At Home in Aloneness…

As I looked out the window to the ground being pounded by droplets of a downpour I thought to myself, “I can’t believe I’m here.” The world around me is moving swiftly. People’s relationships are evolving or shriveling up and dying and here I sit, in the same place I’ve always been, and it’s sort of unbelievable to me. As I watched the concrete grow slicker with each drop I tried to feel something different, but my heart wouldn’t budge. I conjured thoughts about people in love with one another, about sitting on a couch with someone doing the proverbial “Netflix and chill,” about having someone to share the end of my busy days with. I tried to conjure some sense of disappointment about not having that yet, about not having a prospect, about not even having the person who I know is a complete waste of my time but I persist because I figure it’s better than being alone. Amazingly I felt no sense of disappointment, no wistfulness for all I’m supposedly  missing at this moment in life. For the first time in a while, possibly in my young adult life, I’m romantically alone with nothing on the horizon, and I’m not scared of it.

For the first time in my life that I can fully sense, I am at peace with being alone. I’m 36 and single and I actually feel satisfied. Not in that cliché, “I can do bad all by myself,” way but in a rewarding, “There is richness, possibility, and hope in this space of aloneness.” This aloneness is not pejorative or stigmatizing for me. I don’t seek to be uprooted from it by busying myself with ways to not lean into this feeling. I’m not compelled to jump on a dating app to busy myself with “in the meantime” men. I am content. This takes me by surprise because for so long I’ve been compelled to mourn my singleness for every year that passes by and I remain so. But I’m 36 and single and I’m compelled to lean into this. I’m no longer willing to create a narrative for my singleness save for the one that tells the story of a woman who has chosen this for herself not as a lot I’ve settled on by circumstance but as a choice.

Just a few weeks ago a man asked me why I’m single given my beauty and intelligence and, initially, I regurgitated the script telling him, “Talk to your brethren.” But a moment later I said to him, “I’m sorry I take that back, it’s not on them, it’s on me. I haven’t found what I’m looking for and I lead a rich and fulfilling life that someone must be compelling enough to be a part of.” I’ve reached that sweet spot that Warshan Shire put words to when she wrote,

My alone feels so good, I’ll only have you if you’re sweeter than my solitude.

As I’m bombarded with engagement announcements, budding relationships, breakups stories, and dating app disasters, I stand still in this world where everyone is searching for someone while I am  finding myself and satisfaction in me. I have hit my own sweet spot, a place where I am building a sense of contentment not as a placeholder until someone else comes but as my home, my strong tower. I am cherishing what I have in this life in walking in a purpose, in my wonderful family and friends who are like family, and in a faith life that I am only beginning to discover the extraordinary riches of apart from anything I might gain from it. It is with slight incredulity that I occupy this space because I am not supposed to be here. The world wants me to mourn my singleness, the barrenness of my womb, the emptiness of my bed, the space between my fingers, the holes unfulfilled…But I am truly, finally, at peace with where I am in that perceived lack because I’ve found my fulfillment.

My aloneness, that presence, fullness, aliveness, joy of being, overflowing love is home. In this place I am complete. Nobody is needed, I am enough.[1]

 

[1] Inspired by the definition of aloneness by Pragito Dove, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pragito-dove/loneliness-v-aloneness-wh_b_8032702.html

 

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Lost in Trans-Relation: A Reflection on a Bathroom Encounter

She and I are in a seminar together and during introductions she, who I originally thought was he because of my perception of her presentation, stated her pronouns as “she/her.” I accept this and made the note to self that anytime I speak of her, if I’m not using her name, I will use her preferred pronouns.

Before this, it had been three years since first I encountered the concept of preferred gender pronouns. It was during a week-long sexuality institute at San Francisco State University that I discovered there was such a practice and that someone who I perceived as either male or female would go by another pronoun. I remember hearing someone who I perceived as a woman saying their pronoun is “him/his/he.” I remember the moment when I heard someone say that they prefer to be called “it” and I was incredulous because I couldn’t understand why someone would choose to eliminate their human being-ness to be called “it.” Nevertheless I decided that all I needed to do was accept and embrace the pronoun someone chooses for themselves. That was three years ago and, since then, I haven’t held close space with many people, that I know of, who are explicit about preferred pronouns, until now. But this isn’t just a story about preferred pronouns…

Pronouns and all introductions aside we take a break before jumping into a discussion of the readings. I run to the women’s restroom where a line of my classmates is already forming and we pass the time by talking about how we like the seminar thus far. As we are talking she walks into the restroom and I’m certain I do a double take. If not a double take with my head, an internal double take. “What is she doing here?” I thought to myself. I was conflicted. She stated her pronoun yet, what I perceive to be a male-gendered presentation wouldn’t let me be comfortable with her in the women’s restroom. Nevertheless, she joins our discussion and I ease up, but still I wonder what she’ll do when she walks into the stall. When it is my turn to use the toilet I linger wondering if I will see her toes facing the toilet or facing the door. Alas, I also had my phone with me so, in no time, I forgot to watch her and I end up reading an e-mail instead. I finish up in the restroom and go to send a text to two close friends that says, “Can I just say, the first time a trans person comes in the bathroom with you is jarring as hell.” I don’t send the text, instead I sit with the thought for the rest of the seminar. Why was I uncomfortable with her in the restroom when she claims she and not he?

