Monday, November 30, 2009

Business as Usual - War, Obama, Disappointment

For the second Monday morning in a row,I met a friend at 7 a.m. to go walking. Everything is virgin then, the daylight, the streets, uncluttered by cars and bodies, the air, quiet. I began the day, the week in energetic motion, noticing the wonders of nearby water, a flock of seagulls, trees nearly emptied of leaves, and a balding man jogging in shorts, his dog running leisurely behind him. I brushed my hand over shrubs still green as I passed by, feeling their coarse and smooth textures alive on my skin. I keep a pace but with no pressure of time, and when I return home the day remains new, yet more vital than when I left. This is not business as usual for me, early morning walks, and I am grateful.

In contrast, sadness and disappointment have been creeping up about Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. This is business as usual. I can't pretend to know all the arguments for his decision, though I did read the compelling resignation letter of a special envoy to the region, giving his reasons for not being able to support the war. I am not a pacifist, having supported some of the liberation movements in Africa. But I am aware of enough history and current signposts that bode poorly on what can and will be accomplished in Afghanistan except for more horrific deaths and maiming of young people, who along with their families have unjustly borne the burden of this and the Iraq war. And yet, because I have a son in his 20's, I would fight a draft with every muscle in my body. Side by side the injustice and my unwillingness to participate in a fairer sacrifice deeply saddens me. I read Michael Moore's letter to President Obama today on Afghanistan, and I share in his disappointment. I am sad for Obama too, that he should find himself authoring such an old script, like scenes from earlier day movies of a guy stepping into quick sand, sinking deeply up to his neck and then gone. In this version, one body is replaced by hordes. Perhaps there will be more finesse to the lines tomorrow night. But what is at issue here goes beyond art or intellect. This is soul territory, and I pray for us all.

Photo courtesy of

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanksgiving - Remembering our Ancestors, African and Native Descendants

This Monday, many folks have Thanksgiving on the brain. I made my run to Whole Foods this morning to avoid the crowds that mount the closer we get to Thursday. Other women had the same idea. Still, the energy in the store felt light, wagons and bodies could maneuver without colliding, challenging patience, or lip-tightening. Good food, good company, and good connection are on the way for many of us. There is much to be grateful for, even in the face of adversity. My daughter and her husband will be flying in from North Carolina, my son will travel from Brooklyn, and we will be spending Thanksgiving with our extended family (by connection, not blood) and friends. A cousin, their age, will be flying in with his wife and twins from California, other family and friends will come from Connecticut, and from the local area in New Jersey. I tear up thinking about the love, laughter and communion that will be present when we gather.

Yet for many years, I’ve felt ambivalent about this holiday, rooted in the arrival of the Pilgrims to this land. Native Americans offered their generosity to these newcomers, and in return, got Wounded Knee and reservations. When the food and clothing drives associated with Thanksgiving start up for those less fortunate than others,I never hear anything about Native Americans who may be in need. In fact, I don't hear much about Native Americans period. I’ve come to believe that they are the most invisible group in this country, except perhaps for trips to their casinos, a key hole view at that.

Thanksgiving invites us to reflect more deeply on our blessings and for a more extended period than usual. And so, I give thanks not only to Divine Spirit for the abundance of life that I have been granted but to the ancestors of African and Native descent, who collaborated much more than we know. Thank you is too small for their ability to prevail through the Maafa (The Middle Passage, Slavery), Jim Crow, The Westward Ho massacres, The Trail of Tears, by wit, prowess, wisdom, audacity, love, transcendent faith, stamina, and creativity. I am in awe of them. I love and laugh because of them. Ase.

Photo courtesy of Bernadine Tolbert

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sarcasm and Teeth Marks

The comment appeared before me on the monitor, ready to go. I only needed to click on 'post comment.' My wonderfully crafted response, every line intelligent and filled with superb sarcasm, would be out there. I had in mind one particular guy who had made some outlandish comments in response to my first post regarding Peggy Drexler's The New Father/Daughter Dance: Changing Lessons in Power ( I largely
agreed with Drexler that while there have been some changes in the relationship between women and men, we are not now post-gender or post-sexism. The second shift, the household and child care that married women often do at home,following their out of home work day, with minimal contribution from husbands, remains an issue for many couples. Hotrod (no joke, his screen name) says "every study has debunked the second shift," and comes back later to say in essence that men will do more second shift work when women stop trying to get the same pay and benefits for doing less work.

I hated to let his comment about studies disproving second shift stand, but last night I chose silence. Why bother throwing my voice to the wind?

