Fit to be Untied

"Why are you so angry?" Not surprisingly, this is the most frequent question Jill Nelson is asked as she tours to promote her new book "Straight, No Chaser: How I Became a Grown-up Black Woman."Predictably, the question comes most often from men. Nelson's response: "Women get it. White, black, Latino, Asian. They understand. Any black woman in this culture who isn't angry is crazy. And I could broaden it. Any person in this culture who isn't angry about the way that society is going needs to open their eyes."Remember the Lorraine Hansberry autobiography To Be Young, Gifted and Black, and the song Aretha Franklin sang, by the same title? If Nelson were singing an updated version it would probably be "To Be Young, Invisible and Black."Partially written in response to Nelson's daughter's struggles with her identity as a black woman, Straight, No Chaser posits that black girls and black women have become virtually invisible in American society. Throughout the book, as she recounts how we've become so voiceless and marginalized, she lets a lot of cats out of the bag, telling the secrets that black Americans talk about privately, certainly not in public where white folks might hear. Honestly, Nelson has so much to say, I might have to pitch a "niggerbitchfit" just to get adequate space to give you a taste of what's on her mind.Let's start there. Niggerbitchfit, as defined in Straight, No Chaser: "A combination of a moment of absolute clarity, a psychotic episode, and a revolutionary action. It is an expression of rage out of control, the verbal rejection of the ever-accumulating invisibility, disrespect, and attack from all fronts that is a central part of what it means to be a black woman in America. It is finally voicing what you really think after an extended period of being reasonable, understanding, flexible, pleasant, a team player, a well-behaved colored woman, of going along to get along in a dying white culture and a very unhealthy black one that negates or minimizes our existence moment to moment. It is a frightening thing to experience for those on the receiving end."For a brief moment, I think maybe I'm going to be privy to one when I arrive at the hotel room to talk with Nelson. Seems there's been some sort of screw-up with a credit card (from her publishing company) and her inability to use it to make long-distance phone calls from her suite. The hotel has a funky attitude, and Nelson isn't having it. This tall, stunning native New Yorker, clad in a tie-dyed T-shirt and shorts, places a Baggie full of vitamins between her knees and starts poppin'. "How could you not be angry at the America that we live in?With these record profits for corporations, yet this incredible downsizing, the destruction of the labor movement, the intimidation of workers -- so-called welfare reforms, the increase in violence toward women. The lack of jobs. These things are horrifying, not to mention the things we all go through in our daily lives -- like being fucked with by the Ritz-Carlton. I don't need it. I have too much other stuff to deal with that's bigger than me hassling with making long-distance calls out of this phony posh hotel." Hel-lo.Nelson grew up in an upper-middle-class black family. Privileged. Private schools, summers spent on the Vineyard. This charmed upbringing was, however, tempered with a firmly rooted appreciation for the hard-earned privileges. The values imparted were a keen sense of community, a sense of family and a sense of politic. Each chapter in the book begins with a personal anecdote and segues smoothly into a broader analysis of the issue she's discussing. Nelson is full of energy and commentary, often comical, about everything in today's world. With no apologies she places black women smack-dab in the middle of a universe that has, to devastating effect, rendered us invisible.As is often the case, many men are up in arms without having even peeked at the book. Nelson lays the foundation for the dialogue. "I have a right to place myself and my sisters at the center. I'm tired of what I've experienced all my lifetime, which is, when black women place ourselves in the center we are always downing black men. This is not true, and this has to do with, I think, black men buying into patriarchy. If they are not the leaders and the center of events, then somehow they're being attacked. This is not a victimization sweepstakes. I'm not trying to be more victimized than black men, I am trying to speak about my pain and my rage and how we transform that into hopeful action. If black men want to see that as downing them, then I think that's a personal problem and they need to have some therapy."Nelson insists the negative images presented by women's magazines, television, Hollywood, and so on serve only to further our exclusion from the dominant white culture. "African-Americans, the biggest consumers of television, are those who need it least and are most harmed by it. We have traded in our colored souls for a color TV. Black people! Turn the television off!" The constant bombardment in advertising tells us that our body type, skin color and hair type are all wrong and somehow need to be fixed.' During an informal discussion at her Left Bank Books reading, Nelson induces gales of laughter when she asks the group of about 10 women, black and white, when the last time was they ever saw a black woman washing her hair on television.In the book, Nelson shares her own personal revolution with the hair issue and how in 1996 she bravely had her own head shaved to the scalp. The results of this action are hilarious and telling. "Most black men's eyes skip over me rapidly, distastefully, as if they do not care to see someone who looks like me. I catch pure disdain in the eyes of several. Many people across race -- particularly women -- give me a sympathetic smile, assuming, perhaps, that I am a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy." Naturally she gets the solidarity smiles from the few who are also bald or wearing short naturals or dreadlocks. From weaves to blond ambition, the bottom line as far as Nelson is concerned is this: "What matters is why you have your hair the way you have it. Have it the way you want it because you want it that way. I am heartbroken when I see black women with blond hair and extensions settling for momentary visibility and no power. Because this is about power, not visibility. That's what I tried to be about when I shaved my head bald. I became very visible, but that's very different than having power. I want some power. Don't only see me. Hear me, respond to me and have to deal with me."When we do see images of ourselves on TV, it's usually a darker-complexioned woman selling something that you don't really want to be bothered