Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

An English / Feminist Studies / Race & Ethnicity Studies Course Blog


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Lessons for Virgin Girls

Danielle Evan’s book of short stories Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self starts off with the story “Virgins”. In the story, there are three main characters: Erica (the narrator), Jasmine (Erica’s best friend) and Michael (Erica’s other best friend). While reading the story, the reader gets a sense of what it is like to be a  young Black girl-specifically how being a young girl and being Black can intersect.

First Lesson: Safety can be created by the presence of a man and safety can be taken away by the presence of a man.

The story opens with Erica, Jasmine and Michael hanging out at the pool belonging to Mr. Thompson, their past elementary school principal. Erica notes that it may seem weird to the reader that she and Jasmine hang out with Michael. He is a guy and he has a group of guys that he could easily hang out with. Erica explains in an effort to clear the confusion and justify this type of friendship:

We hung out with him because we figured it was easier to have a boy around than not to. Strangers usually thought one of us was with him, and they didn’t know which, so they didn’t bother either of us. When you were alone, men were always wanting something from you.

Though Michael is a peer, he serves as a protective figure for the girls. As young teenagers they understand that safety is associated with a male figure. Erica says that strangers will bother them if Michael is not there. She specifies that these strangers are men, men who always want something. This “something” is left to the imagination of the reader making the reader fear what this could actually be.

Erica knows the reverse is true as well. Erica knows their safety can not be guaranteed with just any boy or any man. Even though Mr. Thompson is an authority figure anyone could reasonably trust, they still have their suspicions:

We even wondered about Mr. Thompson sometimes, or at least we never went swimming at his house without Michael with us…We felt bad for letting Mr. Thompson make us nervous. he was the smartest man either of us knew, and probably he was just being nice. We were not stupid, though. We’d had enough nice guys suddenly look at us the wrong way.

They do not expect bad situations to happen but they remain hopeful that they will not occur. This feeling of anxiety and vulnerability comes partly from their experiences of being girls.

Second Lesson: Body image matters–everything about your physicality.

Erica and Jasmine recognize the power of beauty standards. Erica alludes to skin color and the fact that something as essential to health as screenscreen can only be associated with Whiteness though “all three of us burned”. They talk about Michael’s girlfriend, a White Italian girl who is a part Michael’s pattern of White girlfriends. For Erica, this pattern justifies why Michael would never have an interest in either one of them–their skin color is not light enough. They notice that Michael’s brother Ron is attractive not for being talented, intelligent or witty but because he is “golden-colored skin, with curly hair and doll-baby eyelashes and the kind of smile where you could count all of his teeth”. Both Erica and Jasmine worry about how their body looks (how big their hips, breasts and stomachs are or how pretty their face is) and how they will be perceived. For Jasmine, the right physical attributes and the right amount of sex appeal translate to a respectable, long term relationship. Jasmine wants to be “the one [a boy] kisses in public”, not the girl a boy leaves for another.

Third Lesson: Safety is relative.

Erica feels that safety is not something she can achieve but rather something she can approach. More importantly, there is no standard or bar of excellence for safety. For women specifically, safety remains relative. Though Erica leaves her friend Jasmine in a potentially dangerous situation, Erica finds herself in another potentially dangerous situation:

…I did understand then that there was no such thing as safe, only safer; that this, if it didn’t happen now, would happen later but not better. I was safer than Jasmine right now, safer than I might have been.

Erica is not exactly forced into the situation but she does not choose the situation for herself either.

We are left with a sense of hopelessness at the end. The ending is foreshadowed by the death of Tupac Shakur who wrote the famous words “it’s a setup…keep ya head up“. Does this awful ending have to be inevitable? How can you live life when you have to acknowledge daily how terrible it can actually be?

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realization

Well for starters I really enjoyed reading Salvage the Bones, but of course I always yearn for more. :/ However, unlike Walker’s ending in The Color Purple, Ward’s was real, raw, and unhinging. The poetry throughout the entire novel was phenomenal..and I listened to it using an audio book and whoa. The descriptive imagery and personification made it so real and artistic and magnificent. I just kept thinking, “Failed poet????” HOW.

I look back to my childhood and I remember hearing about Katrina and raising money in my class for victims, but I never realized the severity. As I read I wondered why my mom didn’t tell me all about it. She’s very progressive but for some reason I can’t recall an explicit lecture. I mean I wish she had told me about the fact that the government screwed up with the levees and that the storm actually missed them. I wish she had told me about how long they were without food or clean water. Just thinking about it brings me to tears, because this is such a tragic moment in our US history. And there are so many adolescents who don’t pay their proper respects. Schools should still be actively working to fix homes and schools and libraries..but really just one home would make a difference.