But then comes a new day, and I went back to the scene of the crime to see what else had happened. I got the idea that rather than rebut his points I'd just concede that he was right, re-making his points in their full ludicrous glory. What a delicious satisfaction to abandon the straight up debate for a facetious concession. Sarcasm has skills. It delivers anger cool on the surface, seconds before the sting hits. I admit, I'm rather fond of it outside the therapy room.

But then I thought. This will not be the end, even if it's the end for me. Hotrod will be incensed. I mean after all, there would be teeth marks from my comment. It will likely get uglier. And I will have contributed to that, and to what end? I felt a tug, and the wrestling began, slow and strenuous,the advantage going one way then the other.

The match was called when I clicked the 'cancel' button. I felt no thrill or exhilaration, nothing like the pleasure of writing the aborted comment. Still, I feel I won, because I know that as the day wears on, I'll have a peace about my choice to keep my teeth to myself. I don't always win this battle and I don't always want to win it. I leave space for this, but I'm downsizing.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Shout Out for 'Precious' and Lee Daniels

Lee Daniels, the director of 'Precious,' likes to cut against the grain. That's what stayed with me after I got through the piece in the October 25 NY Times Magazine, The Audacity of 'Precious,': Is America Ready for a Movie About An Obese Harlem Girl Raped and Impregnated by Her Abusive Father? I had forgotten that he did 'The Woodsman,' and 'The Shadowboxer' with Cuba Gooding and Helen Mirren (interesting mix, yes?). I had intended to see both but never did. It's clear -- Daniels is a straight up, gutsy, keep-on-getting up dude who likes to mix it up. He is committed to getting his voice out there, and all the blocking from Hollywood couldn't bring him down. His story left me feeling empowered to take bold up a notch.

I saw the film too. Hard to witness but wonderful, and I especially liked that African-Americans could be the heroines to address the wrongs of other African-Americans. I'd like a sequel, one that widens the story of the mother and reveals that she too can be redeemed.

But before I could settle into my seat I had to deal with my feelings about the 4 and 5 years old children some Black mothers brought to the theater. Why do these young children need to be exposed to this battering that I know is going to be hard for me as an adult to watch? And later during the film showing, I felt sad and angry when one of those mothers, clearly irritated, told her daughter "Shut up," as they were walking out because she was crying. I always tell myself that the issue is a babysitter, that it's not that easily come by for some mothers. But still...I found myself wondering about the young boy a few seats down from me, riveted to the screen. How is he putting this together in his head, how is he feeling? Will there be a conversation later to help him make 5 years old sense of this?

Joy DeGruy,who came up with the concept of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome,, suggests that our children are not our children but they should be. I kept thinking, how can I address this, certainly not right then in the theater, but how? How can our community provide guidance to parents on the ways of nurturing and protecting children? It's a question worth asking.

Photo courtesy of

Thursday, November 12, 2009

'Precious' - It's Not a Black Thing, It's Universal

This weekend Precious goes into wider release and I expect to see it. Admittedly, I've had some reluctance, knowing the brutal story on which it's based, Push by Sapphire, and hearing the sounds of Mo'nique's words whaling on Precious, whose stolid face reveals her battered spirit in the movie trailer. But it's never been in doubt, I'm going. I'm in full moon love with the powerful message of this work, and want to witness the artistry of these actors and the director in this representation. Stephanie Zacharek in her piece "Precious" Mettle ( the hardships faced by Precious are overkill and threaten to make the film more symbolic than personal. But for me, it is just that layering of poverty, fat, sexual and physical abuse, and illiteracy, that made Push and Precious so compelling. The idea that even when you are beat down from the left, right, an uppercut and cross, a consistent love and belief in you can turn things around. Nor is it unreal that some black people are living these lives, and as Erin Aubry Kaplan, "Precious in the Age of Obama," ( says, there is a bit of Precious in many of us black folks.

Kaplan, a sister, offers a thoughtful review of the film. But the comments to her piece are what really stirred the pot for me, especially the ones in which some whites challenged other whites about trying to appropriate the black experience as their own. It happened when some whites suggested the film was not about the black experience but about any human being -- sharing an identification based on their own lives. And then came that well-versed line that any good art is universal.

Every time I run across that voice, a sick, resentful feeling rises in me, though its intensity pales now, compared to the past. Still, I hear it the same way: If I, of European descent, cannot relate to or find my experience in what you're writing about, it's not good. The particularity of your (black) experience is not valuable, or low in value. In the past, it translated to a burden on me, as long as I entertained it. Could I talk/write about my own experience without worrying about whether others can claim it as theirs too? Toni Morrison broke that wide open by as she says writing about her own experience and letting the mainstream come to her. Yet the Nobel Peace Prize didn't prevent a female interviewer from asking her if she would ever move to the mainstream, and include white characters, or eliminate the need for Morrison to pull her interviewer's coat about the racism underlying her question.

