threw myself on the floor. As if summoned by my sobs, my mother called. I was in the practice of scaling my meltdowns way back during our conversations because she lived on the opposite coast, and I didn’t want to worry her. But that day, I could no longer hold back the hysteria. “Mom, my chest is always hurting and I’m so afraid I’m going to die!” I said, through tears. Her reaction surprised me. I have only seen my mother cry twice in my life, and I expected her to tell me to suck it up and quit acting like a drama queen. Instead, she said quietly, “Nikki, when you hurt, I hurt. When you’re in pain, I’m in pain.” With those words, I felt like a burden had been lifted. I didn’t have to labor under the façade of being strong all the time. Although I was slowly developing a support system, the perceived stigma associated with anxiety wouldn’t allow me to seek professional help.

June found me fired from my job. That day, I returned to my apartment with my personal effects, changed clothes, and immediately felt like I was being smothered. I had been living with adult onset asthma for three years, but was convinced that it was in remission. Scrambling for the inhaler I kept in my purse, I inhaled greedily. To my horror, my breathing worsened. I took another drag, and almost passed out. The irony! All this time, I feared dying of a heart attack, and my asthma, which had been under control, was about to take me out.

I called the paramedics then raced to my balcony, gulping in the smoggy morning air as I waited for them. The fire department is three blocks from my apartment, and even now when I hear their sirens wailing in the distance, I think they’re coming for me. When the two medics and two firemen knocked on my door, I was barefoot and sucking on the white Albuterol canister for dear life. I sat at my dining room table as the men held a mini confab about what to do with me. Obviously, the attack wasn’t life-threatening, because I was able to talk to them. Yet, asthma-related deaths were on the rise, and the medics weren’t taking any chances. It was time to go for another ride. When I heard that announcement, I started to cry. I was 30 years old, and I felt like a 3-year-old. I couldn’t manage my own life. Adding credence to my feelings of helplessness, one EMT rummaged in my bedroom closet and brought out a pair of bummy sneakers, which he stuffed my feet into.

I spent two hours at the hospital undergoing oxygen, nebulizer treatments and observation from the ER doctor. Five or six interns paraded through the room, scrutinizing me as if I had a fascinating deformity. I called *Tyrone to pick me up, a guy I dated off and on for two years, and hadn’t talked to in months. He was my last resort because everyone else was at work or auditions, and I didn’t have money for a cab.

“You look homeless,” Tyrone said, pulling up to the emergency room parking lot. I turned my head to hide my hurt. He didn’t know how true his words were. Even though I’d lived in L.A. for three years at that point, I still felt like a nomad. I had on dirty sneakers with no socks, and a shirt I only wore to clean my apartment. In another setting, someone would have been pressing wrinkled dollar bills into my hand.

Tyrone drops me off at my apartment and I call unemployment. I am eligible for a $450 check every two weeks. My medical benefits expire at the end of the month, so I go to another doctor while I am still covered. She doesn’t regard me as a bothersome nut, the way I feel my previous physician had. I trust her with my tears. She listens while I talk about my fears, and loads me down with sample packets of the antidepressant Effexor. She also writes a prescription for Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication. I decide to get that filled while I can still afford it. I won’t use the medicine, though. I plan to keep it in my purse as an amulet against the next attack.

I don’t have to wait long. A few weeks later, my friend Darnell, who lives in San Diego, wants to get together for lunch and a movie at Ontario Mall, which is 45 to 50 minutes from my apartment in North Hollywood. Darnell is like my brother, and I can’t flake on him. I will be brave. I decide to hang out with him and then spend the night with my girlfriend Raina in Riverside, a half-hour drive from Ontario. During the journey, I am proud of myself for only getting off at one exit that boasts a hospital – in West Covina. I make it to the theater, but 20 minutes into the film, I feel a familiar roiling in my chest and numbness in my left arm. Leaning over to Darnell, I say, “I’m having a heart attack. I’m going to go sit in my car.” Darnell looks at me in disbelief, but gentleman that he is, won’t allow me to leave alone.

