Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Pink Princesses, Blue Commandos

By Sikivu Hutchinson

My daughter is no princess. Loud, assertive, and headstrong, she would just as soon as stomp on a castle drawbridge with her big size six feet than pine coyly from it, twirling a dainty lock of hair waiting for a Ken doll suitor. Yet the multi-billion dollar media marketing regime is poised to shoehorn her 2 year-old self into being one. As any parent with eyes and a pulse knows, a trip to Americana’s favorite non-unionized big box retailers is a crash course in the enduring power of gender segregation. Trundling through the “girls’” toys aisle, maneuvering the explosion of pink frilliness, one expects to bump into June Cleaver or Donna Reed. Baby dolls, play ovens, play houses, strollers, dress-up kits, make-up and the ubiquitous princess accessories, addle the senses. Around the corner in the boys’ commando-in-training section, trucks, balls, science kits, building sets, Legos, blocks, action figures, guns and other rough n’ tuff paraphernalia signal a return to the jungle of discovery, adventure, violence and enterprise.

In the ostensibly secular democratic West, this surfeit of consumer options represents “choice,” rather than cultural indoctrination. Parents can just vote with their pocketbooks and not buy these products. Unlike in the fundamentalist monolithically gender repressive Middle East little American girls certainly aren’t programmed to be subservient. Women in power broker positions abound and capitalist consumption is politically "neutral."

Indeed, proponents of shattered glass ceilings point to recent job data that suggest American women are actually making bigger employment gains than are men. The decline of the construction and manufacturing industries has severely limited men’s job opportunities. Coupled with the higher proportion of women in four year colleges, American women would seem to be making out like gangbusters.

There are serious flaws in this premise. First, the gender wage gap shows no signs of narrowing. According to the Center for American Progress, women are the primary breadwinners in over 1/3rd of American families. Women are still relegated to the lowest paying service industry jobs in child care, clerical work, domestic work, and teaching. And black women, who are more likely to be single working parents than are women of other ethnicities, remain at the bottom of the gender wage ladder. Secondly, and most egregiously, the new job data fail to account for the double and triple burden of women’s work. Regardless of whether they are custodians or corporate execs, women continue to be saddled with the majority of child care, housework and adult caregiving. The minute a working mother hits the door down time and breathing space are sacrificed for an array of cleaning, parenting, cooking and counseling duties. Sacrifice is a woman’s creed and to-die-for duty. And it is this message that the big box retailers’ flotilla of pink baby dolls, strollers, play houses, et al. are designed to instill in little sacrificial princesses in training.

The ubiquity of this social programming inspired two British women to start the Pink Stinks campaign, which targets retailers who market gender segregating toys and accessories. Yet the flip side of pink stinks is the dominion of blue. When my students presented a workshop on gender stereotypes in retailing to a group of their peers, the sole male participant commented that he had been targeted for not conforming to the model of “hard” masculinity because he liked to do hair. For young men, any activity that is remotely associated with caring or nurturing is feminine and therefore “gay.” As feminist writer Derrick McMahon notes in his article “Boys and Baby Dolls:” “Boys who wish to play with baby dolls are seen as punks, sissies, and weak…parents are quick to tell little boys that they have no business playing with baby dolls.” While young girls who “crossover” and express interest in traditionally masculine pursuits like car maintenance or science are tolerated as tom boys going through a phase, boys are punished with the heterosexist stigma of being less “manly.”

The consequences of this are exemplified by the epidemic of black male homicide. Trained to be hard, swaggering, aggressive and indifferent to the value of each others’ lives as mere “niggas,” young black males are inured to the violence they inflict upon each other. What would it mean then for the future of African American communities if there were a paradigm shift, and boys were raised to be caring and nurturing? Biological determinists argue that boys gravitate to cars and guns because they are genetically hard wired to do so. In her groundbreaking book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, neuroscientist Lise Eliot debunks this assumption through painstaking analysis of scientific studies on alleged innate sex differences. She argues that there is “little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains” and that adult perceptions of gender difference strongly influence children’s behavior.

As my daughter begins to navigate the minefield of gender norms and expectations she’ll be constantly told what is proper for a girl. She’ll be hounded by peers, adults, the media and organized religion to be sexually desirable to men on the one hand and chaste and virginal on the other. In a nation of liberated “post-feminist” women, she’ll be propagandized with the contradictory message that romancing kitchenware, cooing after baby dolls, and being a precious, sweet “daddy’s angel” are the keys to fulfillment. And as a third generation feminist she’ll be ably equipped with her loud mouth and big feet to storm the drawbridge of gender conformity.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Little Surfer Boy

By Sikivu Hutchinson

They look over their shoulders before they take to their boards. Watch for the girls huddled in juicyfruit gum popping reverie, the kids beating sand castles into corn mush, the butt-cheek flashing old timers settling down for a flame-broiled snooze under big yellow umbrellas. They steady themselves then take flight, working the waves into submission, salt clogging their nose, mouth, eyes, thrusting them into blindness, into the watery graves they’d been dreaming of, been memorizing from the first time they learned to surf as small boys enraptured with the rip curl gods.

