Declining Plan B As An Act of Faith

In a few months, it will be ten years since I moved to Atlanta to start a new chapter in life. Given this, I have been thinking about the next ten years and what I ought to leave behind.

Reflecting took me back to a moment in October 2015 when I was attending a gathering of my Ph.D. cohort at our advisor’s home. I remember being nervous about speaking to one faculty member in particular because of his intense personality, yet I found myself standing with him talking about alternative academic (Alt Ac) careers. I wanted to know his thoughts on Alt Ac, a term bandied about a lot in the first few weeks of the Ph.D. program as a vocational direction. I was also curious about how I might spin my first vocation as a journalist in case this whole Ph.D. thing didn’t work out. I remember his energy and his words to me and my colleagues that evening as if it were yesterday. He said–and I’m paraphrasing because this was nearly five years ago,

“There is no plan B, you don’t do PhD work because you want to do alternative academic work, you do this work so that you achieve plan A, otherwise you may as well leave now.”

I remember being shocked at his words but also feeling like it’s just what a white male would say. A white male graduated with high honors, and thereafter landed a teaching position and then a tenure-track position and is currently a full professor. This was all within his first 10 years of holding a PhD. Given this, his dictating what we ought to desire as new PhD students seemed easier said than done. I also couldn’t help but wonder if my path was so assured as a young Black woman scholar. Thinking this way lead me to hold onto my identity as a journalist by hanging on to any opportunity I had to capitalize on that identity and turn it into work. That is why, for the better part of the last five years, and actually for the previous ten, I stayed working in the realm of journalism. Whether it was writing bit pieces, managing editorial websites for publishing companies and people, being an editor for online journals, and the list runs on. I kept myself glued to my first vocation. Yet, this also meant that my loyalties were divided between where I’ve been and where I was headed. It was the difference between resting in the comfort of what I’d known for nearly 20 years or accepting the challenge of a new realm. Recently all of this came to a head for me.

With this being the penultimate year of my Ph.D. work, I’ve had to become more precise about the return on investment that I desire. Thus, while working, writing, applying for fellowships, and living, I’ve had to think about what I want my life to look like in the decades to follow. This has become particularly important as many people ask me, “What do you want to do when you graduate?” Unequivocally I say I want to become a tenure-track professor so that I can teach, write, and speak about ethics, religion, and women, gender, and sexuality at a university or seminary. Yet what I practice is not always what I preach as I continue to hedge my bets by holding on to Plan B.

For the past few months, holding on to Plan B has looked like holding on to my position at the library like a security blanket, all the while knowing, “Everything I can do is not everything I should do.” I told my advisor this last year when she and I were strategizing about my final years in the program. I remember sitting in her office wrestling with the opportunities before me but articulating rather clearly that just because I can do something doesn’t mean I should do it. Sure, I am good at what I do in non-academic areas, but it does not mean that every opportunity presented to me to work in those areas is an expedient opportunity. This is particularly important when I reflect on the precarity of time, and how I indicate to myself and the universe what is important by what I spend the most time doing. If I am dedicating more energy to everything but the pursuit of this Ph.D., how am I sowing into the future I say I desire? Indeed some of this work is necessary because bills don’t get paid by chasing dreams. Yet, if I am not being clear about what it is I want, searching for opportunities to singlemindedly pursue it, and having faith in the pursuit, I cannot and should not expect for it to fully manifest. (Read “fully manifest” carefully, which means I could manifest something, but will it be what I know I am worth?) 

So I’ve had to make a choice–and it’s not lost to me that God gives me choices time and time again. As I shared with a friend recently, “I am never forsaken,” it can be probably be argued that many of us are not forsaken; we just choose our comfort over the challenge to rise to the occasion for which God put us on this earth to meet. But that’s another post for another day. Nevertheless, similar to the choice I had to make ten years ago to leave NY and move to Atlanta to start seminary for God knows what, I have chosen to stop hedging my bets on this old life and start betting on this new life.

