Book Clubs and Bozos

Rebel Women Lit (Jamaica-based book club) finally has a Mobay chapter and I was all over the first meeting.

There were three of us. And despite the book on the table – Marlon James’s Black Leopard Red Wolf – the meeting was delightful.

Well, except for the gatecrasher who wouldn’t stop offering unsolicited opinions on a variety of topics not related to the book at hand. Gems included:

“The Bible is a great book – you should read it”

Also,

“I really think you’d like Cowboy Bebop”

and not to be outdone,

“Don’t you think people are too sensitive about everything these days? It’s like you can’t even make a joke without someone taking offense”

I am not making these up, you guys. They’re actual quotes from an actual stranger who sat down with a group of women discussing a book and felt that was the best moment to go full Kanye West.

And if you guessed that he was a man, you’d be right.

Specifically of the cisgender heteronormative variety. (You know, those people).

When I reflect on the experience I think the universe was just trying to give us the pinnacle of feminist experiences. I mean, he was only the biggest stereotype ever to walk into a cafe. We couldn’t have planned that if we tried.

In the moment though, we were all paralyzed by politeness into exchanging glances that said “Can you believe this guy?” for TWO WHOLE HOURS.

(We could not, in fact, believe him.)

Despite the interloper, we enjoyed ourselves. I have some strong opinions on the book – we agreed it was a polarizing story – even though I didn’t make it past the first twenty pages. Some other time I’ll write about why we all need to stop reading books just because they’re popular (life is too short to read shit that doesn’t spark joy).

For now I’m glad my social calendar is evolving. And if this first meeting is any indication, I may not always be on board with the book picks but I’ll always show up for a bookish conversation.

And coffee. Coffee is non-negotiable.

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Lessons in Womanhood

As a black girl child uncertainty was bred into my bones. I was taught to doubt my every thought and decision. Taught to believe someone else’s version of the truth. Taught that my feelings were irrelevant to the task at hand, which was to pave the way for someone else’s vague notions of success. It isn’t that my family deliberately set out to rob me of self-confidence, but these were the lessons I imbibed as a child who was sensitive to the ways of the world.

As an educated black woman I marvel at how much these lessons continue to affect me, particularly in my academic and professional spheres. I note with envy how easily my male colleagues assume roles of leadership. How confidently they navigate their realms, without second guessing, without deferring to another person’s judgment.

I’m acutely aware of the influence that social class must necessarily have on these gendered upbringings. The poor have always been subjugated and have coped with that subjugation by adopting a deferential attitude. This is as much a survival tactic as anything else – the poor frequently have no options for economic mobility other than servitude. And a good servant is docile.

But I don’t want to be a good servant.

I want to be a strong black woman. Strong black women (history says) are rarely ever liked, but they are respected.

If there is one truth I must give the daughter I may never have, it is that her self-worth should never be called into question. That she does not have to shrink to make way for others to grow. That she must go out and make her mark on this wretched, wonderful Earth without fear or hesitation. That she must do this with as much poise and compassion as she can muster because the world will not be kind (though kindness is needed).

This is the lesson I hope society will one day teach: that our black girls are not pawns, no. They have been Queens all along.

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Credit for the image (as well as my blog avatar) to Zigbone.

Gender. Sex. Silence. Survival.

All across the globe, gender revolutions are happening. And it’s not just in National Geographic’s January 2017 Gender Revolution issue. From the Women’s March in Washington D.C. (and others like it around the world) to the #saytheirname movement in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean, the concept of gender and sexual autonomy have become the prescient buzzwords of the new year.

So many changes are taking place in the landscape of gender – now we’re talking about it openly, for one. Compare the evolution of gender into terms like ‘non-binary’, against the potential backpedaling of the US government away from reproductive autonomy. What a time to be alive.

Of course, negative reactions are to be expected. When Loop JA posted their article on Trina, a Jamaican trans woman featured in the National Geographic issue, almost every comment disparaged the young woman – calling her ‘it’, saying she should have died in one of the many attacks on her life. And somehow in the same breath, being angry that she ‘chose’ to portray Jamaica as way more violently homophobic than it actually is.

It’s true that not all Jamaican gays/trans-folks/bisexuals experience life the same way. Jaevion Nelson (long time human rights activist) points out that by focusing on the most brutal stories we forget about the voices who are not so downtrodden, but equally important. There is no one way to be gay/trans/non-binary and Nat Geo should have considered that in their piece, instead of perpetuating the horror crusade that has become de rigueur in discussions about Jamaican homophobia.

This is not to say that there aren’t things about Jamaica that are downright horrifying. Take the recent travesty involving a Moravian pastor caught in a “compromising position” with a 15 year old girl. (Which is being handled terribly by the media, might I add).

The Moravian church has a lot to answer for, but the culture of silence isn’t only perpetuated by church-goers and elders. The silencing of young girls is so entrenched in our society that it seems impossible to break.

The silence of mothers should not be passed to their daughters. Daughters do not need to inherit the silence of their mothers.
–Ijeoma Umebinyo

Organisations like We Change JA and the Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre (along with dozens of human rights activists) are writing letters and editorials that demand an end to the secrecy. The #saytheirnames movement is growing.