Out in the parking lot, I flag down a cop, and ask for directions to the nearest hospital. When I learn that it’s a few exits away, I tell Darnell that I will try to sit through the movie again. Maybe it’s the nearness of the emergency room, or the sunlight, but I feel safe. Another 30 minutes into the film, and my body starts trembling violently. I shift anxiously in my seat, index finger glued to my carotid artery. The palpitations are so loud, I know that everyone in the darkened theater can hear them, like Poe’s “Telltale Heart.” My gaze pleads with Darnell. “I’m going to the emergency room,” I announce softly. “Remind me never to go the movies with you again,” he says, half-jokingly.

Darnell drives me to the hospital. He sits with me in the courtyard as I check and re-check my heart rate, and try to explain the anxiety that has taken over my life. Grabbing my hand, he places two of my fingers on his pulse. He wants me to understand that everyone’s heart beats fast sometimes. Everyone gets anxious, he seems to say. It’s no reason to go to the emergency room, and certainly no reason to bolt from The Mummy Returns. I’ve heard this argument before, especially from my male friends. Weakly, I concede. I can handle this.

We drive back to the mall and have lunch. I try to ignore the fluttering under my left breast, the wings of a small bird in panic. If I give in to the urge to run out of the restaurant, Darnell will never speak to me again. Mercifully, lunch is over. We hug, give air kisses, and I’m on the road to Riverside. I am in the midst of a full-blown anxiety attack, and I’m trapped in traffic on the 10 Freeway, miles from any safety zone. I have never ridden out an attack before, because it can only mean a fierce explosion in my chest, and then sudden blackness. I am screaming in my head. I white-knuckle the steering wheel so I don’t swerve into oncoming cars or crash into the mountains like I want to. I feel like I am teetering on the precipice of madness.

One mile from Raina’s house, I see a gift from God: HOSPITAL NEXT EXIT. Has the sign been there all this time? I never noticed it before. Or rather, I never needed to notice it. I pull up to Raina’s driveway, jump from my car and collapse in her doorway. “You look malnourished,” she says in alarm, “like you have organ failure.”

Yes, that’s it! Not anxiety; organ failure. That explains everything – the weakness, the tremors, the heart palpitations, the weight loss. I am down to 118 pounds, and for the first time in my life, friends are telling me to gain weight. I ask Raina to drive me to the hospital. Her boys are three and eight, and she loads them into the car with us. When I walk through the emergency room doors, I realize it’s a county hospital. The wait seems interminable, as mothers pace the floor with their snotty-nosed babies, and languid toddlers curl in scratched plastic chairs. I look out the door at my girlfriend sitting in the car with her two young children. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t keep running.

When we return to Raina’s house, her mother is home. Lily is like my surrogate mom, and over herbal tea, I confess everything to her. She nods patiently, not judging, but understanding. Then she drops a bombshell – she is an anxiety survivor. I am stunned by this revelation. This fabulous, strong black woman – a business owner, living in a plush house – felt like she was losing her mind?

Lily tosses me a lifeline: a book called The Anxiety Disease by David Sheehan. I read all about the fight-or-flight response my body is going through at the onset of an attack, which is why I feel so relieved when I’m on the run. Sheehan also breaks down the spells that anxiety sufferers experience, like jelly legs, a lump in the throat called globus hystericus, palpitations and obsessions and compulsions. Most of all, I realize it’s not my fault that I have anxiety. I’m not going crazy, and I’m not going to die. That night, I take my first Xanax.

It’s been nearly six years since that first anxiety attack. Although I might have a spell every now and then, I haven’t driven myself to the emergency room in months. I wish I could say years, but I’d be lying. I started taking Effexor the summer of 2001, along with Xanax, and six months later, weaned myself off all antidepressants. At the time, I thought medication was a crutch that made me feel weak and needy.