And so it was kind of refreshing to see the comments of two white males who understood how this universality claim that whites sometimes engage in feels to many black folks like a denial of the particularity of our experience, a white wash so to speak, that smooths all the edges of our pain as black people into one we are the world pain. I wish there had been less rancor in making their point. I mean I'd never seen STFU before, but I figured it out (shut the __ up). Interestingly, these two males, while privileged by their race, are marginalized by being gay in one case and transgendered in the other. One clearly had his own experience similar to mine, but in his case, at the hands of straight folks.

So here's my thought about what would be helpful here. Sure, everybody has pain in the world, and it's a good thing that any human being can empathize with the suffering of another. But if you're a poor, fat, white girl, or a well-educated white woman who's been badly abused by your parents, I can hear your ability to relate to the pain of Precious when you can do so without dismissing the particularity of the pain connected to being a black girl. Acknowledge the places you know, as well as those you can only visit through empathy. That's what Erin Aubry Kaplan did when she said there is "a bit" of Precious in nearly all of us black folks.

Monday, November 9, 2009

African-Americans in Therapy: Does Race Matter?

The fact that Barack Obama, an African-American, is our President reflects both healing that has occurred in this nation (not that we're close to being done) and healing to come. There is a freeing, a bit of an exhale, among people of African descent that comes from having one of us shine so bright, so powerful, before this nation and the world. It allows us to relax a little more some of the defenses we've had to build up around our pain, the hurt. Yes, we can ease up some on our super Black woman, our super Black man and say that alongside our strengths,our adaptability to all kinds of hell through the generations, we hurt too. It doesn't make us inferior, simply human.

And so I read with encouragement, A.C. Workman's piece in Therapy in Black and White. She raises some good questions about whether the race of the therapist matters when it comes to African-Americans, and she notes that more and more of us seem to be taking that step -- to enter into a process that traditionally our community has seen as a violation of our boundary around personal business, and a pathway to another negative label slapped on our backs.

Does the race, the gender, the sexual orientation of a therapist matter when it comes to African-American clients? My answer is - maybe. As someone who has been trained in the mental health field and is involved in training, I know that the helping professions have been slow to recognize how issues of race, gender, and class impact not only our clients but the ways that we as therapists think and understand problems. Nor is it simply a matter of discrete assaults, like being followed in a store, or pulled over by a cop, that reflect the impact of race and racism, nor is domestic violence the only way sexism manifests in relationships between men and women. On top of that, therapists come with their training as well as their own life experiences, that also shape what they know and understand.

So while one can't assume that simply because a therapist is African-American that they will be attuned to issues of race and able to go there in the therapy, the odds seem greater based on their life experience. But it may also be that while they're Black, they were shielded by an upper class status, and their training might not see this issue as relevant, and therefore they offer less ability to address these issues in therapy than a white therapist who has been trained in the importance of understanding and talking about oppression, including her/his own position of racial privilege.

What I can say emphatically is that African-Americans, and any marginalized group deserve therapists who can understand, tolerate, and address how marginalization is a mental health issue. So feel free to ask your therapist how open they are to these kinds of conversations, and feel free to keep looking for a therapist until you find one.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Offer Compassion to Bitterness, If You Can

Several years ago, my adult daughter and I had just left a Philly restaurant where we'd had lunch, and were taking a stroll to continue our enjoyment. As we talked, I caught a glimpse of a dark skinned, mildly disheveled Black man approaching from the other direction, amidst some pairs of folks coming and going ahead, nothing particularly noteworthy. But at the moment that we intersected, I caught the brother's eyes, wild with rage, just as he hurled his seething into one word, at me, BITCH!

Though stunned momentarily, my daughter and I did not break our stride, but I was amazed. I had no feeling of being pricked or defamed, not a drop of distress. It was as though the energy he'd spewed towards me had floated elsewhere, and dissipated in the air. I'd never felt so immune to ugliness thrown my way. I think it had to do with how weighed down his male privilege seemed by a poor state of mind and wallet, and the fact that we shared a similar racial position. I felt empathy for this bitter man. Keep everything the same except race, and I’m not sure I would have gotten away so clean…maybe if the mental health issue was off the charts. Leave him Black, and make him a friend or boyfriend in the midst of a heated argument with me, and well, separation would be urgent in the moment, and a question for the long term.

