Thursday, July 15, 2010

My Spicy Blog

I just started a fashion and lifestyle blog...a little lighter, maybe part two of this blog, or maybe I will continue to use this space as my repository for larger and longer musings...

Saturday, February 27, 2010

On cultural appropriation

(I originally wrote this as a comment on a website that I frequent. This is something that I think about a lot and I wanted to write an essay about it, just as a way to pull my thoughts together on this issue. But I need to focus my writing on my dissertation, so for now, these hastily written words will have to do. I am sure I will have more to say about it later, and will re-vist it in the future).

I am not really a proponent of the "cultural appropriation" meme. The more I study and learn about cultures the more I realize that there is no "pure" culture. There is no culture that is stagnant and unchanged by the culture of other groups. Our society is increasingly more fact it has always been global. Different African groups, Indian groups, European groups traded with each other and influenced each other. That continues now. Hip hop is global. Classical music is global. Sushi is global. Pizza is global. Dreadlocks are global. Blue jeans are global. Buddha statues are global. Crosses are global. Korans are global.

I also feel that the downside of trying to decide who should perform some types of cultural activities is that we subsequently put people in cultural boxes. In other words, if you are white, you should not do x,y, and z, because those are things that black people do. If you are black, you should not do a,b, and c, because those are things that white people do. I am okay with saying that traditionally, certain groups have tended to do certain things, but the focus on being cultural gatekeepers is problematic.

Now, I do think that there are ways of borrowing from cultures that are more respectful than others...but even then I have a personal problem with trying to dictate where that line is for other people. I know personally, when I see white people with afro wigs on I give them long intense looks...that's just my personal little way of "getting" to them, if their intention is to mock afro hair. But whites with dreads, for intense, is so normalized to me...I don't see that as anything more than white hippie or hipster culture (full disclosure-I tried to meld my South Indian bf's bone straight hair into locks in college). But I am not trying to make my personal stance apply to other individuals.

I am social justice oriented, so mocking a culture is something that I will address. I also don't feel that I can speak for other cultures, particularly non-Afro ones. For instance, I need to listen when indigenous people state that certain things are problematic (not that there is one single indigenous stance).

In short, I tend to err on the side of cultural borrowing and mixing is okay. Cultural appropriation is not bad, imo, but there are more respectful and less respectful ways to do it. That continuum is always being negotiated by the "appropriators" and the "appropriated", and is contextual or situational.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Regular black

My views on mixed race and multicultural black folks have evolved over time. When I was an undergrad, the Afrocentric, black power sista, I was all about the blackness or the African-ness of everyone being expressed and affirmed. It was in undergrad that I developed my first close ties to any mixed people. Both were black identifying women with black dads and white moms. They were cool people who were all about black progress and really affirmed what I believed at the time: you can have white in your family, but if you are part black, you are black. Period. Mixed folks who identified as mixed or more with their white side were sellouts. Now I am not saying this is what my friends thought, but it was my view. Mixed folks like my friends were cool, others were not.

I went through a lot of changes while in undergrad. I remember reading Alice Walker's thoughts on multiracial identity and how she felt she had to honor all of her ancestors, including the Indian and the white ones that were probably there because of slavery. At the time, I was practicing an African based religious tradition and ancestor worship was part of my practice. I thought deeply about this and realized that perhaps I, too needed to affirm all of my ancestors, not just the black ones. I discussed this with some Afrocentric friends and experienced the first of many attempted silencings by other African Americans on my desire to acknowledge my multiracial ancestry. My one friend shut me down. Solidly. I don't remember what she said, but it was enough to shame me into thinking that perhaps I was not a revolutionary thinker, but a self hating Negro like the rest of the masses.

I identify as African American. But I recognize that inherent in that identity is the understanding that I have mixed ancestry. I know this because of the experiences of blacks historically in this country, but I also know it because of my own family history. I first learned about this as a young child. I grew up in Detroit, but my mom was born and raised in the Southern Arkansas / Northern Louisiana region of the south. One summer, my mom and I traveled south to spend time with her maternal grandmother. Granny Mirdie.Granny Mirdie and her son Grandpa Willie always looked a little "odd" to me. It was something about their coloring, which was dark, but almost red instead of brown, and their white, straight looking hair, that did not fit in with the rest of my family up north.At the time, the majority of my family was rocking gherri curls, so I really had a skewed view of what "normal" was. My mother, however, wore a short natural….really a fade…which provided my extended family with endless comic fodder.

