To Tell Our Truth, pt. 1

29 Aug, 2012

by Dasha Kelly

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It’s like hearing a song from your past in the car speakers beside you at a stoplight, or when a favorite book cover winks at you from behind the fingers of a fellow traveler.  An artificial familiarity, but comforting just the same.

A table of professional African American women, still in their heels and lined skirts, sit at a high cocktail table in Mason Street Grill.  

I greet them with hugs right away. We’ve worked, volunteered or socialized in many overlapping circles through the years.  In spite of Milwaukee’s size, I always describe our city as a “big small town.”

I excuse myself to the bar, wanting to survey and observe the room for while.  To my left, two co-workers compare gossip notes about a mutual colleague. Both have their elbows folded on top of the bar, one with his button down oxford folded back at the cuffs. A group of men in polo shirts to my right boom at one another about sports scores, tee times and microbrews. In the back, I count ten hair tosses and three cackling laughs by a voluptuous blonde and wonder if the guy she’s with might need rescuing.

Near the front entrance, a woman stands alone peering out onto the street.  She’s dressed simply but elegantly in a pencil skirt and patterned chiffon blouse.  Ten minutes, twenty minutes pass and she’s is still standing there, waiting.  I weigh the logistics (and crudeness) of chatting with her until her date arrives, or not. I take a photo of her silhouetted against the sunlit window, crafting a story outline in my head.

But the table of sistas gathering behind me tugs at my attention like a moon over ocean tides.

I finally give in to my indulgence and head over to their table. Michelle Hinton, the common denominator of these friends, is in the middle of an animated story about a recent fundraising event.  She has a rich, dark complexion and razor sharp wit.  I ask her about the last time her group got together.  She’s beginning to tell me about the Wig Brunch she’d recently held for her birthday when the waitress comes to check on us.

“You guys should really put the sliders on the happy hour menu,” Michelle says sweetly.

“One of our other favorite spots, which shall not be named, has their sliders for happy hour,” agrees Johnna Scott, her voice filled with good humor. “Can you see if we can get them anyway?”

The waitress cheerfully agrees, also confirming their order for another round of mimosas.

Michelle is a state director for the American Cancer Society and Johnna is an executive for Mosaic Communications, a boutique PR and marketing firm. “All of us travel a lot for work so getting together is tough sometimes,” Johnna says. “It’s not always the same group.”

“I make it whenever I can,” adds Azure’De Williams, a communications manager for the American Heart Association.  “This revives me in a lot of ways.”

The fourth woman, Michelle Mason, is a managing director at ASQ.  She has been in Milwaukee for only a few years and came to rely on informal gatherings like this one to get her true bearings on the city.

“Networking for work is one thing,” she said, “but I need a network of black women when I’m off the clock to help give me balance, too.”

“I need this,” Michelle says.  “I don’t know how other Black women get by without reconnecting like this, but I need it.”

Then it hits me.  I’d resisted joining their table because it felt like an “easy win.” As we begin to thread one topic to the next, I realize that relaying this experience will be more challenging that it initially appeared. How could I recreate the true pulse our broad conversation without also communicating the subtext? That would be like reporting from some family’s holiday dinner about Uncle Jimmy having a new wife.  If only the family understands that Uncle Jimmy had been an avowed bachelor, a visiting dinner guest might not appreciate the profound weight of his news.

Similarly, without some ticker tape of our shared “understandings” as black women, this happy hour round table could lose much of its depth.  Like any other demographic of people, African American women share a complex knitting of “truth” and “fact.” Truths would be our individual perspectives, as they have been shaped by our collective reality, or the facts.

 According to Department of Education, black women earn 67 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to blacks, as well as 71 percent of all master’s degrees and 65 percent of all doctoral degrees. There are more black women than black men (24 percent to 17 percent) in the professional-managerial class. As of 2007, 70 percent of professional black women were unmarried. Black women are five times more likely than white women to be single at age 40. ~Washington Post

 The waitress returns with the champagne flutes and sliders.  The ladies are jubilant and appreciative.

“We meet up all over the place,” says Azure’De.  “Service like this will keep us coming back.”

 And they’re an attractive demographic for advertisers: black spending power is estimated to reach $1.1 trillion, according to the State of the African-American Consumer Report. ~Los Angeles Times

“She’s our foodie,” teases Michelle. Azure’De smiles and responds with a loose shrug of her shoulder. “I’m glad to have her, though. I can’t always get people to try new things, or to spend a few extra bucks. I want to do more than just go eat at Red Lobster.”

Johnna gasps, “Girl, I love Red Lobster…”

We all laugh, adding our own ad libs and funny footnotes. Soon, the jokes unfold into sobering social commentary.

“We’ve just gotten so used to settling and recycling the same ideas,” Azure’De says. “It makes me think I’m crazy for wanting something more.”

I say, “I agree.  What’s more frustrating is that our young people grow up thinking that the way things are is they way things will always have to be. Complacency breeds some of our biggest problems.”

 African Americans have the highest rate of total TV usage, according to a 2011 Nielsen report — translating to an average of seven hours, 12 minutes each day, two hours above the U.S. average. ~Los Angeles Times

“It’s tough to expect folks to care about ‘being part of the solution’ when they’re struggling to pay their bills and can’t find a job,” says the new Michelle. “It’s rough out here for black people.”

 Since the end of the recession, the overall unemployment rate has fallen to 9.1 percent, while the black unemployment rate has risen to 16.2 percent, according to the Department of Labor. Unemployment for college-educated whites is 3.9 percent; for college-educated blacks it is 7 percent.~Chicago Sun-Times

“We’ve got to stop accepting status quo as a standard,” I say. “We’re raising kids who won’t know how to fight for what they want.”

“I say it’s the community’s fault that our education has deteriorated,” says Michelle. “We used to show up at the school, stay on top of our kids.”

 Black students are more likely than White students to have lower-quality teachers. In high schools with 50 percent or more Black enrollment, 25 percent of the teachers have neither a college major nor standard certification in the subject that is their main teaching assignment (math). The percentage for schools with White enrollment of 50 percent or more is 8 percent. ~Educational Testing Service

 “We have to stop being victims, too, though,” says Johnna.  “I’ve still got that ‘hood girl in me but, at some point, you have to decide what you want for yourself, and not just accept what’s handed to us.”

“Or what’s not handed to us,” says Azure’De.

 The rules remain the same as in 1956 when C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite described the exclusively white, male, and Christian makeup of the leading members of America’s political, military, and business institutions. Indeed, the diversity “forced” upon the power elite has given it buffers, ambassadors, and tokens through the women and minorities who share its prevailing values. Discrimination is still widespread, and the ascension of different groups, albeit uneven, depends on four factors: class, education, assimilation and skin color. ~Mother Jones

 Continued…

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About the author

Dasha Kelly

Dasha Kelly is founder and director of Still Waters Collective, a Milwaukee-based outreach initiative utilizing the transformative power of the written and spoken word. Dasha has performed and delivered workshops to writers, youth, educators, co-eds, executives, inmates and artists throughout the U.S. She is also an HBO Def Poetry alum. As a poet and novelist, Dasha’s writings have appeared in anthologies, text books, magazines and online. Her latest collection of work, Hershey Eats Peanuts is available through Penmanship Books. She is currently working on her second novel and a new collection of essays.

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