The second portion of our seminar presses my thinking on this further as we discuss authenticity and blackness as presented in an article by Michelle M. Wright entitled, “Can I call you Black? The limits of authentic heteronormativity in African Diasporic discourse.” Wright focuses on the assumptions of a normative and authentic blackness that exists in the dominant discourse in African Diasporic studies. This skewed focus results in marginalizing anyone who falls outside of those categories. Wright analyses the aftermath of the discovery that Olaudah Equiano’s was born in North Carolina and not Nigeria and how that shifted people’s perspective of his authenticity and place in the annals of history. She talks about Black Brits and how their authenticity is tested by Black Africans and how these views of authenticity are deeply rooted in the practices of a Eurocentrism and patriarchy. Of this she says,

“…the origin of blackness as an identity does not begin in Africa (and why should it? Why would millions of people with distinct histories, cultures, languages, and the like invent a generic term to categorize them all?) rather in prejudiced writings of European Enlightenment figures going through yet another era of deep historical amnesia that produced Africans as an undiscovered primitive rather than a continent whose coastal nations were central to the story of Mediterranean civilizations in antiquity” (Wright, 9).

Our professor welcomes a discussion on authenticity and blackness but encourages us to also think about the purpose of a demand for authenticity in relation to other identities integral to the study of women, gender, and sexuality. I didn’t recognize this as an immediate opportunity but realized it when I came home that day and am still reflecting on it now as I write. The discomfort I experienced in the restroom was caused by a few things one of which was my particular claim to an authentic womanhood that I didn’t believe my classmate possessed because of what I perceived about her. Another part of my discomfort is a reckoning with the so-called Other. (I use “Other” with great discomfort. I dislike the language but I’m using it here because I believe it goes toward my point.)

What is an authentic woman? This is the question that must follow my own claim to authentic womanhood over and against hers. I can’t answer that question right now, but I acknowledge it as part of the problem with my issue of her. The more I think about her and my reaction to her, which is unbeknownst to her, I wonder how it would make her feel. I’m troubled by the fact that it would make her feel anything less than welcomed and affirmed when she must hold close space with me. I dare say that my inability to accept and affirm her ought to make me the one who is not an authentic woman–if we want to define the authentic woman as one who unconditionally embraces all. I’ve been socialized to believe the only women that truly exist in the world are those who are born as such and only recently am I learning what it means to take someone at their word. Her word ought to count and, to an extent, it does count theoretically, but practically speaking I have catching up to do. I’m challenged by what it means to lend theoretical support but to falter practically.

I’m so certain that, rationally speaking, I’m here for her using the women’s bathroom, but my reaction to her actually using suggests otherwise and that is troubling me. In general I support the rights of trans people to use the restroom that they identify with but I recognize my ability to say that has been mostly abstraction, something I can say because I’m not faced with the so-called Other. And now here I am, having to step away from the abstract into the real and make my theory of advocacy into, not only, a practice of advocacy but, more importantly, of care and embrace. This seems like the missing step in the academic’s project of advocacy. We know how to theorize from above but we don’t travel below to work it. I know how to theorize and speak well for the marginalized and oppressed of this world, but I’m still working out how to be well with them. So here I am. I’m wrestling with this and find irony that I’m wrestling with this in context of a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies seminar. That is the last piece of this narrative puzzle.

I met her in a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies seminar where the core question of the class is, “What is Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies?” That introduction I mentioned earlier included answering the question, “Why Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies?” My answer to this question in the seminar was all about the practice of engaging women, gender, and sexuality studies as a field of inquiry useful for bridging what I perceive as gaps in theology and ethics. But given the chance to answer this question again, I would say that Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies is as much a personal project of inquiry as it is an intellectual project. I need Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies to interrogate myself and deconstruct years, if not decades, of closed theory about what constitutes woman, womanness, gender, and sexuality because my life is steeped in dominant views of normativity and authenticity about those categories. I need it as someone who has both a personal and professional commitment to the Christian tradition who wants to truly welcome all. I need it because I don’t just want to speak about welcoming and affirming all, I want to be about the business of it; a business undergirded by the discipline/field’s knowledge, nurturing understanding, and, most importantly, cultivating relationships, starting with my relationship with her.

