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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.

Reflections from the Strip Club: A Heady Night at King of Diamonds

FullSizeRenderA few days after my 35th birthday I went to King of Diamonds (KOD) my first real strip club experience–sorry little strip club on Bourbon Street with women dancing to Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me,” you don’t count. This trip to KOD was about a year and a half in the making as there were many attempts at going that failed. The first attempt occurred during a bachelorette weekend and failed because the concierge convinced us that there were better things to do. The second attempt happened during a close friend’s birthday weekend and failed because of the general exhaustion of the group. With this third attempt in view, nothing could stop me from being the one to conquer this beast. Despite having no real detailed plan for going because my friends sometimes like flying by the seats of their pants, I still had some hopes that on the last Monday in December I would end up in the nation’s largest, most popular black strip club. Fortunately the universe conspired with me and I made it. I didn’t suffer from sensory overload as some suggested I would, I didn’t try to save any of the women stripping, and I didn’t get bored quickly. So what DID I do? I had a good time but I think it was atypically so because I was in my head and analyzing everything I saw with my friends. So here are some of my thoughts from my night at KOD.

  1. “Women Who Strip” not “Strippers”: It occurred to me that few other women are called by what they do, and pejoratively so, more than strippers. There are the instances where people refer to Sheryl Sandberg as “CEO,” or Beyonce as a “pop star” but Cheryl and Beyonce are also “CEO Sheryl Sandberg” or “pop-star Beyonce Knowles.” They are known not only by what they do but who they are. A “stripper” on the other hand is usually just a “stripper.”  Part of that naming convention is that women who strip are usually not world-renowned–unless their name is Maliah–but the other part is that I’ve existed in a world where stripping is considered a morally questionable and problematic occupation. Among the ordinary people of the world, I’ve heard that strippers are “messed up,” morally depraved, desperate, and lacking in self-respect and dignity. Broadly construed in popular culture, the stripper is an icon in rap culture and someone T-Pain could–and has–fallen in love with, someone Usher doesn’t mind, or someone Drake respects. One night in a strip club made me question the way I refer to these women and think about what it would be to refer to these women first as women and then as their occupation. And maybe they don’t care either way, but my personal conviction is “person before occupation or ability” at all times.
  2. Do women who strip have a union? As I watched the women stripping I couldn’t help but be amazed and concerned. My concern wasn’t about the salvation of their souls but about their job security, their worker’s comp benefits, health insurance, the safety of hiking up and spinning around those poles all night long… Do these women have a national union that not only protects their right to do this type of work but ensures their safety and fair pay while doing it? I’ve read a little about regional union in places such as San Francisco but it doesn’t appear that there is an AFL-CIO-level union for women who strip in America. Maybe someone can make that happen…
  3. There is a light skin/dark skin dichotomy. An early observation that my friends and I made was that there was a difference between the performance of light-skinned women versus darker-skinned women. What we noticed is the light and fair-skinned women exhausted no energy during their performance. They did no tricks, waited for patrons to approach them, and sometimes looked disinterested in being there altogether. On the other hand, the dark-skinned women performed like the rent/mortgage was due after they left the stage. They had all the tricks and twerked exceedingly well. This claim worked across the board with the exception of maybe one woman per group. (Shout outs to Mini (sp?) for being the real MVP that night!) This was fascinating as I assumed every woman in the club would be working like their lives depended on it, but apparently that wasn’t the case. I talked to a good friend and he said, “The strip club operates the same way the regular world does. Pretty people can get by on looks.” So the strip club mirrors the world, huh? I wonder how many other ways I could draw the analogy out.
  4. Women who strip are gifted. Now on to something a little bit lighter. Women who strip are gifted. Yeah I said, “gifted.” I have no reason to mince my words here. I watched those women do things that the average, and even some above average women, could never do while naked. It takes a great deal of confidence not only to be naked in front of strangers but to perform compelling routines to great effect. (It also takes great confidence to assume that your vagina smells incredible after all that work, good enough for you to shove it in someone’s face after you’ve finished sliding up the same pole as the woman before you.) Nevertheless, I say “perform” and not “dance” because stripping is a performance of the sexual. It’s a performance of projected ideas of the sexual and sensual by women attuned to those ideas through their observations of what men want and sometimes what they need. Their performances ranged from being docile “lady in the sheets” to aggressive “freak in the streets.” There was something for everyone in the strip club performance.
  5. IMG_1170I’m low-key scared of women who strip. So about my personal experience at the strip club…I will confess that I was somewhat scared of the women. My friends and I were sitting at the bar which was close enough to watch the women strip on the stage and really close to the women who were cruising for lap dances and VIP room action. Early in the night I broke a $20 into $1 bills so that I could tip the women. I was excited about my $18–because the club charges a 10% fee to break large bills–and I felt ready to tip women. I saw plenty that was worth “making it rain” but I never got up the nerve to leave my bar stool to leave a tip on the stage. I was scared that someone would find out I was there celebrating my birthday and then bring me up on the stage for a dance or put my face in their crotch or something else. For the women roaming I tried not to make eye contact in case they thought I was choosing that night and decided I was ready to be relieved of all my money. I’ll also admit that the thoughts of objectification were running through my head as I struggled with enjoying what I was seeing but not wanting to objectify women–even though I believe these women were exercising agency not being objectified. These strains of thought run deep and even if I’m able to articulate a progressive to liberal view of women who strip, deep down the problem still exists. As the kids say, “There are levels to this thing.” As you can see I was clearly in the strip club with a lot of preconceived notions about how it works and a lot of fear that these women were predators and not just performers looking to put on the best show for all patrons. So what did I do with all those $1 bills? I spent it at an IHOP. Don’t worry, I realize how ridiculous I am for this.
  6. I would do it all over again… You’ll be surprised to know that I would do this all over again. While I spent way too much time in my head during this time in the strip club I think it was a good primer for future visits. I reserve no official judgement for women who strip–even if subconsciously I’m still showing the signs of my prior judgement. I respect it as a job a woman takes up like any other, and I enjoy watching it like a would enjoy any other performing art. As someone with interest in embodiment and dancing, watching a woman’s strip performance is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen. Just like dancing, stripping requires a strong core and control of the body. There is similar precision and discipline that the woman who strips must exercise in order to deliver the best possible performance. I respect that and would definitely go again to see it. So, who knows, I might write another one of these reflections in a few months.

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.