But, back to the southern folks. Now, this was my mother's paternal side, the side which was almost completely in the South. My mother's maternal side was the side that I had grown up around, a side that my mother, an only child, and I, her only child, did not resemble too much. My grandmother, mom's mom, was the eldest in the family, but she was really a half sister to all her siblings. She was a Robinson, while the rest of my family were Washingtons. I will get back to the Robinsons later.

While visiting Granny Mirdie and Grandpa Willie, my mom and I went to visit two of her grandfather's sisters (Grandpa Willie's paternal aunts). I remember sitting on the porch with them and being scared and amazed at the same time. They were small petite old ladies, with really light skin and long straight white hair that hung to their waist. As my mom chatted with them I just stared. They looked like witches to me! And they were white! How could these women be my aunts? When we left the house I asked my mom how could we be related to those white women. She replied that they were not white, they were Indian. I don't remember probing her further. And I think for many years I put it to the back of my mind

As a dark skinned girl growing up in the late 80's and early 90's, I was ridiculed often because of my skin.I got called choco-bliss (after the Hostess snack) blackie, and a whole assortment of names. My parents were anti perm and hair pressing, so I wore my hair in natural braids and ponytails until my middle school years, when I took to daily pressing my hair. I always knew where I fit on the beauty continuum, according to my peers. The light skinned girls with "good hair" were at the top, and I was at the bottom because of my skin. I would look in the mirror and see a really pretty girl, but one who could not be seen as beautiful because of my darkness. But I would look at my thick, below shoulder length hair and, later, my shapely physique, and see that if I played up those attributes, people would recognize my beauty. My folks were not having the tight clothes, so I focused my attention on my hair. If my hair was long, or looked curly, then people would be able to see my beauty.

When I became afrocentric, I let go of the obsession with hair, initially. I cut all my hair off, as my mother had done so many years ago, and focused on the beauty of my dark skin and black features. I fell in love with me.I was a broke college student though, and could not afford the weekly barbershop visits. So I began to let my natural hair grow out. I was completely surprised when my hair began to come in as curly waves. You got "good hair", some family members and friends would exclaim. But I didn't. Good hair was what mixed light skinned girls had. I was African. I started paying attention to my mom's hair, which by now had grown out and was fast turning white, like her father and grandmother…and her Indian great aunts. I noticed how her hair straightened when she put water in it and combed it, while mine curled and waved up. What is going on with your hair? I would ask her. Is it because you are going gray?

I tried to be a nappy missionary, encouraging others to go natural. My extended family would scoff at me. You and your mom got Indian all in your family. You can go natural. We can't. After a while, I stopped trying to get others to accept their natural hair. But I started thinking about my identity, bashfully at first. I was ashamed to even think of myself as anything but African. But my desire for self knowledge trumped my worries of perhaps having some residue of self hatred in me. I asked my mom about those aunts from long ago. "They, and my granddaddy were Creek. I remember some stuff about him, but not much. But there were some Indian things that he did at the homeplace". She was never specific about it though. I know he was a sugar cane farmer and they called him Beet because of it. She desired to know more and so did I, but again the social pressure to be black and only black got to me. Even years later when I was researching the family on and considering DNA testing to find out about our African ancestors, I remember chiding my mom for asking me to look up the Indians too. I remember she stared at me and said, "Why shouldn't I want to know about them? They're my people too".

This was a pivotal moment for me. At that point in my life I had been experiencing a number of people, from different walks of life and different nationalities, asking me where I was from. Mostly they thought I was from the Caribbean or Africa. Sometimes folks would ask me my racial makeup, wanting to know who in my family was non-African American . This was usually in the context of a conversation about hair. I would grudgingly admit that my great grandfather was Indian and the questioner would give me a knowing glance, indicating…yes, THAT is why your hair looks like it does.

