In Bushwick, They Speak Spanish to Me

I stopped into a bodega to get some chips. And as I stood in line, waiting for my turn, an elderly woman turned to me and said, “E’ todo que va a comer?” Once I realized she was talking to me, it was my turn to pay, and I lost the window of time that I needed to translate what she said and respond. (I’m not quick on my feet in Spanish!)

But two things struck me:
1) A stranger was concerned about what I was eating. (Sweet or judgmental? Ha.)
2) The woman spoke to me in Spanish.

The next day, I was strolling through the neighborhood, and an elderly man was walking on the sidewalk ahead of me. As I got close to him, I stepped aside and passed him on the side, so as not to disrupt his slow, calculated walk. And as I passed, he said, “Oh, disculpame.” I turned and smiled and he said, “Que lindas morenitas” to my friend and me.

I have never been anywhere in the U.S. where people talked to me in Spanish in such a mundane, presumptive way. How disarming and delightful.

It was an interesting experience in my black body. The thing about Bushwick is that my blackness did not preclude the possibility of being Spanish-speaking. This is, of course, a function of the (very apparent) racial diversity of Latinos in New York. (Perhaps also a function of being light-skinned with hair that seems uncertain about its texture.)

This is a markedly different experience from being in Texas, where to be black and speak Spanish is to be suspicious or even offensive. I recall a time when I observed a young man openly and persistently hitting on a woman in the front row of a class I was teaching. I sensed the woman getting increasingly uncomfortable with the interactions, which happened entirely in Spanish. So, after several minutes of feigning incomprehension, I stepped between them and said, “Hey! Comprendo todo. Déjala en paz, compa.” He turned beet red and others in the room gasped, laughed, and erupted with curiosity!
“How you know Spanish, miss? You Dominican?” (Because…of course.)
“Oh dang! Why you didn’t tell us you speak Spanish?”
(The truth is my Spanish is just okay. But I knew enough to understand the conversation and use my power to buffer the woman from his uncomfortable advances.)
They were shocked and shook.

Mmkay, so like…none of this is new or groundbreaking, really. But I think it’s important to revisit the “shapeshifting” of blackness in different contexts. (I’m reminded of what my blackness meant/felt in Kenya and in Barbados–I should write about that.) This is a reminder of our diasporic connections and the possibilities for solidarity. It also motivates me to continue my language development so that I might better connect with Spanish-speaking folks who look like me. This is an important piece of my Afro-Caribbean identity and kinship with the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.

In Bushwick, to be black is to be a possibility. Possibly an immigrant. Possibly Afro-American. Possibly Latina. Possibly a native New Yorker. Possibly not. Possibly any number of things.

To be black anywhere is to be a possibility. Actually.

 

 

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Why Losing Your Plastics is a Good Sign

The other day I was looking for the perfect size plastic food container to store some leftover black beans in the refrigerator. I couldn’t find the one I was looking for. Then I remembered that I had sent it, full of soup, home with a friend the week prior.

I live in a small town with limited options for dining out and a sense of hypervisibility whenever one socializes in public places. So, much of my social life happens in homes now.  And with that has come this interesting phenomenon of nomadic plastic containers. The plastic food containers currently in my cabinet are a mix of mine and not mine. Here’s why I think this may be a good sign:

  1. People are cooking. It didn’t take me long to realize that cooking would have to be a much bigger part of my life than it had been in the foodie heaven that is Austin, TX. I was glad for this. I wanted to improve my cooking skills, eat healthier, and save money. Let’s be real. When you have guests over, no one puts delivery pizza into a plastic container to take home with them. We put food that we’ve cooked and enjoyed in plastic containers.
  2. People are sharing. It’s a beautiful thing to share what you have, to circulate, to connect with others through food, one of the oldest currencies for social cohesion. It’s not just about about eating, it’s about bonding and forming a sense of community.
  3. People are trusting. It’s tempting to feel like you’ve lost something when your plastics go out the door in someone else’s hands (especially if you have the high quality ones). But eventually, a sense of trust sets in. You trust that, on another day, you will leave someone’s house with their plastics and it will all even out. You trust that there will be enough–enough food, enough reciprocity, enough generosity.

