She Pauses To Nibble On Her Pickle

“You have to travel with people who want to explore

otherwise everything is constructed, pills

warns Louise.

She pauses to nibble on her pickle,

and contemplate those frequent trips

she has made to visit her family in Barbados.

The last time she went down there with non-explorers

they whined every time they left the hotel, find

“Can’t we just take a cab?”

The non-explorers carefully followed their itinerary,

rushing through the locations of designated interest

and afterwards they would state,

“We’re done now. Can we go back to the hotel?”

Louise was appalled,

“American people traveling,

they don’t get it.”

She prefers to take it slow,

by walking or bicycling,

discovering the unknown island.

When she returned to Milwaukee she felt,

“I had to take another vacation.”

Just to counteract the energy she expended

on frustration with her boring companions.

“It costs too much to go to Barbados to sit in the hotel room!”

But I think she feels the same way about life in her own city,

having lived in Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee,

she tells me with confidence that she has never seen a city

more segregated than Milwaukee.

“You can’t just stay in that little neighborhood you live in.”

She talks boxes

she talks fears and safety

that make the boxes

that we call our neighborhoods.

She believes that the east side of Milwaukee is the most diverse

but even then it is all young people,

not old.

“And brown-skinned people are less likely to be seen

walking along the lakefront,”

where Louise bikes on a regular basis

amongst countless light-skinned people

who do not notice the lack.

“I think people as they move around the city

they need to open their hearts and minds.”

She tells me the best way to expose yourself

to variety in Milwaukee

is to attend gallery night

and Summerfest.

“Here in America it’s like,

what race are you?

You can’t just claim one,

I always check the box that says ‘other,’

and write ‘black-Indian-Island-Scottish-French.

Nobody’s white, you’re light skinned.”

Louise pats the marble under her plate,

“I’m not black, this table is black,

I am brown.

But we just need to get past it,

we won’t in this lifetime

but I go to Barbados and Trinidad a lot

and they don’t talk that way there.”

She waves her French fry in the air,

advising,

“Go somewhere and get lost,

just walk and explore.”

DSCN1219
I take her advice.

 

DSCN1227
Louise.

 

To Tell Our Truth, pt. 1

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…

To Tell our Truth, pt. 2

…continued from “To Tell Our Truth, Part 1”

 

“We have to do more of this!” new Michelle says, gesturing to our tabletop of appetizer plates and empty glasses. We nod and toast in agreement.

 A 2007 American Bar Association report titled “Visible Invisibility” describes how black women in the legal profession face the “double burden” of being both black and female, meaning that they enjoy none of the advantages that black men gain from being male, or that white women gain from being white. ~Washington Post

“When I first moved here I was baffled to find out we have three black chambers of commerce,” says new Michelle. “I was, like, ‘Really? Three? Is the city that big?’”

“No,” says Azure’De. “It just feels like our only choice is to fight for a small slice of pie instead of sharing it.”

“The old black guard needs to get out of the way and make way for these young professionals coming up,” says Michelle. “The more they hang on, the more good talent we lose to other cities.”

“Where would they go?” I ask, referring to our veteran black leaders. “There’s no succession of power for them. They don’t get invited on to boards, absorbed into corporations or get to reinvent themselves into consultants.”

 In the last decade, 98 percent of the nation’s population growth was due to increases in the black, Latino and Asian populations. Together, women, racial and ethnic minority men already comprise 66 percent of the nation’s population. White men overwhelmingly dominate boards of Fortune 500 companies, holding three-quarters of all seats. Fortune 500 boards are less diverse than Fortune 100 boards. ~Huffington Post

“I had a woman crying in my office once,” says Michelle. “She was so frustrated that she couldn’t get the information and support she needed. It wasn’t from whites, though.  It was black women who wouldn’t give her the time of day.”

“Let’s be honest,” Johnna says.  “When we do try to connect and support each other at the job, we get followed around and looked at funny for having ‘secret meetings.’”

Secret meetings! We all shake our heads at the familiar suspicions.

“Remember, when I told you about the woman walking back and forth past my office when we were in there?” Johnna says, referring to her previous agency. “She wanted to know soooo badly what we’d been talking about. I should’ve told her ‘you.’”

“I’m tired of folks asking me if I’m mad, too,” Michelle says. We shake our heads a bit more, laugh a bit less.

 Scholars at the business schools at Duke University and Northwestern University conducted a study that showed black women in a corporate setting faced less of a backlash from the survey participants for dominant behavior than white women or black men. The reason appears to be that participants expected black women to be strong and accepted that type of behavior from them. ~Journal of Blacks in Higher Education

“Dasha, how have you been received in this role for the hotel?” new Michelle asks me.  “You’re the first African American Narrator, right?”

I had to pause and give this an extra thought.

“I don’t doubt that more than a few guests have been caught off guard,” I say.  “I’m a complete stranger walking up to them in a hotel asking them to tell stories about themselves.  To be fair, I think the idea of a hotel having a program like this blows them away way more than the fact that I’m black.”

“And you speak so well,” Michelle quips, sending us all back into laughter and more head shaking.

 The problem is that popular culture and the media glorify and foreground Black women in so many caricatured and undignified ways that Michelle Obama appears to be more of an anomaly than she really is.  In the African American community, we are accustomed to seeing good looking, intelligent, well-educated Black women. ~Dr. Marilyn Mobley, Case Western University

“We should have our own TV show,” Johnna says.

“As long as you’re not talking about having us throw drinks on each other,” I say.

The majority of what we, as a community, celebrate in the media, isn’t worthy of our women. Not the ones that I know and love. ~Essence Magazine

Individual black women are more likely to be viewed as representatives of their race by the majority culture.  ~Bitch Magazine

“Listen, there are plenty of white women acting a fool on television every night,” says actress Holly Robinson Peete. “But there’s a balance for them. They have shows on the major networks—not just cable and not just reality shows—about them running companies, being great mothers, and having loving relationships. We don’t have enough of that.” ~Newsweek

 “Girl, no,” Johnna says.  “But I want to host the segment on entertainment.  I still try to keep up with what’s ‘poppin.’”

“I would want to tell stories for all the silent voices,” says new Michelle.  “Regular black women living regular lives.  That’s who gets ignored, the vast majority of black women who are living between the extremes.  Those are important stories to tell, too.”

There are menfolk circling our table now.  Michelle’s husband. A colleague of Azure’De.  The fellas in jazz trio have begun to play near our table.  It’s time for me to float away to another soft seat of the hotel.  As I hug all the women and pledge to join an upcoming happy hour respite, new Michelle asks the question swelling in my mind:

“What are you going to write about all of this?”

“I’m going to try and capture the range of everything we crammed into forty-five minutes,” I say.

Mostly, I think to myself, I’m going to do my best to tell our truth.

 ===================================

As a society, we know very little about the psychology of Black women, a group of 19 million people — seven percent of the U.S. population. The way they experience the workplace, the complexities of their romantic lives, the challenges they face as mothers and grandmothers, their spiritual and religious practices, these and so many other aspects of their lives are largely unknown to the wider community. Being ignored and poorly understood likely explains why so many Black women today still feel profoundly unhappy about their place in society. ~ Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, authors of “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America”  (HarperCollins Publishers)