Why I #SayHerName for Korryn Gaines

korryn-gaines-e1470164217813We’ve been grappling with the case of ‪#‎KorrynGaines‬ for five days and it has been fascinating to watch people’s perspectives. I’m grieved that she isn’t here to tell her story while everyone tells it for her based on a couple of videos. How quickly it seems like people forget that “There but for the grace of God, go I.” And this is not to suggest that the grace of God wasn’t with Korryn but to suggest that we all may be just a moment away from encounters and decisions such as she made. 

‪#‎sayhername‬ because I’m grieved that it came to this and grieved that she was ready to die at the hands of a system that was never working in her favor as a double minority being black and a woman. Has anyone really asked themselves why she was so ready to die?

I #sayhername because it doesn’t add up, so-called mental illness or not, shotgun or not, her life didn’t have to end that way and we know this because of people who still live to tell their stories. Lest you forget the scores of so-called mentally ill white men who shot dozens of people and are now living in jail cells and getting hit in the face.

I #sayhername because we are still battling against the powers and principalities of a system that clearly stands in opposition to black bodies, and certainly black women’s bodies. It’s interesting that people forget the history of the black woman in America whose genesis in this country was her body in captivity used for reproduction and then abused in front of her children, family, and friends. The body remembers its history and some point that body must respond in contradiction. You don’t have to work with all muscle memory.

I #sayhername because I get it. The Korryn Gaines we’ve seen broadcast all over our timelines wasn’t created in a vacuum nor was she created from exposure to asbestos, but in her mother’s womb and then raised, possibly being exposed to the hardness of life and learned to build a wall 20 feet tall and possibly abused by those in power and she got tired as some–or all if you’re honest–black women are wont to do except all of us don’t fight back.

I #sayhername because it’s important to remember that we are fighting for the value of black bodies, black people, to be regarded differently which also means law enforcement’s best option is not to kill us in order to disarm us.

I #sayhername because I am my sister’s keeper and that ain’t conditional because I wouldn’t want my sister to look at me and wage the judgement I’ve seen waged against her and decide she ain’t worth keeping, especially when I don’t know the whole story.

I #sayhername because I don’t want to have to say her name. I desire for her to live and tell her story to shut all of us up but without my saying her name, that won’t happen.

Being Mary Jane Lesson #2: Coming Out of Darkness

Note: This week’s recap is a little late because the episode was a lot to digest. As usual, if you haven’t seen you may want to watch first and then read.

The week’s episode of “Being Mary Jane” was, in my opinion, one of the best episodes thus far. Mara Brock Akil took Mary Jane and viewers into the uncharted territory of discussing sex trafficking, coming out to a homophobic parent, and navigating inter/intraracial relationship issues. In each of these issues there was a journey through darkness that either enlightened the character or submerged them even deeper into the void.

The episode starts with Mary Jane continuing a light dalliance with David which turns out to be a nightmare starring a white baby named Andre–a reminder of her past. She is swiftly kicked backed into reality by an infant’s blood-curdling cries and she realizes that her life is actually nightmarish because of her niece’s takeover of her home. But this is minor. One of the major plots is revealed when we see Mary Jane in a car watching a young woman sitting in front of a motel. This is our introduction to Mary Jane’s research for a segment on sex trafficking. In the car Mary Jane gains insight into the world of sex-trafficking in Atlanta–the sex trafficking capital of the United States. Note: Atlanta is, in fact, a major hub for sex trafficking in the United States. And so art imitates life on this episode as Mary Jane learns about the reality of life for a teenage girl caught in sex trafficking. It is hard to say that there is such thing as a refreshing take on sex trafficking but, if I could say it, Brock Akil gave us that. In my observation, I usually see white people at the forefront of the anti-sex trafficking movement and young black girls as the victims and the stars of the narratives. Brock Akil casts Mary Jane in the role of “person with a Messiah complex” in order to do saving work for a young white girl caught in trafficking. Unfortunately what viewers discover is that Messiah complexes don’t necessarily yield fruit. Mary Jane’s best attempt to rescue a 15-year-old white girl from sex trafficking most likely gets the girl into bigger trouble. Thus, both the girl and Mary Jane were cast deeper into darkness. Following this botched rescue, we see Mary Jane at her desk watching video of another young victim of sex trafficking. The young victim speaks glowingly about her pimp, and Mary Jane stares at her in disbelief. And scene.