I did not just take ten years out of my life to be on the proverbial backside of the mountain to go back to doing the same thing. Indeed, being a journalist is who I was for some time and much of my life will be guided by those impulses–because there is always room for fair and balanced reporting, in-depth coverage, fact-checking, and good writing that everyone can read. All of those things are important to me as ways of life and I carry them with me into the academy. But what I am no longer holding onto tightly is the idea that if all else fails I’m going to fall back into the field of journalism. Instead, in the middle of a pandemic that is wreaking havoc on the academy and creating uncertainty for near-future PhDs, I’m leaning into what I want and what I’ve been working toward all along. I’m thinking about the words of that faculty member who told me in 2015 that there is no Plan B, there’s only Plan A, and he was right. There is only a Plan A, and I’m encouraging myself to believe that I can achieve the Plan A by dint of my hard work over the last decade, my gifts, and by hoping against hope that the future I want is the future I will have.

In many ways, I’m returning to the type of person I was ten years ago before I was in the throes of graduate school theological education. I was hopeful and willing to trust God with what I cannot see and that hope and trust moved me to Atlanta for ten years and set me on this incredible journey. I feel that God is again asking me to hope and dream audaciously and trust the process, but this time around to lean singularly on the last thing I was told to do. So here I am, entering the final lap of this pursuit toward a Ph.D., having decided to step away from my work in the library, having accepted the fellowship that aligns with my future goals, and that allows me the opportunity to work on this dissertation singlemindedly. I am entering the next ten years focused on the one thing I want. I am giving this work time to speak to me by only listening to it. Finally, and most importantly, I am trusting the process and trusting God in the process.

Black Television’s Bi-Problem

Lately, I’ve noticed a trend in Black television shows that focus on the love lives of cis-heterosexuals. Girl meets boy, girl and boy go on date or are already dating, then girl notices something about the boy. Maybe there is something about his affect that makes her think he has an affinity for men. Maybe he wears what would be described as women’s feminine underwear. Maybe he had an experience with another man once and that shatters her confidence in what she thought she knew about his sexuality. Maybe it isn’t even speculation because boy tells girl clearly, “I am fluid, bi-sexual, queer, pansexual, etc.” Whatever the case may be, whatever the show, the woman’s reaction is nearly the same every time. A rejection of the man because she cannot get beyond her rigid ideas of masculinity and what she thinks a man ought to be. I like to call this “Black television’s bi- problem” although it’s honestly an LGBT problem, I’m a sucker for alliteration so here we are. It has presented itself on numerous occasions over the years but the last 4-5 years where it has been most poignant as a new generation of television creatives has hit the scene.

In 2016 we encountered the problem in Issa Rae’s Insecure. During a dinner date between headstrong attorney Molly and sweet Enterprise Rental bae Jared, they asked each other about past sexual experiences. Molly confessed to making out with a girl in college which Jared reacted gleefully to–of course. But when Jared shared that he received oral sex from a guy in his early 20s, Molly flew off the handle. Molly presumed he was gay and cut him off.

Fast forward to 2020 in Love is Blind when Carlton, after proposing to Diamond and during their honey half-moon, tells Diamond that he is fluid. Diamond is in a state of shock about this and tries to work through it with Carlton, but she is brutally rebuffed by him in part because of her response and in part because of what seemed like his failure to work on himself.