Seems silly. But I think if your food containers are going missing, it’s probably a good sign of community-building in process. Celebrate what you gain every time you lose.

The Pressure to Make Political Art

One of the most compelling things about art is the way it reflects and/or comments on society. Art often illuminates and confronts the shadow sides–the injustice and inhumanity that make everyday life difficult, dangerous, or painful for certain people in certain bodies.

There is another compelling aspect of art: the disclcosure of one’s interior landscape. Art is often a deeply personal (even if veiled) revelation of thoughts, feelings, experiences, dreams, and questions. It is an offering of self.

As a queerblackleftistwoman, I feel a lot of pressure to make art that is intentionally and explicitly political. Where does this pressure come from? After all, no one is in my Lab (also known as my home office) telling me what kind of poems I should write, what kinds paintings I should paint. However, I think that when you inhabit multiple identities that are so politically valenced, there is a sort of tacit expectation that you will speak from and to that experience, if you choose to make art. Any other type of art is frivolous, given the sociopolitical conditions of these times.

Am I projecting? Possibly. Maybe, deep down, I am judging myself for giving time and energy to things that don’t advance the struggle.

Several months ago, I was at a gathering where everyone shares creative works. I shared some poems. They fell flat. The response was tepid. There was very little feedback or engagement (atypical for this gathering). It could have been because the poems weren’t that good (I do indeed write a lot of poems that aren’t that good), but I don’t think that was the case. Other folks followed with their contributions, which were no more (or less) interesting, lovely, or thought-provoking, yet those contributions generated a lot of lively conversation. I think it was because of the political overtones of what they shared.

I typically write poems that are delicate, observant, contemplative, and whimsical. Not the kind of poetry that will get snaps and a “Yasssss!”  It’s just not that. And somewhow I feel like readers/listeners are surprised and disappointed by that.

Maybe there is something subversive about the kind of art I make, to the extent that it departs from what is expected of me, given my social location. But, mostly, I think it’s just unfortunate that art about my interiority, art about my everyday life and the regular shit around me will not be as enthusiastically received as the political art I could  make.

Many days I have to persuade myself to keep making, even if other people don’t get it, don’t love it, or don’t get excited about it. Make what I want to make. Ironically, that kind of self-possession is quite political.

The Misguided Facebook Question: “Do You Mind if I Share?”

Kids these days.

I have noticed something happening on Facebook that perplexes me. It goes like this:

Someone writes a post (formerly known as a status update) on their timeline. That post is either really pithy, really personal, or really political. Whatever it is, it is provocative. Then along comes a friend who is impressed/moved/provoked and wants to repost the original post on their own timeline. That friend will then say something like,
“Do you mind if I share?”
“Love this. Can I repost?”
“Permission to share?”

It seems so civil, so polite, so considerate. And also so, so silly.

I mean, here’s the thing. Back in my day, when we purchased AOL CDs and waited for the Internet to psshhhh boop beep bloop boop beep dial up, we understood one basic premise of the Internet: nothing is truly private. Do not put anything on the Internet that you would not want to be public. Is it or is it not fair to assume that if you have put it on the Internet, you are okay with it being public?

Someohow, Facebook has duped us into thinking that “privacy settings” supersede this basic tenet of the Internet. Not to mention, “sharing”, is a main feature of social media sites like Facbeook. Things are intended to be disseminated, reposted, etc. If posts were intended to be so protected, perhaps “sharing” would require approval from the original poster.

So, what’s really happening when someone asks for permission to repost/share? Why do people do that? What are they trying to communicate to the original poster?

 

Building Support for Queer Adults through Cooperative Economics

Two weeks after my 27th birthday my parents abruptly kicked me out of their house, with only my car and the portion of my belongings they left on the front porch. I was working as an adjunct college instructor, making about $1000 per month. Suddenly, I found myself in economic precarity. I struggled–to no avail– to find a better-paying job and an additional job. Fortunately, I had a few good people in my life who helped make sure I had somewhere to stay, food to eat, and the support to keep going. But are there people who are not so fortunate?

Many resources exist for queer youth who experience homelessness, instability, or other economic hardships that often arise due to lack of/severance of support from families of origin.