They watch for cues from Jake, rising imperially from the water in a Neptune arc. Suction cup feet steadied on the board like some kind of evolutionary marvel, like some kind of special dispensation from the Lord. Our Jake held the record for staying up the longest before the waves smacked him down on his ass. A lecher exhibitionist toying with each little ripple in the ocean divinely served up to him in a neat little bow. Lucky fuck had never had his neck twisted and wrung out trying to execute. Lucky fuck delivered into this world by a midwife with a fistful of Mr. Zogs easing him out the womb. His bull necked royal highness, all bee stung lips and hot ‘roid lust. We creamed to see him sucking his stomach in concave in the weight room mirror when he thought no one was looking. Smacking fair Wilson on the ass with a wet towel.

They watch for the shoreline audience. Male surf groupies arriving on foot, spilling from the streetcars that dammed up at the beach terminus every hour, leaning out of cars idling for some place decent to park. Wolf packs dodging the bruised roller skating legions of little girls chopping through the dregs of June gloom on this first day of summer.

And Jake’s crew liked that stretch of beach because the wave span was neatest, the elemental Milky Way glide of paranormal orbit in the split second suspension between air and water. The sand castle mushers keeping score with their shovels. The flame-broiled snoozers shaking up their domino bags for the next game. The sweet sixteens talking mad shit about the crew’s bodies in lip-smacking 3-D detail.

They could stay out all summer, basking in 24-7 wall to wall seaweed funk. None of them had jobs except for Wilson; that white trash fucker bussing tables like a fucking Mexican, Jake snickered. The newly minted breadwinner for his mother, laid off from her nursing job, as his father rode off into the Akron sunset for fresh pipefitter leads. Only Wilson had regular money in his pocket. The crew bumming it off him for cigarettes and rubbers and all you can eat hoagies dripping with cheese from the boardwalk stand. It was the last teenaged summer when they could do that shit and have it still be considered cool, shuffling between bouts of community college, applications to Del Taco. The last gasp of the day was hanging around Jiffy Lube for the chance of an opening if ambition hit them. June, July, August were theirs to waste with grand abandon, spreading the seed of the crew all over town, tagging their handle in the beach bathroom, the basketball court, the trash barrels in the sand, staging sloppy drunk pantomimes over the mugs of the surfers’ pantheon painted on the Laundromat wall.

It was Wilson who noticed it first. The shoreline inched up to the street. The arcade, pub, and the laundromat whited out. All of the buildings of his teen dreams swallowed up now in a slow procession of open top cars. Toy Model As honked strung together by a child’s hand. Wannabe flapper girls with their whiter than white skinned arms peeking out of full body swimsuits and bullet caps. Big band swing blaring from the sludge of black vinyl. Passengers spilling out of the red cars in ant streams. A new revelation from between the waves, rising and falling as he adjusted his goggles, the other boys having swum ahead to catch the twin terrors, the warm smack of mega surf that came in late afternoon on the night of a full moon.
He paddled, coasted, paddled, coasted. Ignoring their sass about how much of a pussy he was for hanging back, neutered and spineless, lacking proper reverence for the occasion of the full moon. He’d begun to drift eastward to the section of beach near the dividing line of the next community, the snootier, ritzier, heavily refinanced side dominated by salmon toned McMansions and trust fund babies reeking pot. He tried to paddle back but his board resisted, lifting him off and into the water headfirst. His goggles slid down to his nose and he gagged, snorting saltwater, the shore dipping from view. He reached out for the board and came up empty, blearily watching it float ahead of him. The crew just ribald specks of vertiginous light, ducking and twisting with each wave.

Top of his swim classes, kindergarten to senior year, when he bested the Swiss boarding school wunderkind in the 100, his gills getting stronger with each meet. Imbibing the family legacy of being able to hold their breath underwater for death defying lengths. It was their only distinguishing feature, both sides of his clan stamped 3/4s white trash with a little “Cherokee” composted in. Or so one version went. He basked in the glow of dusk to dawn access to the city pools, to the beach, to the water parks whenever he could scrounge up the ten dollar admission fee.

The board was almost a yard away. He could feel everybody on the beach watching him. Wasn’t his imagination, but damned if the flapper girls weren't jockeying for a better view, calling him Romeo. His chest swelled like a red robin's. If only the crew could hear.

He saw a hand grip the board. Then a girl’s head rise slowly up from the water. Syl hoisted herself up, lying on her stomach as the waves washed over her. She paddled expertly with both hands, ignoring him as he struggled to get a clearer view. The waves calmed and she kneeled, bracing herself, listening, rigid with the same watchful posture that he’d assumed a thousand times waiting for the right moment to stand up on the board.