But human rights movements always gather momentum really well only to fizzle out as the public loses interest. Right now everyone is interested in what WROC and the activists have to say but in another nine days those groups will be behind the scenes again, unobtrusively working to change the way our society thinks.

What great catalyst will it take to shake Jamaicans out of their indifference? When will one million women march together for gender equality, sexual autonomy, reproductive rights? Is it to be a slow, inevitable downward spiral, despite the desperate efforts of an enlightened few?

Will we wake up in time to save ourselves?

The Strange Duality of #lifeinleggings

The ineffable Carla Moore (of mooretalkja) recently posted a video of herself on Instagram wearing ‘yaad clothes’ – no bra, somewhat revealing top, and short shorts. Her caption read,

“As a woman the things you do to liberate yourself may just end up as fodder for somebody’s spank bank. That doesn’t mean you should stop trying. It does mean you need to be realistic with yourself about consequences and how you will deal with them.”
–Carla Moore (Instagram @mooremayhem)

In the video she talked about the duality of this liberation/spank bank existence and how she was able to embrace this duality as a 30-something year old woman, unafraid of dealing with the consequences of her actions.

This duality is an unbalanced in-between space that many feminists have been navigating for years. The urge to dress up/dress sexy for yourself is always countered by the knowledge that men will assume you’re dressing up for them. The boldest feminists, I think, have barreled on regardless of what men may think, dressing however they want. The not-so-brave still resist, and I count myself in this category because sometimes I’m still afraid to dress up, thereby drawing attention to myself. And as a woman in the Caribbean (the whole world, but especially at home), male attention is usually the last thing you want to attract.

But going beyond the purview of #lifeinleggings and extending Carla’s think piece to a more general awareness of the feminine existence, another question arises: What other parts of myself am I struggling to reconcile? Aside from my sexuality (style? attractiveness?), what other definitions of myself clash in the public and private spheres?

The other day I went Christmas shopping and got super excited by the silly Christmas hats on display. I was trying them on and making faces while my partner snapped pictures (for blackmail purposes, I presume) when I heard a voice say, “Dr. Robyn?”

It was my former consultant and his daughter, whom he introduced to me. He was amused, his daughter was very politely concerned and I was absolutely mortified.

Compared to life in leggings, this is a shallow contemplation. But a necessary one nonetheless. Aspects of myself that I like and respect – my whimsy, my silliness, my endless stubborn optimism – won’t always impress other people. Can I live with that duality, the awareness that the same feature will represent different things to different people?

Writers have to deal with that all the time. They (we?) pretty much exist in a plane of ambiguity. One piece of work can be torn to shreds and elevated time and time again. How they feel about their creation will not be how their reader feels about it.

I suppose there is plurality in all things. It’s a condition of life. At the same time as we are somebody’s daughter or son, we are someone else’s sister or brother, mother or father, friend or enemy. We navigate these existences unconsciously (there goes my cis-privilege), but the burgeoning consciousness about gender interactions forces our experiences as women into a harsh light. We’re rethinking all the old ways of thinking and doing things, and we’re doing it loudly.

I’m waiting with bated breath for the outcome of these hard conversations. I’m hoping it ends with a woman being able to walk down the street and have it be just that: a walk down the street, instead of an invitation to harassment.

pax.

the issue of sexuality

It seems like the universe has conspired to have me write this entry. On the same morning I stumbled across Raising My Rainbow, a blog about a gender non-conforming 5 year old, I had an enthusiastic seminar on sexuality and HIV.

Raising My Rainbow really struck a chord in my mind because it was the first time I was ever confronted with the reality of such a young child being allowed to opt out of his predetermined gender roles. If you haven’t before, take a moment to consider what this means and check out the blog in the meantime. This five year old boy gets pedicures done with Mummy, dresses up as girls for Halloween and generally spends a lot more time in skirts than most other boys his age.

I am hard pressed to put my finger on what exactly weirds me out about the situation, but I definitely had a moment of “WTF?”. Generally speaking, I encourage people not to let themselves be tied down by the constraints of society and not to let themselves be pigeon-holed into a role they’re uncomfortable with. But I’ve only ever given a thought to adults in this situation. Because grown-ups are assumed to know what they want. But a child?

So I guess my real issue is his age: is a child that young capable of making these kinds of decisions? And should we trust the decisions they make? The family is the earliest institution of socialization we’re exposed to, and that gives parents the enormous responsibility of turning out functional members of society. In effect, parents are expected to guide the child on the path to becoming an appropriate adult.

But how can I fault this boy’s parents for letting him express himself, especially when the alternative would be to force him into society’s idea of the ‘real man’? Too often in Jamaican society, we toughen up our boys too much, robbing them of much-needed emotional expression. The concepts are diametrically opposed. Is one approach the right one, or does the issue fall into the shady grey zone of human experience?

I will not deny that hearing about this little boy’s first pedicure didn’t sit comfortably with me, but that reaction is largely a product of my environment. I believe in advocating the right of a person to be whatever gender he/she wants to be without judgement. That should include little girls and boys too.

Shouldn’t it?

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How would you react if your 3 year old son decided he wanted to dress up as Snow White for Halloween?