However, fewer resources exist for queer adults who also lack familial support and may need emergency financial help or other “stop-gap” interventions to ensure food, shelter, healthcare, etc.

The reality today is that economic conditions have forced more young adults to rely on their families of origin for financial support for longer amounts of time. Young adults with college degrees often start their professional lives with crippling debt. Young adults working minimum wage cannot afford an apartment on their own. The nature of work is changing, with a growing number of contingent/contract workers.

So, what happens when economic hardship hits and you have lost your safety net? This is a heightened possibility for queer folks who may face homophobic families.

I believe we can create solutions for queer adults facing financial emergencies and lacking familial safety nets. I believe these solutions can operate independent of government programs and charitable donations.

I am interested information about these experiences and gauging interest in alternative, collective solutions to economic hardship.

Please share your input in this 5-minute survey!

Why Analog Planners are So Popular

Doesn’t it seem like, lately, we are hearing a lot about “ol’ school”, pen-and-paper planners? These sleek notebooks with intricate systems promise to make us more productive, more likely to reach our goals, more creative, and more connected.

I am writing this blog from my work computer (a nice MacBook Pro). In my lap is my fancy, schmancy (and also giant) Motorola smartphone. And on my nightstand is my awesome personal laptop (a Dell 2-in-1). And thanks to the (overreaching) power of Google, all of my important information from all of these devices is more or less synchronized. And yet, right here next to my chair, I have a sketch notebook that I use for my Bullet Journal personal planner. Why?

Why are traditional paper planners making a comeback?

I have a theory but first a few considerations:

  1. This is good marketing. It’s actually hard to tell if there’s truly a resurgence of paper planners or if the Internet has just been watching me closely enough to know that I like paper, I like journals, and I’m an Xennial.  And so, I see a lot of ads relevant to those likes.
  2. People of my parents’ generation and older never stopped using paper planners. I know that’s a generalization, but, generally speaking, those generations did not abandon their planners and pocket calendars when they got phones and laptops.
  3. People in the younger generations really don’t write things down much. They are digital natives. They really know no other reality. Again, there are exceptions, but there’s not a sense of nostalgia about doing things another way (something I think Xennials have).

With these things in mind, I think that the increasing popularity of paper planners is a result of older millenials caught between an analog past and digital future and trying to get back in touch with their humanity through personal, tactile experiences.

It’s true that writing by hand has advantages in terms of cognition. Research suggests that we synthesize and retain information better when we write by hand. When it comes to to-do lists, appointments, and quick notes, there are clear advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. (There are tons of articles out there about this!)

But what I think is happening underneath all of that is a sort of angst about just how digital our lives have become and a sense of loss. Analog planners are an attempt at reclamation. We want to express our own creativity, not just poke info into a calendar event template. We want to dial down distractions, not compete with pop-up notifications while trying to write down our to-do list. We want to have something that is uniquely ours, not the exact same thing as every other smartphone user.  We want to do something with our hands besides push buttons. We want a way to be contemplative without being monastic. We want to feel like we have direction and achievement in a world of constant change and increasing disconnection.

I think analog planners offer to take us back to a simpler time in our lives while helping us cope with the complexity of the present times.

I started using the Bullet Journal system about a year ago. I have found it delightful and helpful. I did not abandon my cell phone calendar, though. I still put all my appointments and events in my phone. But the Bullet Journal is a different kind of tool that has helped me look at my life from a different angle and think about my days/weeks/months with more intentionality. I do think that the analog planner has helped me be more mindful, more focused, and more creative. I also think that it’s only been helpful because I already had decided that I wanted to be more mindful and more creative. Ultimately, we all still have to do the hard work of deciding what kind of person we want to be and what we want to accomplish in life. Then you get to choose which tools are most useful for those aims.

A Queer Black Woman Goes Salsa Dancing

One of my best childhood friends was a Puerto Rican girl whose family would host impromptu parties (that I sometimes accidentally attended), and I remember people of all ages dancing in their living room. Her dad had a set of congas in a corner that I never saw anyone play but that I had a feeling were more than decoration. Whenever I walked by them, I would brush my hand across the rough skin of the drum head. 4594963734_aea0387993_b Their neighbor (who they called “Cuco”) played in a salsa band. I never saw or heard the band play but I he had that cool, musician aura about him. I would sit on the couch and watch them laugh and spin in the living room. I remember wishing I knew how to do what they did. The music was familiar to me (my dad often played salsa music) but the movement was not.