Finally, Black television’s sexuality problem is currently playing out on not one, but two Black Entertainment Television (BET) shows that air consecutively, Tyler Perry’s Sistas and Lena Waithe’s Twenties. In Perry’s Sistas, doe-eyed Sabrina meets pretty AF Calvin during her shift at the shadiest looking bank in Atlanta. Calvin first encounters her co-worker Maurice, a flamboyantly gay man who thought Calvin was interested in him until Calvin specifically requests to see Sabrina. After some small talk and what looked like the most unsecured transaction for a bank deposit, Sabrina agrees to a date with Calvin but suggests he meet her at a bar she will be at with her friends. In good girlfriend fashion, she tells her friends about her concern regarding Calvin’s sexuality and once they meet him they issue a snap judgment that he is gay. This, of course, gets into Sabrina’s head. Fast-forward to her first sexual encounter with Calvin and it is revealed that he wears lacy bikini underwear. For Sabrina, this certifies Calvin as gay and solidifies the driving plot of the relationship. Calvin goes through pains to prove he is not gay by giving an account of himself and Sabrina keeps looking through the dim light of those doe eyes for all the things she believes make a man gay, ignoring the man’s account of himself. Every episode of this series 20+ episodes manages to revisit Sabrina’s tired perception of Calvin’s sexuality.

The scenario in Waithe’s Twenties is probably the most inconspicuous of the trends, which may only be because the lead on the show is Hattie, a queer Black woman who is not hiding her sexuality amidst her striving in an otherwise heteronormative world. It is, however, Hattie’s friend Marie and her boyfriend Chuck who seem to be wrestling with both sex and sexuality. Early on we discover that Marie and Chuck have an uneventful sex life which viewers might attribute to Marie’s high-strung personality. But as the show progresses we see stereotypical hints at Chuck being the reason why their sex life is suffering. Chuck sings songs adjacent to show tunes. Chuck gravitates toward certain self-help books. Chuck seems to be soft and effeminate. And in an episode,  Chuck lights up when he and Marie watch a porno featuring a threesome of two men and one woman. That scene ends with a tight shot on Marie’s face showing a look of concern and revelation that implies, “Oh my goodness, my boyfriend might be gay.”

Each of the aforementioned shows fumbles the ball on the matter of sexuality by relying on tropes and stereotypes regarding gay and bisexual people. They cast their hetero character as ignorant at best and intolerant at worst regarding the spectrum of sexual experience and what it means to allow someone to give an account of themselves. Some shows have tried to clean this up, such as in Insecure when Issa tries to help Molly over the hump of her closed view on sexuality by lacing together some good Women Studies language on the topic.

So she’s supposed to stop seeing Jared just because he doesn’t subscribe to the heteronormative rejection of sexual fluidity.

But to no avail, Molly lets Jared go because she is unable to fathom the idea of his heterosexuality being uninterrupted by an experience marked as gay. She is unable to allow the man to give an account of himself through his own words that it was “one time, one man.” The other show that has demystified Black television’s bi-problem is Lena Waithe’s other series, Boomerang which avoids the issue by confronting it head-on with Ari, the Prince-like, bi-curious character who wrestles with his sexuality in ways that might be identifiable to those who’ve had similar experiences. Ari’s struggle may be portrayed well because the executive producer of the show, after Lena Waithe, is an out gay Black man, Ben Corey Jones. So Jones’ consultation and direction in this regard may be Boomerang‘s saving grace.

We have no resolve from Love is Blind‘s Carlton and honestly, the internet is already full of think pieces about how Carlton’s revelation about sexual fluidity was received by Diamond and Black women the world over, so I won’t rehash that.

In all of this, I am concerned about what we are teaching people with these portrayals of our community’s bi-problem. And as I write this it occurred to me what the bi-problem might signify. The bi- is not for bisexual but it is for the binary construct that structures portrayals of love in our community. The binary is that one is either straight or gay, there is nothing in between, there is no spectrum and there is no need to wrestle with one’s narrow view of sexuality expressed by Black men. In shows that center heteronormative love, men must fit neatly into a heteronormative box. Anything that transgresses the boundaries of the box becomes a red flag, a thing to be contested, a way to reject a subject because the primary subjects are so tightly wound in the hetero world. Yet I wonder how we can better portray and tell the story of love in consideration of a vast expression of male sexuality, whether that sexuality can be clearly marked or not. Maybe we can even wrestle with the root cause of our need for Black men in these shows to show up as heterosexual Alpha males through and through, which sometimes means these men carry toxic masculinity traits. How can we create a space where we allow the Black man to dwell in liminal spaces and not always be subject to the tired narrative of who he ought to be as a Black man?