During this time I was also trying to come to terms with mixed race and multiracial people and identity. I no longer felt that people who affirmed their mixed heritages were sellouts. But I was still uncomfortable with a lot of what I read about mixed and proud people. They often seemed condescending of mono-racial folks, particularly black people. I felt like they were trying to separate themselves from blacks, and it stung. But I wanted to understand their perspective. I dated a mixed race (white and Chinese- American) man who had been part of the early mixed race movement in the Bay area of the 1990's. He had distanced himself from it because he felt that they wanted people to let go of their colored identity, in his case, his Asian side. He was staunchly pan-Asian. The funny thing is, when talking about his non Asian side, he brought up the Indian heritage that he had via his white father. It turned out that he had an Indian great grandfather as well. We were probably the same percentage Indian, if you will, maybe me more so since there is purported Indian ancestors on not just my mother's paternal side, but also her maternal (the aforementioned Robinson's) and on my paternal side as well. I do not speak of this often because of my lingering reluctance to be labeled as one of those blacks claiming to have "Injun" in the family. I try to stick to the Indians that I know, but I still get labeled.

In various online communities, particularly ones that talk about racial politics, I have tried to engage in discussions about black people with Indian ancestry. I have shared my experiences, one experience in particular when a man attempting to get me to sign a petition asked me about my racial makeup. He was a reddish brown-skinned man, black, but it was obvious to me from his pony tailed wavy hair and facial features, that he had Native ancestry. Still, when he asked me about mine, I tried to dismiss it. He pressed me, and I finally acquiesced about the Creek heritage. he told me that he could see it in my features. Upon sharing that story, a member of an online hair board that I frequent looked at my online photo album, returned to the board and remarked, "I don't know what you are talking about. You look regular black to me". I remember being stunned and feeling silenced. Was I trying to be something that I was not? What was regular black? That thread did not end well. People who identified as having native ancestry were basically called self hating Negros who wanted to find any way possible to claim superiority over non Indian blacks.

I knew that was not the case for me. I love being black /African American. I have been exposed to other black cultures (African, Afro-Latino, Caribbean) and while I appreciate them, I have great pride in African American culture. Its mine. Likewise, I have been exposed somewhat to Native American culture and intellectual spaces. I am interested in them, but they are not me. I'm black. Regular black. Which to me means having a multicultural heritage that should not be ignored. Like Alice Walker, I am going to continue to learn about all of my ancestors, women and men whose lives have led to my life. I am striving to no longer let others make me feel ashamed for acknowledging them.

My views on multiracial identities have and will continue to evolve. It took me seeing both sides of the debate, experiencing them firsthand, to really begin to understand the dilemma people who consider themselves mixed race have to deal with. While my experience is not theirs and theirs is not mine, I am better able to understand their (varied) perspectives. It is this understanding that precludes me from being hypocritical and expecting them to show their loyalty to blacks in particular. The need to self identify is paramount. No one has a right to determine for others what type of black, what type of human, one should be.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

New Year's Eve

I spent NYE 2009 in the Barra neighborhood (my hood) with a cool group of Americans, Brits and hmm...only 1 Brazilian! We started the evening at my friend's restaurant (she is African American and relocated to Brazil with her husband and two small children a couple of years ago).

After food, drinks, conversation, and photos, we headed out onto Avenida Oceania for fireworks, drinks, and partying.
We watched some Capoeria in the streets too. Some guys hustled me and my friend for donations after we took pictures. That is jeito, or commonplace, in Pelourhino (the old town), but here in Barra? They pissed me off, but I gave some just to keep the peace.All in all, I had a wonderful time. I was so tired that I slept most of the next 2 days....I am getting old, can't hang like I used too!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Muse, or I Guess I Just Needed Some Therapy...

I wanna thank you for softening my my shell shocked, calloused heart. This album, even with its crudeness,crassness, and "interesting" depictions of black women, is a musical masterpiece. The bossa nova / tropicalismo, the Motown (Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man instrumental…..that was for me, right?) the subtle use of Estelle, the hard hitting of Nikki Minaj….reminding me of an early Lil' Kim (I heard that bumblebee reference…classic…she knows whose shoulders she standing on)….This album's production style….it just makes me wanna write…I am so inspired by your music…I have found my muse…thank you...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Today was a good day!