In my 10th grade English class, I had to give a demonstration speech and decided to demonstrate the basic steps of salsa. So, I did a little research to learn the basic steps in preparation for the speech. 😉 None of my classmates (in suburban Milwaukee, WI) knew that I had never really danced salsa. I stood on top of a table at the front of the room, counting as I stepped back and forth. (I think I got an ‘A’ on that speech.)

In college, I finally ventured onto a few dance floors to try my hand at this salsa thing. I didn’t yet know  enough to know how bad I was. As far as I was concerned, I was killin it! I certainly had a lot of fun.

In graduate school, I really dialed up my salsa dancing. Every opportunity I could, I went out salsa dancing. Live bands in the campus pub every month! Weekly salsa shows in the dive bar down the street (which most other nights hosted random hard rock bands). I became a regular in the salsa scene, made some dance floor buddies, and had soooooo much fun. Some of my favorite memories from that era of my life involve live bands, sweaty bodies, and smooth moves. I officially LOVED salsa. the-gentlemen-form-la

But my relationship with salsa has gotten more complicated over the years. Part of the complication is caused by my increase in knowledge. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. And my increased technical proficiency has also, unfortunately, increased my inhibition and self-consciousness.

But much more of the complicated relationship can be attributed to my own personal evolution and coming into my queerness. To be a queer black woman in salsa spaces is to crash head-on with traditional gender roles and the type hypermasculinity/femininity that constrains queer possibility. For many, salsa is considered a sensual dance form and it is exceedingly heteronormative–from the names of the moves to the ways men and women are expected to move their bodies. Men are ascribed as “leads” and women as “follows” despite the fact that there is nothing inherently gendered about the dance moves of leads and follows (I mean, other than the obvious fact that men are natural leaders. *rolls eyes*) I should mention that it is not uncommon to see two women dancing together, and it is usually inconsequential provided they both present in gender-normative ways (i.e. they’re both feminine). But this also subjects them to a sexualized, male gaze.

I can remember nights when I was getting ready to go out dancing, and I would spend so much time and energy figuring out how to feminize my look (deeper V? tighter pants? bigger earrings? more  lip gloss?)  so that I would be read as feminine on the dance floor and therefore more likely to be asked to dance. The reality is that all the guys want to dance with the “pretty girls”…even when those girls can’t dance worth a damn. The social scripts of salsa scenes rely on expressions of hyperfemininity and to miss the cue is to exclude yourself from the pool of desirable dance partners. I have had many salsa nights of standing on the sidelines, never being asked to dance all night. I would go home, feeling defeated and self-critical, wondering if men avoided dancing with me because the presence of my own masculinity (even when dialed down to its most subtle form) compromised their own performance of masculinity. I wondered if men avoided dancing with me because black American women offer so little social capital, and who wants to climb down a rung on the social ladder for even the 6 minutes and 30 seconds it takes to dance to one salsa song. I wondered if men avoided dancing with me because, for whatever reason, I would not make them look good.

I still LOVE to dance salsa, and I have had to accept that the culture of salsa scenes is not bound to change any time soon. I have spent countless hours learning Cuban salsa and salsa rueda over the past few years; I don’t want to walk away from a hobby I love because it is difficult for me to fit in comfortably. And yet…I don’t know if it is good for me, psychologically, to repeatedly participate in social environments that make so little room for queerness and so rarely celebrate me as I am.

And now some gay salsa…

 

Rapture and Rupture: What the Evangelical Right and the Revolutionary Left Have in Common

When you think about the political spectrum, who could be more opposite from one another than far right, evangelical reactionaries and far left , revolutionary anarchists?

political20spectrum_v2

But my experience with both worlds has led me to believe that they actually are more alike than they seem.