It’s fascinating to me that we are another decade into the 21st century and we are still rehearsing the same issues, making heteronormativity the predominant discourse in Black entertainment and casting anything outside of that identity as an aside or an issue to be managed. Is art imitating life? Have we not really progressed in these matters? Does this mean that shows that feature a queer or questioning character require an LGBTQ writer, executive producer, or showrunner? If the answer is “Yes”  does that let cis-heteros off the hook and still susceptible to making the same mistakes?

It seems I have more questions than I have answers but I am not above wrestling with this as someone who consumes her fair share of television and as someone whose work is concentrated in sexual ethics. The matter of how Black male sexuality is represented on Black television and in Black culture matters. I believe this is a fair discussion to have in consideration of the proliferation of character-based programming coming at us from every angle and streaming service. If we are to persist in the production and consumption of this programming, we have to demand better representation of the stories of everyone and not allow heteronormativity to be the dominating framework.

And maybe there’s a possibility that these shows are actually setting us up well to have the discussions about sex and sexuality that our community sometimes like to avoid. If that is the case, it really is time we have a talk.

Redirecting the Orgiastic Ethos of Christmas

During the first two days of Advent I heard people use erotic language to describe the capitalistic ethos of the Christmas season. In the first Sunday of Advent mass the priest referred to the constant announcement of Black Friday deals and sales as “orgiastic,” and on NPR the next morning they referred to the season as an “orgy of consumption.” I’m struck by this language particularly because yesterday’s second reading also traffics in some erotic language. Everyone’s problematic fave Paul tells us to stay alert throw off the work of darkness and put on the armor of light, conducting ourselves as if we were in the light not in orgies and drunkenness, promiscuity and lust, or rivalry and jealousy. He concludes the passage by heeding us to not make provisions for the flesh but for the Lord Jesus Christ.
While this passage was being read in mass, I noticed a few members of the choir chuckle when they heard orgy and I saw a few people throughout the parish squirm at the sound of promiscuity, lust, and flesh. I was even shook for a moment until I realized that being shook by those words is old hat. It’s old hat because we hear “orgies,” “promiscuity,” “lust,” and “flesh” and go straight to our bodies and sex, and while we are not far from not needing to be concerned about our bodies, sex, and flesh in the world, it’s above us in this season because there is honestly a bigger fish to fry.
What the priest tried to get us to understand in the homily and what came back around to me via NPR’s utilization of this erotic language to describe the season is that our desires are being corrupted by the enterprise of capitalism which convinces us that extreme consumption through the guise of giving gifts to our loved ones is how we spread good cheer and tidings of comfort and joy. If the copious advertising and marketing of Christmas does any work, it is to constantly whet our appetites for more by selling it to us for less which makes us want it more and buy more. It is orgiastic indeed because, as a recent article pointed out, clenching the deal is a state of mind, it makes us feel good. It is affective, engendering a positive feeling close to an oxytocin release.
Thus it is no wonder we cannot part from all this season has become for us. We are now affectively conditioned to consume and without that consumption, we may feel nothing at all which means, capitalism has sufficiently done its job and is a hell of a drug.
So where does all of this leave us?
To do as the first day of Advent readings directed us, stay alert and walk in the light of the Lord. Being able to name how we’ve been taken by the spirit of capitalism–as we do every season–will allow us to properly discern our place in this season. I do not want to suggest that the gift-giving element of this season is wrong, but I do want to encourage us to interrogate how we consume toward the gift-giving end of this season, being careful to put Caesar in his place and bring Christ and the ethos of goodwill to all humans to its proper place. In this way, we can find more ways to put people at the center of our holiday practices–as Jesus put people at the center of all his praxis–and in this way we do not so much look for gifts for them but we look for ways to be a gift to people through our presence in their lives. Maybe in this way we can derive orgiastic pleasure not from bestowing gifts but by availing ourselves one to another and experiencing the true power of the erotic where it is, as Audre Lorde says, a “critical element in dismantling the social and political hierarchy situated in a white patriarchal power structure that reproduces the erotic as pornographic.” After, it is those same white patriarchal power structures that have shaped this entire economic system down to the capitalistic Christmas enterprise we are currently beholden to. Lest you think I escalated this out of nowhere...