I really enjoyed part 1 of the documentary we watched and intend to watch the other parts, but I have to recommend Trouble the Water since it’s told from first person, and she films days before the storm and days afterward. This way you get raw footage of everything that goes on. Here’s a clip from a song she made about her life (prior to Katrina). She lost everything in the storm, including family, but this one CD is hers, her one thing, just like Esche’s dad’s photos. 😥


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Your Average, Everyday, Basic Human Need

Watching the documentary When the Levees Broke in class reminded me of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. We were reminded of how cruel the natural world can be while being reminded of how cruel people can be towards other people. The hurricane destroyed a large part of the Southeast region of the US, a region that is still mostly destroyed even after 10 years. Volunteer groups continue to visit that region in order to rebuild houses.

When I look back on the event, I remember the seemingly lack of urgency that the government had in helping those people affected. I remember watching the news and hearing that President Bush was on vacation even as the storm was reaching its peak. I believe that there was no excuse for waiting entire days before sending help and relief. These were people desperately holding onto their lives and searching for any beacon of hope in a dire situation. I remember the fact that my math teacher could no longer use her name at school because hearing the word Katrina was too traumatic. I also remember the notorious comment by Kanye West that seemed to express what many Black people felt at the time: “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people”.

I read chapter four (“Disaster”) from Melissa Harris-Perry’s book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. The information she gathered as a lead researcher was not surprising. Yet, it was still very disturbing. Harris-Perry found that “while most White Americans saw the hurricane’s aftermath as tragic, they understood it primarily as a natural disaster followed by technical and bureaucratic failures. Most black Americans saw it as a racial disaster”. Harris-Perry continues quoting Black survivors’ accounts of being mistreated which they believed were due to racial biases.

However, the problem came down to your average, everyday, basic human need: the need for acknowledgment. Some people had this need fulfilled. Many did not. Harris-Perry quotes part of an account of a Black woman affected by Hurricane Katrina:

She and her family have dire material needs–for safety, food, water, shelter, clothing, medicine, and rest–but they also need to feel that someone acknowledges their humanity.

The woman wants someone to help her which they can do by listening to her, talking to her, helping her or even just by looking at her. I read an article that addressed how Hurricane Katrina survivors who were not White or Black were rarely if ever addressed. Take a moment and try to remember how the media covered this event: the pictures they showed, the words they used, the events they addressed. If you can acknowledge the people were forgotten and misrepresented in media coverage, you can acknowledge that race did play a large role in analyzing the effects of this natural disaster on our nation.

Though survivors had to focus on their basic needs, survivors had to reevaluate their relationships with each other and with other citizens across the US. A Hurricane Katrina survivor states:

Katrina was the great equalizer. I got frisked just like the woman next to me from the housing project. I had to stand in line in the hot sun, just like everybody else. I had to go to the bathroom, just like everybody else. I got yelled at to shut up, just like everybody else.

Interestingly enough, equalize can mean “to equalize” or “to make uniform”. It becomes apparent how this single word can take on different meanings for different groups of survivors. For some survivors, Katrina made social status dismantle so that citizens were made equal in how they were affected by the natural disaster and had to cope with the circumstances. For some survivors, Katrina made social status more apparent so that citizens were affected uniformly in such a way that reinforced institutional racism.

How far have we come? Who has their average, everyday, basic human need met?


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Necessary Evils

As we all know, today is Earth day. Some of the class already has made blog posts about it already today. So, I apologize for the repeated topic, but it is a good one.

I posted about Black History month back in February and argued, essentially, that when events or holidays occur, that is when we (at least most of us) as a country are most concerned with the topic at hand. So, naturally today we are all SO  concerned with the earth.

One of the obvious questions of “what can we do to keep people talking, or war of the subject day in and day out” magically pops up in our dialogue on days like these..

So, what can we do? Today in my Transendetalism class we talked a lot about these general topics, politics especially. Trancendentalist (most) will argue that right now the government is a necessary evil, but eventually there will be no need for government (they are totally against the government) because we will all eventually see and believe in the same morals, because we all have the same Over-Soul, which is another story.. I am not saying that I agree or disagree with this notion, but I think it is a great concept and would be super cool if that actually happened.

I am saying all of these things because if what the Transendentalist is true, then all of these ideas/topics would be easy to come about in how to solve these things like keeping the Earth clean, environmental friendly etc.

I really hope that this made sense to y’all…..

If you want a reference: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (the essay Civil Disobedience)


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Earth Day musings

Today in my climate science class we were discussing the problems surrounding slash and burn deforestation and the devastating effects it has on climate change.