Black women are socialized to be strong, so strong sometimes, that if we can’t get out of bed, or we can’t stop crying, or we feel that our lives are spiraling out of control, we’re afraid to speak up for fear of backlash. White women like Rosie O’Donnell and Brooke Shields go public with their depression, but sisters suffer in silence. According to a study conducted by the Black Women’s Health Imperative, 60 percent of black women have symptoms of depression. In California, I’ve met more women of color who are on medication or in therapy or who have considered suicide. To those who believe mental health issues are endemic to Hollywood hotties, my East Coast sisters would beg to differ. Rasheedas from Harlem to Hotlanta also battle the blues.

I’ve learned to embrace my inner dysfunctional diva, and get her help when she needs it. There is recovery not only in antidepressants, and therapy and prayer, but also in naming one’s pain. Instead of stigmatizing our mental health issues, we need to talk about them, blog about them, broadcast them from the rooftops (without jumping). As bell hooks says, “Healing takes place within us as we speak the truth of our lives.”

This is my testimony: I should have lost my mind, but like Miss Celie from The Color Purple, I’m still here. I hope more women will understand that, to paraphrase bell, asking for help is not a symptom of weakness; it’s a sign of empowerment. If sisters start finding their voices, Rasheeda can sing a new song.

*Names have been changed to respect privacy.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Water, Weaves and Womanist Woes

“She hath more hair than wit.”
--William Shakespeare
“The Two Gentlemen of Verona”

is your hair still political
tell me
when it starts to burn
--Audre Lorde



Recently, a white friend and I were discussing racial stereotypes, and she mentioned one about black folks hating to swim. “I don’t know about that one,” I said. “I can wade just as well as anybody else. My hair, on the other hand, has issues with water.”

This stereotype, like most, embodies a kernel of truth. When I was a freshman in high school, I had to take swimming for a semester. While Kate, Beth and Kristy were frolicking in the pool, I was watching by the water’s edge. I loved swimming, but hated wearing a latex cap. It made my already big head look extraterrestrial, and further enforced the notion that I was “different.” Rob, a cute Italian kid with a crooked nose (whom I was secretly crushing on), shined a spotlight on my discomfort. “Why don’t you get in the water?” he asked. “Is it because your hair will get really messed up, and it will take a really long time to fix?” My blonde and brunette classmates glanced at me with pitying smiles, as if I had a hair handicap.

Most black women with chemically processed or straightened hair struggle with The Water Issue. Rain, perspiration, even steam from a cup of herbal tea can derail the “every two weeks” maintenance schedule. At age ten, I underwent the black girl's rite of passage - a home kiddie perm – and with few exceptions, have been wearing my hair straightened since then. As a woman who likes to consider herself conscious, I’m constantly reminded that straight hair connotes conformity with European standards of beauty. bell hooks believes that since sisters have such a variety of natural hair choices available (dreads, ‘fros, locks, etc), straight hair should be worn only in times of emergency. “Practically speaking, a lot of black women learned to prefer straightened hair, to see it as better because it took less time,” hooks says. “Is this another ‘survival strategy’ carried over into contemporary black life that is no longer needed?" But more on hair politics later.

The Water Issue has me in the midst of a coif crisis. In January, I took my first Bikram yoga class and loved it. Despite the nausea and headaches I suffered from doing asanas in a room heated to 105 degrees, my body was getting a much-needed detox. I wasn’t too worried about the copious amount of sweat that Bikram produces because I had a hair appointment the following day. However, if I decided to do “hot yoga” on a regular basis – which I had been seriously considering – what in the world would I do with my ‘do?

Black women have to get creative with ours. We don’t wear hairstyles; we perform them. Maybe this is why so many sisters skip the gym in favor of the salon. Any woman who has ever spent upwards of three hours in a beauty shop, to be fried, dyed, and laid to the side, looks askance at any activity that would mess up her mane. Hair as performance art aside, I know that I need to exercise, to break a sweat for at least 30 minutes each day. To combat The Water Issue, I’ve been weighing three options:

1. To Weave or Not to Weave?
Even though I went as long as I could without “selling out,” I got my first weave when I moved to California in 1996. A woman named Angel, who boasted Toni Braxton and Janet Jackson as clients – performed the three-hour process in the basement of her South Central home. I had fourteen inches of some poor Indonesian woman’s tresses sewn into my real hair (discreetly braided underneath), and I was grinning in the mirror as if I’d just discovered the next best thing to the hot comb. I was instantly in love.