Note: For those of you who watched last night, you probably realized that I’m recapping this out-of-order, just stay with me though? I’m going somewhere with this.

bmj-aaron-spearsThe second issue that took place was coming out to a homophobic parent. Mary Jane’s best friend Mark has hidden his true sexual nature from his parent but it all came to a head last night. During a staged dinner where Mark and Mary Jane play the role of happy couple, Mark’s mother realizes that it is all a show. Frustrated with the farce, Mark’s mother tells him that she knows he is gay and has known for sometime. But it is not his mother’s reaction that is startling, it is Mark’s father. He rises up with such great anger that first situates itself in his son’s preference to stick his penis in another man’s anus but then it becomes more complex. It turns out that Mark’s father is angry because his son preferred to live a lie rather than tell the truth and risk his father’s displeasure. Again Brock Akil takes an issue that has its place in the lived experience of many black men and women and brings it to life. Traditionally the black community is sketched as being homophobic but only recently are we seeing stories bring that to life on primetime television. For instance, Lee Daniels’s “Empire” features record mogul and father Lucious Lyons battling with his feelings of homophobia toward his same-gender loving son–feelings that were once so vitriolic that he threw him in a garbage can. And now we have another father in primetime verbally discarding his same-gender loving son. Mark came out of darkness, in a way, but he didn’t experience much relief as it created tension between him and his father and resulted in the loss of the lover he shrouded in darkness. This brings us to the third issue, navigating inter/intraracial dating.

Our first encounter with navigating interracial dating occurs when Mark and his boyfriend Lance have a fight before his parents arrival. Lance doesn’t understand why Mark kept his sexuality a secret from his family nor does he understand Mark’s difficulty with navigating not only his blackness but his gayness. Again, art imitates life and Brok Akil taps into the nuanced issue of the black gay lived experience. The reality is that some black gay people feel they have two identities to navigate and, sometimes, it is easier–but still challenging–to be just a minority rather than the double minority of being black and gay. I, being a black woman, understand the struggle of being a double minority but I dare not say I understand the struggle of being the double minority of black male and gay. Over the past weekend I did have some thoughts about the privilege that white gay men have because they still have their whiteness to protect them, but that was the limit of my reflection. The black gay man, on the other hand, cannot throw off his blackness and even if he can put off his sexual identity it will not protect him.

Then we have the intraracial dating issue that Kara presents when she tells an otherwise good suitor that she doesn’t date Latino men. Kara was previously married to a white man and that didn’t work out. She dated an intern who was Mexican and that didn’t work out. And now an eligible bachelor is in front of her, who it seems she has chemistry with, but she sabotages it with her “No intraracial dating rule.” We don’t know much about why Kara has that rule, and it actually seems a little illogical given her track record with men across the board, but maybe we’ll dive deeper into that as the season continues.

As you can see this week’s episode was chock full of issues. Issues that needed to see the light in primetime particular in black households. I called this lesson “coming out of darkness” primarily because Mary Jane’s pending segment on sex trafficking reminded me of a series of conversations I’ve had over the past few days/months and my responsibility. I’ve not said it here because this blog is fairly new, but my hope is that the next chapter of my life will be spent researching and studying issues in sex and sexuality and ethics. The “Out of Darkness” tag has particular significance to me because it is the name of an anti-sex trafficking organization here in Atlanta that I trained with a few years ago. I remember, vividly, what it felt like being one of the only black faces in a white space dedicated to saving young women from sex trafficking. I remember what it felt like to watch the videos of young girls in sex trafficking and have most of them look like me and not like some of the lily-white faces I’ve seen plastered on billboards around the city. I remember feeling at odds because at once I wanted to help but I didn’t want to do it under the banner of a group where almost everyone was “other” treating the young women they were saving like the “other.” I didn’t like the rhetoric used to do this saving work. And yet, now that I know about this problem, I am responsible for becoming a part of the solution not just a critic of it. As many times as it and other issues around sex and sexuality come up, I am responsible for becoming a part of the solution.

“Being Mary Jane” reminded me of my responsibility. My hope is that many other people saw this week’s episode and realized their responsibility. Their responsibility to do saving work on behalf of victims in sex trafficking. Their responsibility to welcome their brothers and sisters. Their responsibility to be empathetic to those of a different or same race/ethnicity. Mara Brock Akil brought us out of darkness on Tuesday. We can no longer plead ignorance about some things, so now the ball is in our court. What are we going to do?

A final note: The one critique I will make about Tuesday’s episode is Akil’s neglect in providing people with information about what to do if they suspect a young person is involved in sex trafficking or information about sex trafficking in general, at least not on the show. BET.com did dedicate a page to sex trafficking education, and I also provided some additional links.

Report Trafficking 

Alliance Against Human Trafficking

International Rescue Committee

If you know of any other reputable organizations, please leave them in the comments.