How we respond to bitterness depends a lot on the context, and on the way that bitterness gets voiced. But as I suggested in my last blog, we may sometimes be able to offer something soft, like a magnolia flower or the poem I spoke about -- an expression of compassion. I located the brother and he has given me permission to share his poem here. His name is Segun ( and this is his poem.

The Broken Hearted

Your body you offer
a sacrifice to carnal pleasure.
Your heart you guard
a weighty nugget of pure gold
your lifeline.
I wonder who had hurt you so
my dear.
Claw your anguish onto my face
beat your wild rage onto my chest
wet my neck with your salty sorrow
let my tranquility be a haven for your troubled spirit.
your august scapegoat
noble offering to
absolve you
of this perennial grief
plaguing you so.

By Ségun Ògúntólá, from the collection, In Celebration of All that Burdens Us (Seaburn Publishing Group, New York, 2006)

A magnolia, a tiger lily, a poem, a look of compassion -- gifts to place at the feet of grief, hurt, and anger grown hard and bitter.

Photo by thandiwe.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Black Man's Bitter Letter to Bitter Black Women -- No Way to Heal

An Open Letter to Bitter Women (The Bridge, by Darryl James, unknown to me before now, but apparently an author and radio personality, caught my eye, as did some of the comments. Tough going. It read like a rant about bitter Black women, our generalizing about our bad experiences with men, our failure to take responsibility for our role in the poor relationships we've had, and our need to be more critical of some aspects of feminism (not sure which ones), and about our need to get real, referring to our saying, maybe acting like we don't need men and then complaining about not being able to find any. His points seem reasonable but they came for consumption like cherry tomatoes covered in cactus thorns. It's not surprising that the contempt escalated in the comments. Though Darryl proposes we talk with each other and not at each other, his delivery seems infused with the same animosity he opposes in sisters. It's understandable because harsh energy is such a trigger.
And we have plenty of anger leftover from yesterday and centuries, so holding back, especially when our jobs or lives don't appear to be at stake, is a serious challenge.

A beautiful poem I found in The African magazine some years ago surfaced from memory. It blew me away -- the witnessing by a brother of a sister's shut down heart, his desire to know what in the past had done that to her, and moreover, his willingness to be present to her anger and hurt, to honor it. Now that's a conversation, a connection that portends healing. If I can locate the brother and get his permission I will publish it in the future.

We can't wave bitterness away with a wand or demand it vacate. What is it anyway? I can readily connect to the experience of anger and hurt, but bitter seems to add another ingredient, something like dry ice that burns, or something that can cast a poisonous veil over the future. But what is that if not the most brittle form of self-protection -- to incinerate dreams to keep disappointment at bay, to build a wall a mile out from your heart. Sometimes that's where people need to be -- to stay safe, but if that's where they make a permanent home, healing will not visit.

The caustic tongue of bitterness or what bell hooks calls tongues of fire in Sisters of the Yam may speak of many things that have gone on and are going on in a life. But nonetheless I'm all too aware that it is especially challenging when the heat seems to roar in our direction. Our best, at some moments, is to make a u turn, or to stay the course and return fire. But when we can have the presence of mind to wonder what may have hurt the brother or sister so, maybe we can offer a magnolia, something soft and gentle. I'm working on it.

Photo by thandiwe.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Barack and Michelle: A Balm in the African Diaspora

The interview that Barack and Michelle granted on the subject of their marriage is hot press this weekend. Understandably. I mean who would care to hear about George and Laura's marriage, and it might be too painful for Hillary and Bill. They're due some slack, having paid some serious pain dues already. In her piece in Salon (, Michelle Obama Single Mom , Amy Benfer highlights the reality that this is the first time in nearly 13 years that Michelle and Barack have lived full-time under one roof. And it is apparent that this has been an issue, that Michelle, like many women whose husbands do live under the same roof, wanted him to be more present as a father (and I suspect as a husband too). How refreshing to have this transparency, and the acknowledgment that marriage is "hard work," from this couple who come as close to a Black fairy tale romance on the big screen as we've ever seen. A heady guy with a subtle bop to his stride,a man in his 40's who shoots hoops, throws a valentine smile, and conjures the grandest of visions, joined by a heady woman who speaks her mind, can swing her poise and beauty between J. Crew and Jason Wu, step up and out to support her man, and together,a couple who share a history of activism in the black community, the creation of two adorable daughters,and an affection that is palpable in their touch, the conversation between their eyes, and the teasing soft banter, it's big time magic! It's healing to witness them, sight and sound, to take in the message of what we can be, what we can give expression to in ourselves and in our relationships.

Benfer makes clear that this couple's appeal reaches wide, when she says "they make us ask, Dude, how can we get some of that?"