Weaves are back with a vengeance – longer, bolder, bulkier. Sisters sport them with pride, like neo-Afros in search of a revolution. Although I might have my stylist glue in a track or two for “special occasions,” wearing someone else’s hair presents a whole nother set of enigmas for me. For one, long hair is still privileged in our society, as evidenced by cover girls Beyoncé and Tyra, and the video vixens who populate your garden-variety rap video. Although I don't want to buy (no pun intended) into this mindset, I can’t deny the “benefits” I received with extensions hanging down to my bra strap: Men open doors for you and zip across three lanes of traffic on the 405 to holler. Once when I was idling at a stoplight, two Latinos pulled up next to my car. The passenger leaned out and told me my hair was beautiful. I wonder if he’d have the same sentiments about my real hair.

I can’t knock another sister’s hustle, but a weave – and her silky cousin, the lacefront wig -- represents an escapist fantasy for me, a Third World Rapunzel locked in an ivory tower. Some purists might argue that the straightened, highlighted tresses I now sport are also escapist and as ideologically removed from my nationalist beliefs as bleaching cream. This brings me to my second hairstyle option.

2. The Braid-y Bunch
I must admit, The Water Issue became a non-issue when my hair was safely ensconced in cornrows or twists. I could fulfill my tribal obligations and walk in the rain at the same time. When I vacationed in Hawaii a few summers ago, I even surfed.

The downside of wearing braids: I hate the way I look. My forehead feels naked and lonely with cornrows, and I get lost in the synthetic jungle of individual braids. On a purely superficial level: I get less play from the brothers. On one dating Web site where I posted pictures taken of me in Oahu, one man commented that I was “incredibly average” with braided hair. Not that his words should be taken to heart, but that’s exactly how I see myself. I don’t feel an affinity toward the Motherland when my hair is braided. At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, braids are more functional than familial, a trendy token of nationalism, like green, black and red medallions and kente cloth.

At the most, I could wear braids for a month to jumpstart my exercise regimen, but they don’t represent the real me. That leaves my third and final option.

3. Shorn Again
At age 11, I spent the entire summer indoors. The reason? A botched relaxer caused my hair to shed in clumps. Being the pragmatist that she is, my mother cut off all but an inch of my hair and gave me a jheri curl. June, July and August were wasted behind my screen door, as I moped about wearing a plastic cap like an extra from Car Wash. When school started in the fall, my classmates taunted me for looking like a boy, and I swore I’d never wear my hair short again.

Never say never. The fab 90s found divas like Jada Pinkett rocking cropped, texturized ‘dos, and showing the world that short is sexy. I did my part in the style revolution, albeit with a cute Halle Berryesque cut. Although I was still clinging to the straight texture like a badge of honor, I had to give myself props for finally parting with my shoulder-length tresses.

Cutting my hair off, and letting it grow out naturally, is a style option I have toyed with for a long time for several reasons. One, it symbolizes rebirth and renewal. It also connects me to an enlightened body of womanist warriors whom I admire and whose footsteps I strive to walk in, among them Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Pearl Cleage, Nikki Giovanni, bell hooks, and Ntozake Shange – all of whom wear natural styles.

As India.Arie sings, I am not my hair. I shouldn’t be my hair, but I am my hair. The more I try to untangle myself from my tresses, the more they become interwoven into my identity. So what if I keep an umbrella in the back seat of my car in southern California where it never rains? So what if I have to spend three hours at home wetsetting, mousseing, manipulating, braiding and unbraiding my hair to evoke a “natural” style? So what if some white women “pet” me whenever I rock a new look, and ask how often I wash my hair? I wouldn’t trade in my naps for the world.