En Route to Accra and Disabusing Myself of Ignorance About Africa

I write this as I am in flight to Accra with about 5.5 hours until we reach. I’m headed to Ghana for the wedding ceremony of two good friends, one of whom is from Ghana the other from Jamaica but both of whom really wanted to bring their family and friends home on this year of return that marks 400 years since the beginning of the Transatlantic slave trade. The journey has been interesting thus far. I’m observing everything around me particularly who is going to Ghana. On my flight are primarily Black American, Caribbean, and African persons and some white people. Only two of the white people are guaranteed not to be missionaries–I only know that because they, too, are traveling for the wedding. I bring up this point of the white missionaries because recently when I told a white Christian woman that I was going to Ghana she excitedly said, “Are you going for a mission trip?!” I was reminded at that moment that there are still people, usually white, who think the only reason one goes to any country in Africa is for a mission trip. As I explained to her that I was going to attend the wedding ceremony of a close friend who is from Ghana and who wanted to welcome all of his friends home, she looked at me in amazement as if she never heard of someone going to Ghana or anywhere in Africa for pleasure. I was happy to disabuse her of the notion that Africa is only for missions. Yet this reminds me that many are the misconceptions about the continent of Africa and I myself will probably be disabused of a lot of those through this opportunity to travel to the continent.

As I have been preparing for this trip, I have thought a lot about how I, we, hold Africa in our consciousness. A few years ago Raven Symoné, though few people would admit it, exposed many Americans. Reporting the results of an ancestral DNA test, Symoné declared that she is from “every continent in Africa.” Whether it was a slip of the tongue or her actual thinking, it revealed the fact that many Americans don’t understand the region of Africa. To those people, it is not a vast continent full of countries, cultures, tribes and many things that make clear that people of the diaspora are diverse. Instead, it is usually collapsed because people don’t understand the constitution of the continent or, as I mentioned above, of the concerns of the continent–as if Africa exists only for the interventions of well-meaning white people and their Black friends. This is not helped by the way that schools teach the continent in geography class. I recalled the failings of my education in this regard when I recently came across a video with a brother and sister quizzing one another on the capitals of African countries. I was embarrassed that not only did I not know the capitals, but they also seemed foreign to me altogether in a way that suggests I never learned them in the first place. But ask me to give the capital of American states and I can name most. I can also name a fair amount of capitals of European countries, some South American ones, some Middle Eastern ones…You get the point. It’s really an embarrassment of ignorances all the way around, but I am fortunate to be on my way to disabusing myself of a lot of ignorance on this trip.

I have about 10 minutes of in-flight internet left so I have to wrap this up. Suffice to say, I’m really excited about touching down in Ghana. I’m thankful for the kind of friends who have taken the destination wedding to the next level by inviting all of their friends to come home to Ghana. I’m excited about feeling a sense of home when we land–which according to my own ancestral DNA test I am 22% Ghanain. I am looking forward to learning more about the history of my ancestors who were taken away on ships leaving from Jamestown and held in Elmina Castle and to hear about the work of Kwame Nkrumah and visit Du Bois burial site and eat a lot of wonderful food and meet a lot of people and learn of the assets of the country and be moved by it in general. I plan to document the experience of this trip throughout my week in Ghana, so stay tuned…

PS: Excuse any grammatical errors, I am not just writing this on a plane but on very little sleep.