First, let me offer some definitions for the words mentioned above.
Political: Not just about, or even primarily about, parties in the government. “Political” is about how we understand power as it relates to public affairs and societal relations.
Evangelical: a subset of Protestant Christians characterized by a belief that all people need to believe in Jesus Christ in order to be saved from their sins and by an imperative to proselytize in anticipation of the literal return of Jesus Christ to earth.
Reactionaries: people whose political stance is one of “returning to” some former state of affairs which upholds the status quo. In other words, opposed to progressive social change and seeking to reverse it.
Revolutionary: people who seek the total upheaval and replacement of existing social and political structures
Anarchists: those who seek to abolish state power and advocate for self-governance and collective control of society, resources, and establishments

We could debate these definitions, but I offer them as a way to ground my next thoughts.

Secondly, what’s my experience with these groups? Well, I grew up in evangelical churches and communities. Not all of them were politically conservative in the caricatured way that we see now in our current political climate, but they certainly had elements of that to varying degrees. These communities placed emphasis on individual responsibility, personal “salvation” by holding certain beliefs about Jesus, pro-life pro-birth politics, heterosexual monogamous marriage, rigid gender roles, mission work and proselytizing, etc. Were they bad people? Many were kind, generous, caring people. Many were self-righteous, oppressive, problematic people.

evangelicals
image from alanrudnick.org

As for the anarchists, I probably had my first brush with them while I was an undergraduate. I don’t think my political thought was sufficiently developed at the time to fully comprehend their positions and proposals, but as I look back, I am aware that some of my classmates certainly held anarchist positions.  In graduate school, I briefly explored some aspects of anarchism while studying the rhetoric of social protest movements. In recent years, I’ve orbited around anarchist circles via my involvement in various political projects. Were they bad people? Many were kind, deeply concerned with the well-being of others, and dedicated, hard-working people. Many were self-righteous, arrogant, and narrow-minded. So, while I am no expert in either of these groups, I think I’ve had enough interpersonal and philosophical contact with both groups to consider them from a bird’s eye view. From, my perspective, these diametrically opposed groups have one very interesting thing in common.

What do they have in common?
Far right evangelicals believe that the world will not change for the better until Jesus Christ returns. At that point, there will be an apocalyptic event of some sort that leads to a new world–one that is devoid of sin and injustice. All the folks who did not “accept Christ as their lord and savior” will not make it through this apocalyptic event commonly called the rapture.
Far left revolutionaries believe that the world will not change for the better until there is a revolution. At this breaking point, there will be an upheaval of apocalyptic proportions that leads to a new world–new social and political systems that are devoid of oppression and injustice. All the folks who cling to status quo power structures will be wiped out or forced to concede to this new reality by way of revolution.

Both groups of people live with deep-seated conviction and anticipation of these future seismic upheavals. I find it fascinating and peculiar that the motivating narrative at both ends of the spectrum is essentially the same, though the locus of control differs. On the far right, I think this narrative leads to a sort of escapism that divests from here and now (because the world is irreversibly going to shit but Jesus will fix it when he returns). On the far left, I think this narrative leads to an invalidating of social change strategies that are anything short of a revolution. And in both cases, there is a tethering to a future event that may or may not ever happen.

Now…before anyone on the internet the two people who read this blog come for me, let me acknowledge that I am absolutely aware that I am generalizing. But I think something can still have value even if it is only generally true and not absolutely or always true. I also want to acknowledge that I personally know people on both ends of the spectrum that ardently work to make the world a better place for those who are suffering in the world as it is. I deeply respect their efforts. And to be clear, I am not advocating solidarity between the far left and the far right. That’s silly. Buuuuut…I think it’s worth examining what they have in common, why, and what the political implications of that might be.

Postpartum and Trauma-Motivated Crime

Recently, I watched a documentary on Netflix called When the Bough Breaks. The documentary tells the stories of women who have suffered from postpartum depression and psychosis. Some of those women recovered, and some didn’t. It was a heart-wrenching documentary that brought to light an important issue that is so severly stigmatized that we struggle to talk about it in any robust or helpful way.