The crowd roared and she stood up. She was taller than him by a few inches. Body like it was all spine, arms folded across her chest. She slid into the snaking furl unfurl motion of fresh surf, trying to establish her center of gravity before the next torrent hit.

He could read novices right off, smell their eager beaver first-hand-up-in-chem-class zealotry, their spanking new assembly-line liberated boards stinking up the ozone. The kind of punks the crew would chew up and spit out in one barnstorming orgy in the locker room, their balls contorted in trash talking, swaggering over who had the shiniest designer gear. He’d been with the crew for five months. Watched them shyly from afar as he sucked down a coke and a slice at the boardwalk pizza joint. Fantasizing that they all had their asses wiped and shellacked with one hundred dollar bills. Burning to be one of them. He plotted his initiation every time he stepped around his grandpa, glued to the game shows and crime lab serials from dusk to dawn in their triplex apartment. He dreamed of making elaborate rescues. Swooping in during a showdown between the crew and the Huntington Beach boys, heimliching Jake from drowning in his own drool. All these micro moments when he could have proven himself, and here he was stuck sweeping up his grandpa's toenails from the bathroom floor, parceling out his pressure medicine, his Vicodin. The horror of being a Rip Van Winkle, waking up five decades later, just like him. Shitting when he was told to, laughing on cue at the laugh tracks, hoarding his Social Security checks for the latest soul saving scam in Africa.
For now, the crew was the ticket, the sliver of salvation that he nursed in bed at night as the walls pulsed with the Lotto results. Yeah he had a raggedy board, but he was prime. Shit, they had called him Romeo. Had cum in babbling brooks saying his name. Had said you'll never have to duck and hide taking the family’s clothes to the Laundromat. Never have to gag again on the five night a week pork n’ bean dinners, never get shit on again about your Pee Wee Herman high water pants, passed down from eldest to middle to youngest brother.

With the right clothes, the right hair, the right cadence of speech he could pass for one of them, perfecting his Richy Rich sneer with a hand mirror under the covers, willing himself to be the Swiss boarding school refugee of his dreams.

She looked out into the swamp of white faces and calculated how long it would take her to get to the other side of the beach. The fa├žade of the new Negro resort rippled like a desert mirage in the west. The waiters would be serving lunch right about now. In spotless white uniforms. Napkins draped meticulously over their arms, fresh cut flowers at the ready on each table. They would give the diners a choice of chicken or roast beef, ice tea or lemonade. Lilting on the smell of King Crab specials whipped up for the VIPs at the grand opening.

In 1911 a parcel of beach front land had been set aside for Negroes. With little fanfare, back patting or congratulation, 40 acres were designated by the city father for an enterprising buyer. Only a handful stepped forward, a speculator fraud in black face wanting to open up a chain of naturopath spas for consumptives. An heiress seeking West Coast investment property using stock from her share in American Telegraph. Then the Bruce woman made us a legitimate offer, and permits were filed for the ground breaking.

They trickled in from the South, the Midwest, the East, small tumbleweed towns and big cities. Schoolteachers, clerks, stenographers, the almost black bourgeoisie scrimping for their first real vacation, for a taste of Pacific splendor beyond the bullwhip gaze of white people. For a honeymoon suite with a view, the snap of gray waves, the night sky bleeding into the ocean.

Opening day she had twenty reservations. After dinner they queued up for needlepoint, bid whist, politicking, a quick hand of gin or black jack dealt by Bruce herself. She wouldn't have gambling on the premises. So the closet addicts hunkered down past midnight, anxious to raise the stakes to something more dangerous, rubbing their bets together like firewood under the table, settling instead upon a wager about the number of survivors from a sunken British ship in the Atlantic. Raise you one scullery maid for three bankers.

Over one thousand feared dead. God be with the rescuers in that witch’s tit cold of a mess. It’s just a bunch of rich Brits and their hired help gone down with their loot. Better them than us. They burned us out of Springfield, lynched us like dogs in Atlanta, and where was the world then?

From Marmion Way

Friday, June 11, 2010

Not Knocking on Heaven’s Door:* Black Atheists, Urban America

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Late Saturday afternoon, like clockwork, the street corner preachers on Crenshaw and King Boulevard in South Los Angeles take to the “stage.” Decked out in flowing robes and dreadlocks, they fulminate into their mikes about the universe, God’s will and “unnatural” homosexuals to a motley audience waiting for the next express bus. Members of the Black Israelites, they are part of a long tradition of performative religiosity in urban African American communities. This particular corner of black America is a hotbed of social commerce. Kids who’ve just gotten out of school mingle jubilantly as pedestrians flow past fast food places, mom and pop retailers, street vendors and Jehovah’s Witness’ hawking Watchtower magazines. The Israelites have become a fixture of this street corner’s otherwise shifting tableaux. Exclusively male and virulently sexist and homophobic, they are tolerated in some African American communities in part because of the lingering visceral and misguided appeal of Black nationalism.