Its about 11 pm and I am laying in a hammock on my balcony that has a (slight) view of the ocean. Actually I may go inside cause I think the mosquitoes are out. Unfortunately, I don't get to spend too much time out here during the day cause of the hot as Hades sun...this is my first Brazilian spring/summer and it is kicking my butt!

But I am enjoying the beach and the hot weather, especially considering I could be experiencing snow and 18 degree temps like my folks in Detroit are. I spent part of the day at the beach watching a swim competition and reading about writing. I had printed out a copy of this series of articles about developing a successful writing practice. I know I tend to wait until I have large amounts of time to sit down and try to write (this blog, in my journal, my creative stuff, and my academic work). Of course, I rarely have large amounts of time. So you can imagine how often I write. So now I have to learn to take smaller amounts of time, daily or almost daily, to write. I think I will like to do academic work in the morning and creative stuff in the evening. I downloaded a writing graph from the author's website (she has a book too). I will officially start this Monday.

I also reacquainted myself with three academic websites: ; ; and . I need to utilize the resources available there as I complete this work.

I am reading the book Writing Down the Bones, which takes a Zen approach to writing. I find it very inspiring on a variety of levels. Perhaps I will expound upon that in a later post. There is also a book by the African American writer, Charles Johnson, called Turning the Wheel that I am considering buying. He addresses the intersection of writing, race, and Buddhism. I saw a quote recently that talked about creative people being inspired by other creative people. I can see that working in my life now. The next step is to be productive...

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Catching Up

There was a pretty long gap between my last post in July and the latest ones in December. I have a pretty good reason for that. F. and I stayed in Brazil until August, but I became so ill I really feel blessed that I made it through okay. In the beginning of August I had another stomach episode (even before that I got seasick on the way to an island resort area, but I can't even speak on that cause I get flashbacks...ugh). So I was sick at the start of August, and then I got a little better. Then right before my son's birthday on the 7th, I started to feel very ill, feverish and achy. It got progressively worse, until I found a place for him to be and took a taxi to the hospital. I could barely walk and had started coughing and having problems breathing.

In Brazil you have to put down a 2500 reis deposit (about 1400 USD) when you go to the emergency (at least at the hospital I went to). So after I paid the money and filled out the paperwork, I got to sit for hours while I waited and then had chest xrays, blood tests, and an oxygen treatment. They thought I had denge fever, then pneumonia, but I was eventually diagnosed as having a "lung infection". I am still not convinced that it was not the flu or H1N1. I got antibiotics and was sent home.

Unfortunately, the antibiotics did little. I kept a 103 degree temperature for about a week and really was not 100% I was gonna make it (I am dramatic but it was really bad, man). I emailed my mentor back in the States and gave him instructions to facilitate things for me and my family in the event that I were to become incapacitated. I didn't tell my parents cause I did not want them to worry.

Finally, it was time to go. I really only made it through cause of the kindness of my house guest and some local friends who took care of me and my son. I never felt so helpless before....damn, just thinking about it makes me want to cry. I made it through though, praise God! So, anyway, F. and I arrive home and my parents could see how sick I was ( I had lost my voice for a few days while in Brazil and was still very hoarse plus I coughed so hard it sounded like I was hacking up a lung). Shortly after arriving in the states I went to the MSU clinic (free for students, so I drove the 1.5 hours to go to the doctor...well, my mom drove, but still). The funny thing is, the night before we went to MSU, my throat starting hurting really bad and I had white spots on my tonsils. I thought strep throat (whose horror I had experienced before). My cousin insisted that I gargle with peroxide and the next day the pain was gone but the spots were still there. The doctor diagnosed me with having bronchitis and tonsillitis and gave me another, different course of antibiotics. I was better within a week or so.

So that was the end of my summer in Brazil (Brazilian winter). I will share later some of the really cool things that I experienced during my fall in Detroit. Now I am enjoying winter back in Brazil (Brazilian summer). Reflecting on this post, I think I better be about the business of making sure my contingency plans are in place in case I take ill again (or God forbid, my son does)...