with -- toilet-bowl cleaner or laxatives. A light-skinned black woman might hawk something you'd be interested in buying. As Nelson observes in the book, "It's gotten to the point that I often have to see a commercial two or three times to figure out if the green-eyed, crinkly-haired woman selling cereal or soda is black.... What we are witnessing is the rise of the biracial-as-favored black woman, even though it's stretching the point to suggest any of us are preferred. At the millennium, the culture has taken their contempt and our erasure one step further. Two of the most visible and acceptable images of black women in the eyes of the dominant culture are those offered by RuPaul, and, occasionally, the Chicago Bulls' Dennis Rodman, black men in drag."All right, then. It's time for some role models and serious leadership to help navigate us out of this mess. Problem is, as Nelson flatly declares, "We have no leadership." In a chapter titled "The Dickpolitic," Nelson recounts her own political coming of age in the '70s: the movement (black nationalism), the meetings and the mixed messages black women received about their participation in them.What about the black church -- any possibilities of leadership emerging there? "I don't think we can look to the church," Nelson responds. "The church is a patriarchal institution, by and large, although there are women and some progressive males who are trying to transform that. I think black women are the black church, and we need to understand the power that we have and force the church to be responsive to our needs as women, as well as the needs of the broader community. If black women struck the black church, if we had a national strike of black women for a month -- there would be no black church." She goes on to suggest that the church should place women's issues and anti-violence programs at the top of their agenda, that black women must stop genuflecting to the preachers and settling for a piece of the pie and start understanding that "we need to bake a new pie that can feed and nurture all of us."This discussion leads her straight into the controversial topic of the planned parade, rally and street festival for biter and convicted rapist Mike Tyson. Nelson was part of a coalition of men and women that formed to stop the festivities and the conferral of hero status on Tyson. "If Tyson chooses to make his living as a boxer -- likes to, as he's said, push people's noses into their brain pans -- that's his disturbing personal choice. The issue was the message that a spectacle in his honor sends to women, children and men. Since when did being convicted of a crime and serving time warrant a hero's welcome?" The support for these festivities included a bevy of ministers, and, as Nelson describes, "unelected leaders, like minister-without-a-church and former FBI wire-wearer Rev. Al Sharpton." Equally disturbing is Maya Angelou's support of Tyson and her participation in the Million Man March. (The chapter is titled "The March, the Matriarchs and Grown-Up Black Women," and it's quite funny.)As we begin the Maya discussion, Nelson respectfully prefaces her critique of Maya with, "I have a great deal of respect for her work, and I support everyone's right to their voice. I encourage more voices." Then she rips, "She supported Clarence Thomas. Wrong. Even if you don't believe Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas had a terrible (track record) before Anita Hill. I think supporting him disenfranchises not only black women but black people. He's the most right-wing jurist on the Supreme Court -- that's one on Maya. Second is her support of Mike Tyson. This is absolutely out of line, whatever you think about Desiree Washington. I know there's a lot of disagreement in our community. He has a long history of abusive behavior toward black women. I think that for (Angelou) to be posited as a leader and as a representative of black women is wrong. She is a writer and a talented one. But I think as a people we have to begin to just say no to these calls by the media to come and pundit and pontificate. If it's not our topic, say no." Nelson goes further in the book, declaring, "Who could be surprised that Angelou, who has made a career and fortune out of her own triumphant victimization and embraced the role of some sort of weird literary Mammy figure, an image comforting to many white folks and non-threateningly inspirational to some black ones, was there (at the Million Man March)?"The verdict is still out on the million-woman march, but when asked about it at her reading and in our interview, her response evokes laughter and contemplation: "I don't think black women need to go somewhere and stomp around. Furthermore, black women are too busy -- who's gonna take care of the kids and elderly relatives? It seems like we're putting the march before the horse. If we had organizations, if we had agenda, if we were doing community-based work as sisters to deal with the issues that are important to us in our community -- then I could see having a march to affirm that and demand that others respond to our agenda."Acknowledge the rage. That's the first step. "We're so conditioned to feel that our rage is not valid -- that we're somehow getting over with the help of white men'. I love this line. Where is this white man who's helping me?" She laughs, "I haven't met him." Nelson describes herself as an eyes-open optimist. She serves up 10 suggestions in the final chapter of the book, suggestions that one interviewer described as "soo simplistic." Precisely the point. Nelson offers possibilities that all black women can tap into. They include: scheduling time to spend with yourself; learn how to look at culture critically; learn about feminism (if you've been scared off by the word, Nelson suggests finding another one); speak or nod (to everybody); think about politics from a self-interested perspective and then take some action; recognize, understand and put your rage to use. The rallying call comes with the last line of the book, imploring, "Sisters! Come out, come out! Wherever you are."Elegantly dressed in a red jacket, black slacks and a whispery tan scarf, Nelson reads excerpts from her book at Left Bank in her strong, resonant and sometimes mesmerizing voice. The small group of women -- young, middle-aged and older -- lean forward, savoring each snippet, laughing hysterically one moment and grunting quiet, affirmative "mmmh, mmmhs" at other times. A few of the white women steal trepid glances around the room as if they aren't quite sure they can be in on our secrets, laughing with us about ourselves. But soon they too appear engaged, giggling and basking. A clearly visible sisterhood moment.


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