In Indonesia palm trees grow prolifically and there is a lot of money to be made from the palm tree plantations, namely because palm oil is a hot commodity. Palm oil is a major ingredient in a lot of store bought packaged foods here in America, and I am sure all over the world as well. However, because palm oil is so profitable, Many plantation owners use slash and burn techniques to produce as much palm oil as possible and as quickly as possible. But this releases enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is a greenhouse gas.

So Indonesian politicians decided to draft a policy on palm tree plantations and designated national parks to protect land from deforestation. Unfortunately, the effects of capitalism are strong and many of the national parks are still vulnerable to slashing an burning. Because of corruption in the political system in Indonesia the policy on national parks and slashing burning is not being respected by enforcers or by farmers. There is far too much money to be made.

This led me to wonder… what can we do? If policy change doesn’t work, what is a more effective avenue. So I asked this question in class. The answer I was given… left me feeling even more helpless. I was told that the responsibility falls on the backs of consumers and companies. Both companies and consumers need to be more environmentally conscious. But not everyone can afford to be environmentally conscious. Palm oil is an ingredient that makes many products cheaper. The highest consumers of palm oil are more likely to be people who cannot afford to buy alternative organic and environmentally conscious products.

We know that class is racialized and gendered. The poorest members of our (United States) community are overwhelmingly minority women (U.S Bureau of the Census, 2010).

So not only is climate change going to most harshly affect the poor, who are mostly Hispanic and Black women, but the poor have the least ability to make environmental change happen.

In (Black Women Writers) class on Monday, we discussed Naturalism, which is a pessimistic form of realism that assumes human have little free will to change their circumstances. After receiving the answer to my question in climate science class, it was immensely difficult for me not to feel helpless and pessimistic.

It left me with my current question. How do we convince people to care more about each other? How do we convince each other that every life is just as valuable as our own. The Earth is shared by everyone. An injury to one of us, is an injury to us all.

I hope this Earth Day post doesn’t leave you feeling helpless. Please let it inspire you. If you have the means to support our environment, do it.


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Hurricane Katrina

It was a rude awakening for me upon watching the documentary we did in class. I had little to no idea all of the complex factors that went into how people were affected by the storm and how organizations responded to it. I also had no idea that people accused the city of New Orleans of dynamiting the levees in order to save the higher income real estate areas for tourism. That was incredibly disturbing to me, and it really opened my eyes to how very biased popular opinion on the subject was at the time. I was a lot younger, and obviously less understanding of social issues and how they are commonly viewed, but I do remember many people saying that the people who were hurt or killed in New Orleans at the time were to blame because they stayed whenever many left. Knowing what I do now, I am very struck by the lack of sympathy which was displayed consudering many of those affected didn’t have access to public transportation or couldn’t afford to evacuate. It’s alarming how negative public discourse on the subject was, also, due to the fact that many people were black. I remember members of my family saying offensive things about those hurt at the time, blaming them for their own injuries and deaths, that I know definitively now they would not have said had the ‘faces of those injured by Hurricane Katrina’ been white.

The documentary was very eye-opening for me, and I’m glad that we got to watch some of it. I plan on watching the rest of it later on my own time.


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The Storm

The events leading up to the hurricane are honestly scary enough to be in a horror movie. It’s a slow build that the characters barely notice, but the reader immediately picks up on. It’s chilling to know that real people have and will go through this.

On page 207, Esch notices the birds flying away. “When I look up into the sky, I see birds in great flocks that would darken the sun if we could see it through the thickening clouds. They are all flying away, all flying north” (pg 207). She and her brother Randall go to the white family’s house to get supplies. All of the cows and egrets are gone and it’s eerily quiet. Finally, Esch and Randall realize the house is empty and figure out why: the white family has evacuated. Just like should have, but couldn’t do.

Directly before this scene, Esch tells Manny that she’s pregnant with his child. He rebuffs her and calls her nothing. She’s crying when Randall finds her, but, instead of running away like Manny and the animals, she follows her brother.

Eventually, Esch comes to terms with the fact that she can’t run away from this, physically or emotionally. She mentions what she thought when she first learned what a hurricane was. “. . . I thought that all the animals ran away, that they fled the storms before they came, that they put their noses to the wind days before and they knew. . . . But now I think that other animals, like the squirrels and the rabbits, don’t do that at all. Maybe the small don’t run. . . . they prepare like us” (pg 215).

She knows now that, as much as she may want to, she can’t run from the storm or from Manny’s betrayal. Even though she saw both coming ahead of time, she didn’t run.   She chooses to prepare instead and face things head on instead.