Some of the stories featured in the film involve cases of women killing their babies. Interestingly, some women are charged and acquitted of murder on the grounds that they experienced a psychological break that absolves them of responsibility for “murder”. I found this fascinating. Essentially, the trauma of childbirth and motherhood can trigger these postpartum syndromes. And women who commit these acts as a result of postpartum syndromes are not always punished for it. I think this is probably a good thing. But here’s the rub…

What about the many people (especially black and brown folks in the ‘hood) who live with the engulfing trauma of perpetual poverty, community violence, substance addictions, absent caregivers, etc. There are all kinds of traumas for poor and working class black and brown people, and aren’t those traumas just as likely to cause mental health problems? And yet when those folks commit crimes (even petty ones) that stem from these problems, they are criminalized and shoved into the corrections system.

I mean, it’s no surprise that our society has much more sympathy and grace for anxious, suburban white women who commit infancticide. And…you know…we could go there. But actually, I think we should consider importing the rubric we use to evaluate their crimes into communities where trauma and mental health issues are most assuredly widespread and consider alternative ways of dealing with what happens there. We feel sorry for the postpartum mom and let her off the hook. But we don’t feel sorry for the PTSD teenager, and we lock him up.

Does it Matter Where You Shop? Ethical Consumption, Boycotts, and Change

Nike. Denny’s. Tommy Hilfiger. Walmart. Chick-Fil-A. Uber. United Airlines. These are a few companies that come to mind when I think about calls to boycott in my recent memory.

In all of these cases, public pushback was certainly warranted. We do not want to support racist, homophobic, misogynistic, exploitative business owners, executives, or companies. And yet, I can’t seem to shake questions I have about the effectiveness of deleting Uber from one’s phone or going to Big Lots instead of Walmart.

I’m not 100% sure what I think about these things. (I’m going to think out loud/through my fingers here on this blog.)  But I think I have a few starting points I want to articulate.

  1. I won’t take issue with where people spend their money based on their own personal convictions. If you have a deeply-held belief that Starbucks is horrible, and you don’t want to support them, I’m fine with that. I will not try to convince you otherwise. Your personal, ethical convictions are just that, and I don’t think persuading you to do something different is the best use of my persuasive or political energy. The reverse is also true; if you don’t see any problem with Walmart, then shame on you  that is for you to understand and decide for yourself…unless, of course, you ask for my opinion. I do think it’s important to act in accordance with your convictions; that’s integrity. And yet, I recognize that the choice to buy Adidas instead of Nike is–in the grand scheme of our fucked up world–rather negligible. Which brings me to my second point…
  2. Our biggest and most pressing problems are systemic in nature. What I mean is that so many of the problems we encounter are deeply rooted in longstanding structures that inevitably produce inequality, domination, and degradation. This is important because systemic problems require systemic solutions. In other words, our individual purchasing choices–even when undertaken by a mass of people– on a Saturday afternoon are not sufficient to effect long-term, substantive change. That’s just not the nature of the beast.
  3. It is helpful to support fair-trade, environmentally-friendly, democratic, and otherwise ethical companies and products. There are people, groups, and companies that are working hard to do business in just and sustainable ways. And the truth is that in order for them to keep doing what they’re doing, they need to prosper. They will prosper if they are supported. So, I think it is helpful to support businesses who business practices are in-line with progressive values.

So, does it it matter where you shop? I think it matters in 2 ways. Firstly, I think it matters because it is one of the ways you express your values and train yourself to be ever mindful of workers, wealth, the environment, etc. Secondly, it matters because money talks, and it is possible to send a clear message to companies by hitting them in the pockets.

But it also doesn’t matter in 2 ways. Firstly, it doesn’t matter because we are all inextricably caught up in an imperialist, capitalist system. We all have blood on our hands. You would be hard-pressed to make it through one day without using some product or service that would not be implicated. Secondly, it doesn’t matter because it’s not actually the answer to our larger systemic problems. Ultimately, structures have to change in order for the decisions available to us and the subsequent outcomes to change.

A final word about ethical consumption…It’s really important to consider how these choices are a function of access. When you have access to disposable income, you can make the more expensive choice for fair-trade coffee. When you have geographical access to multiple options, you can choose where you shop based on some other criterion besides proximity. And when you have access to extra time, your choices open up, as well.

Whether people decide to spend their money here or there, boycott or not, the critical question is: How are we joining forces to bring about deep solutions and lasting change beyond the trending protest of the week?