This is the option I have chosen to combat The Water Issue: Grudgingly, I will wrap my pressed hair in two scarves, like I’m on my way to do day work, and go hit the StairMaster. The scarf does a sufficient job of protecting the ends of my hair, but my roots always get damp. As a result, I’ll be walking around with two different textures until my next appointment. I haven’t decided what I’ll do about Bikram, though. No amount of head wrapping will prevent pressed hair from morphing into a baby Afro in the sauna that is hot yoga. I guess I will have to create my own style. Yogi Hair. Yes, I’ll definitely have to look into that.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Losing Isaiah:
Anatomy of Black and Gay Conflict**


I’m not a fan of television. In fact, my 24-inch TV set has been unplugged for four months, and is currently a storage unit for the five or six DVDs that I own.

I have never watched an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Last fall when I heard that Isaiah Washington called his castmate T.R. Knight a “faggot,” and read about the ensuing outrage in the gay community, I made two immediate assumptions. White folks were trying to lynch a brother and bring down a highly successful show created by a black woman, and “faggot” had nowhere near the negative cultural and historical connotations as “nigger.” In short, gay people, get over yourselves.

Earlier this week, in the Golden Globes pressroom, Washington denied ever using an anti-gay slur against his castmate, saying, “No, I did not call T.R. a faggot. Never happened.” Now GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) is calling for a formal apology from the actor, and gay rights activists have proposed boycotting ABC until he gets the axe. Washington was recently nominated for an NAACP Image Award, and many are demanding that the honor be rescinded.

As I read about GreyGate in the black blogosphere and discuss the issue among some of my friends, the consensus is that blackness is more visible than gayness, more marginalized. Thus, gay people can’t fathom our struggle, nor should they attempt to equate it with their own. After all, a gay person can walk into a room and have the option or “flaunting” his or her sexuality or not, whereas blackness – pigment, phenotype -- is a constant badge of dishonor. Why are “they” always trying to shove the “gay agenda” down our collective throat? Couched within “intellectual” debate about race and sexuality is the notion that gay people should remain in the shadows and in their “place.”

I have never written about gay issues. Whenever I hear about same-sex marriage, gay adoption, gay rights, hell, whenever I see a rainbow decal on the bumper of a car, some emotion simmers beneath the surface, which at its best is fear, and at its worst is hate. I would never consider myself homophobic, and yet, I have to confront the fact that I must be.

Since I read about Washington’s on-set outburst four months ago, and then heard about the actor’s second “outing” at the Golden Globes on Monday, I have had a serious wake-up call, the shifting of a long-held belief system. I am forced to re-examine how I interact with the gay people in my life. I must admit, those friendships have been compartmentalized and superficial. I am thrilled to have gay homies who I can kick it with, shop with, who can do my hair and makeup, tell me how fierce I am, who can even console me when I talk about my dating woes … but please don’t share your life with me, your gay-identified life. We can share curling irons and M.A.C. lip glass, but please don’t kiss and tell. I am ashamed to admit that I was not a friend, because as Alice Walker says, “No person is your friend (or kin) who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow and be perceived as fully blossomed as you were intended.”

What’s behind the homophobia that I and many other blacks feel? As a thinking woman, and Christian at that, shouldn’t I be more tolerant and understanding of folks whose lifestyles differ from my own? As a black woman, someone who daily dwells on society’s fringe, shouldn’t I empathize with others who are also invisible?