While the Israelites’ millennialist “racial uplift” ethos ostensibly fits right in to the bustle of this prominent South L.A. street, other belief systems are not as easily assimilated. Since 2006, the L.A.-based street philosopher Jeffrey “P Funk” Mitchell has been documenting his conversations with everyday folk on questions of atheism and faith. Using the handle “Atheist Walking,” Mitchell also conducts free-ranging inquiries into Christianity’s contradictions with a rolling video camera and a satirically raised eyebrow. Adopting the role of the bemused urban flaneur, ala the commentator- pedestrian immortalized by French poet Charles Baudelaire, he delves into “atheist spirituality,” biblical literalism and the paradoxes of faith. Mitchell is a member of the L.A.-based Black Skeptics, a group that was formed earlier this year to provide an outlet and platform for secular humanist African Americans. The Skeptics are part of a small but growing segment of African Americans who are searching for humanist alternatives to organized religion. In May, the Washington DC Center for Inquiry’s first annual African Americans for Humanism conference drew over fifty participants. Chat groups and websites like the Black Atheists of America have sprung up to accommodate the longing for community amongst non-theist African Americans who feel marginalized in a sea of black hyper-religiosity. Organizations such as the Institute for Humanist Studies cultivate African American secularist scholarship and advocacy.

With over 85% of African Americans professing religious belief, black religiosity is a formidable influence. Racial segregation, the historical role of the Black Church, and African American social conformity reinforce Christianity’s powerful hold on black communities. Indeed, I was recently told that I’d been deemed an unsuitable culmination speaker for a bourgie philanthropic organization’s young women mentees because of my decidedly unladylike public atheism (Perhaps the Israelite’s Old Testament shout-out to silent prostrate women would be more acceptable). Proper role models for impressionable black youth are, at the very least, skillful church lady pretenders with ornate hats in tow. Secular organizations that seek to build humanist community with a predominantly African American base and social justice world view are challenged by the association of charitable giving, philanthropy, poverty work and education with faith-based communities. For many, successfully emulating the strong social and cultural networks that have sustained church congregations is an elusive goal.

And then, there is the deep and abiding desire for belief in the supernatural, the ineffable faith-passion that propels some through the trauma of racial indignities and personal crisis. Yet, humanism asks why we should cede enlightenment and the potential for restoration to the supernatural. Humanism challenges the implication that the sublimity of the natural world, and our connection to those that we love, admire and respect, is somehow impoverished without a divine creator. In one of his bus stop monologues, Mitchell comments, “I want people to look at each other with the same reverence that they look at God and realize that ‘we’ did this, we made this happen.” The “we” represents will, agency, and motive force; qualities that many believers would attribute to God as omniscient architect and overseer. Non-believers are compelled to ask whether individual actions (for good or ill) are determined by God, or whether human beings simply act on their own volition in a universe overseen by God. Since time immemorial, non-believers have questioned whether God exercises control over those who commit evil acts or whether hell is the only “medium” for justice. By refusing to invest supernatural forces with divine authority over human affairs, humanism emphasizes human responsibility for the outcome of our pursuits. Morality is defined by just deeds, fairness, equality and respect for difference; not by how blusteringly one claims to adhere to “Godly” principles.

However, in communities that are plagued with double digit unemployment and a sense of cultural devaluation, notions of self-sufficiency and ultimate human agency may be perceived as demoralizing if not dangerously radical. As a child preacher steeped in the fiery oratory of the Black Church, writer James Baldwin recounted his growing cynicism about spreading “the gospel.” Lamenting the grip of religion on poor blacks, Baldwin said, “When I faced a congregation, it began to take all the strength I had not to…tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize.” In Baldwin’s view organized religion’s requirement that believers suspend disbelief and submit to “God’s will” is a liability for working class African Americans. Religious dogma anesthetizes as it bonds, a dangerous combination in an era in which the proliferation of storefront churches in urban black communities is a symptom of economic underdevelopment.

Echoing Baldwin, Chicago-based Education professor and atheist Kamau Rashid argues that “Freethought is an extension and expression of the struggle that African Americans have waged for self-determination. In fact it represents a heightened phase of such a struggle wherein one of the final stages of ‘conceptual incarceration,’ the belief in a God or gods, is discarded for a belief in the human potential, for a belief in ourselves.”

And why, in a heritage steeped in the revolutionary thought of such dirty outlaw skeptics as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, A. Philip Randolph, James Forman and Alice Walker, would this be so viscerally frightening?

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org, a member of the Black Skeptics Group and the author of the forthcoming book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America.

*With apologies to Bob Dylan