nobody’s cheerleader

19 Jan 2016 news 11 Comments

41CYExCxzdL._AC_UL320_SR194,320_A feminist friend of mine once shared with me that her eldest daughter was trying out for the cheerleading squad at her school. I understood her concerns, but pointed out that cheerleading can be quite athletic and there are competitions that have nothing to do with girls in miniskirts waving pompoms to encourage boys as they run up and down the basketball court or football field. In the end she decided to compromise; her daughter could try out for cheerleading so long as she also picked some extra-curricular activities that developed her intellectual abilities (I think her daughter opted for student government).

I used to say with pride, “I’m nobody’s cheerleader.” As a young Black feminist, I refused to engage in any activity that seemed designed to subordinate women in order to uplift men. Skimpy outfits aside, it’s frustrating to know that squads of boys/men never show up to cheer on women athletes. There’s no reciprocity—it’s all about celebrating male achievement. Yet as a teacher, I found that it often *was* my job to cheer from the sidelines as my students struggled to apply the lessons they learned from me in class. And there wasn’t much reciprocity because even though I could (and did) learn from my students, there was a built-in imbalance since I was being paid to serve them and not the other way around. I want *all* of my students to achieve but over the course of 25 years, I have gotten so used to purposely cheering on bright Black boys that I sometimes have to remind myself to give equal time to Black girls. Experience has taught me to expect Black girls to succeed (because they generally do) whereas experience has taught me that many Black boys struggle and will give up without extra encouragement. Yesterday was MLK Day and I went up to White Plains to present at a fundraiser for the MLK Freedom Library. It was a wonderful group that broke down in the usual way—several Black (grand)mothers with their kids, just one or two Black (grand)fathers with their kids, and quite a few older and younger Black women who came out (I think) to support their sorority, which co-sponsored the event. There was a Black boy sitting in the front who kept raising his hand to share personal anecdotes; sometimes I listened long enough to connect his comments to my presentation and other times I asked him to save his question or comment until the end. When I asked for a volunteer to read a passage on one of the slides, he waved his hand in the air and stood by the screen as soon as I called on him. I warned him that there were some big words in the passage but I would help him if he got stuck. Then I discovered that he could only read words with 2 or 3 letters, which meant that we read most of the passage together. But he kept his eyes on me and I knew the entire audience was cheering him on, and we all gave him a round of applause once he reached the end. Would a Black girl with limited reading skills wave her hand and ask to read aloud? I don’t know. Would the primarily female audience have gotten behind her in the same way? I hope so.

indexBlack women are desperate to see Black boys succeed. We’re keenly aware of the many arenas where Black men are nowhere to be found; we feel their absence, mourn it, and generally do what we can to support the Black men who seem to be beating the odds. But it’s not easy being a Black feminist when there’s almost zero reciprocity, and standing up for Black girls can lead to charges of disloyalty to “the race.” Folks are worried that Will Smith and Michael B. Jordan weren’t nominated for an Oscar. I haven’t heard anyone mention that no Black women were nominated either, though I suppose that might be due to the fact that Black women are finally taking up space in television. Yesterday on the train ride back from White Plains I had an excellent conversation with two sorors I met at the event; we talked about politics and pop culture, the Black intellectuals we admire or can’t stand. We parted ways at Grand Central and on the subway back to Brooklyn I finished reading All American Boys. It’s an important book, I’m glad it exists. I’ve read all of Jason Reynolds’ books and went into this one worried he’d give short shrift to Black girls—and I wasn’t disappointed. Despite giving a shout out in the acknowledgments section to women who are regularly rendered invisible in civil rights movements, no teenage Black girl has a voice or a significant role in the book. Black girls are the objects of desire for the book’s Black male characters—they’re there to “get all up on” and/or serve as props for teasing other boys. Considering the fact that young queer Black women FOUNDED the Black Lives Matter movement, it was disappointing to have a WHITE girl (written by the book’s white co-author, Brendan Kiely) be the one to introduce #SayHerName (at the end of the book). Black female victims of police brutality are named at the protest, but the one young Black woman with potential—Berry, a law student—is totally ignorant of her younger brother’s history with the police, and at the protest merely reads the script handed to her by her Black male boyfriend (and brother of the protagonist/victim). Imagine how different the book would be if instead of an older brother, Rashad had had an older sister—and she and her girlfriend organized the rally. Imagine if Tiffany, the girl Rashad hoped to “rub-a-dub on,” had been given a voice and an opportunity to talk about how police brutality impacted her life, her community, her personal sense of safety (think convicted rapist cop Daniel Holtzclaw and #BlackWomenMatter).

birthdaycake_recalled2I don’t always get my Black male characters right. At the event in White Plains I talked with a Rastafarian scholar about how hard it was for me to make Judah homophobic. I want him to be a better person, but I can’t idealize a young man who realistically would disown his best friend for being gay. There’s been a lot of talk on social media about the appropriate way to “call out” or “call in” PoC who get it wrong when publishing books for young readers. I’m for accountability and I don’t have a lower standard for people of color—I actually hold them to a higher standard because unlike racist and/or ignorant whites, they should know better. We wouldn’t cut PoC officials slack if they played a role in poisoning the water in Flint, and we shouldn’t cut editors or authors slack when they produce toxic books for our kids. All American Boys is *not* toxic—it’s an important book, and I think it could be a useful teaching tool in the home and at school. It recently won a Coretta Scott King Honor Award (ETA: the novel just won the inaugural Walter Dean Myers Award from We Need Diverse Books) and I believe its publication date was moved up in order to capitalize on the nation’s current interest in police brutality and youth movements. I have at least one professor friend who plans the teach the novel this spring, and I have already urged her to point out the absence of Black girls from the book. That kind of erasure isn’t new, and it’s the very reason we have hashtags like #SayHerName and #BlackWomenMatter.

Toni Morrison advised us to write the books we want to read rather than waiting for others to write them for us. Which is just what I plan to do…

ETA: The conversation continues here.