I can’t claim that Christianity is behind my fear of forming intimate, loving and healthy relationships with gay people. If anything, my religious beliefs are beginning to inform how I view gays and lesbians, and propel me toward acceptance. A few days ago when I realized that I no longer sided with Isaiah Washington in his McBeef with T.R. Knight, I did some research on black homophobia from the perspective of Christian writers and scholars. I’m beginning to understand that blacks assume a colonizer/colonized role when they view gays as “other,” and attempt to deny them rights that they themselves fought hard to attain. Michael Eric Dyson, a scholar and ordained Baptist minister, wants us to resist this way of thinking. “Ironically enough, blacks identify with mainstream sexual values – the very mainstream that has censored and castigated black heterosexuality – when they practice homophobia,” Dyson says. “I am not arguing that homophobia has no homegrown black varieties; I am simply suggesting that such homophobia allows blacks to forge solidarity with a culture that has excluded them.”

We recently celebrated MLK’s birthday, but it would probably surprise some African-Americans to learn that Martin Luther the King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, believed that gay people were also entitled to civil rights. Speaking before the 30th anniversary of her husband’s assassination, Coretta said, “I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice. But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brother- and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”

How is any real coalition building between blacks and gays going to take place, any real healing, when there is a lack of trust, truth and tolerance? Many sisters feel hurt and victimized by the down low phenomenon, and view black men as “suspect’ – guilty until proven innocent. Therefore, these women are unable to understand or empathize with the subjugation that gay men may face. Many black men either fetishize lesbians or view them as pitiful women who can’t land a man, or who were abused by men. There is latent superiority on the part of both black men and women toward our gay counterparts. I think that secretly, many blacks resent gays being able to mobilize and shut down the systems that seek to oppress them, hence comments like “The gay mafia is after Isaiah,” and “Fags run Hollywood.”

In the vernacular, the term “family” means that gays recognize, claim and are interconnected with other same-sex oriented people – in spite of differences. Cornel West, grandson of a Baptist minister, and a professor of religion at Princeton University, implores blacks to embrace this same spirit of diversity, and be wary of mindsets that diminish the humanity of others, or trample on their rights. West writes in Race Matters, “Instead of authoritarian sensibilities that subordinate women or degrade gay men and lesbians, black cultural democracy promotes the equality of black women and men and the humanity of black gay men and lesbians. In short, black cultural democracy rejects the pervasive patriarchy and homophobia in black life.”

The pervasive patriarchy West is referring to has its roots in the church. Some black Christians are unable to reconcile “Homosexuality is a sin,” with “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” And if they are tolerant of gay people, they may “love the sinner, but hate the sin.”

I recently got into a verbal sparring match with another believer when I announced that I no longer believe being gay is a sin. I pray my Christianity card doesn’t get revoked, but I didn’t feel “convicted” for making that pronouncement. In fact, it was quite liberating. As Dyson says, “We can affirm our re-created goodness through discourses of redemption open to all human beings. There is no asterisk in the biblical promise of redemption that excludes homosexuals. We have to reclaim the primordial goodness of God that ultimately took human form in Jesus. As they say in Christian circles, God didn’t make any junk, and that means whomever God has made, whether homosexual or heterosexual, is a good person.”

I’m working on becoming that good person. I’m no longer going to expect gay people to change to make me feel comfortable, but I’m transforming myself into the very image of love and acceptance that I seek. I realize that such revolutionary practices are not going to occur overnight. Did I write in to demand that Isaiah’s NAACP Image Award nom be withdrawn? No, but if you’d care to complain, the e-mail address is imageawards@naacpnet.org. Am I boycotting ABC and Grey’s Anatomy? I’m doing that by default, seeing how my television hasn’t been plugged in for the last four months. But seriously, I strive for authentic change. How clichéd and unfair of me to have my Driving Miss Daisy moment, proclaiming to the gay people in my life -- who have supported me unconditionally, whom I have not supported in return, not spoken for, not cared about intimately, not loved – “You’re my best friend!”

In the midst of these ruminations, I received a text message from a gay Filipino friend. His father died two hours earlier, and he had a simple request: to keep him and his family in my prayers. That request humbled me, and brought me to tears. I prayed for him and also for myself, that he could forgive me for all the times I regarded him as “other,” and not brother, for all the times I didn't love him as he loved me. We are interconnected. I am in his "family,” and he’s in mine.

** for DP and GRF