An American Girl in Washington

Sophia Nelson, Helena Andrews, and the Black Woman’s Generation Gap: An Open Letter to Michelle Obama (a parody)

Posted in Politics- as I see it by AGinDC on 30 June 2011

Dear Mrs. O,

Last night two friends and I attended a book talk for Sophia Nelson’s new book, Black Woman Redefined.  I’m sure you’ve heard of it.  In fact, I know you have, because the author mentioned several times that she met you and gave you the book.  She also spent a good amount of time reading from the prologue of her own book, which is, of course, an open letter to you.  You probably don’t remember her, or the book.  And you probably didn’t read the entire open letter, if any of it.  You have better things to do.  Unfortunately, I do not.  So, yesterday I sat in a room with a bunch of church ladies, a couple of church men, a stylist who couldn’t walk in her shoes, an author who was late to her own reading because she was getting a manicure, and a couple of very confused, sad, and insulted looking 20-something year old girls.

Why did we look confused, sad, and insulted, you ask?  (You would ask, because you’re that kind of person).  Because, you see Mrs. O, from Bitch is the New Black to Black Woman Redefined, it’s pretty clear that, like every other demographic, the generational, geographical, and educational gaps between our mother’s generation and ours couldn’t be more different.  While Helena Andrews tried to add a little levity to a situation in which we, as young black women, too often find ourselves (trying unsuccessfully to couple in the big city) using a word that we have proudly reclaimed but perhaps a little more ego than we want to admit we have prefer, she was speaking from a place that only the .05% of black women born after 1980 with one or more degrees from a highly selective school, good jobs, and a West Elm furnished apartment in a good part of the city can understand.

Sophia Nelson, on the other hand, is speaking from the perspective of black women born between 1955 and 1969 with one or more degrees from an institution of higher learning, unsatisfying jobs, and a three bedroom townhouse furnished with imaginary nurseries, unopened hope chests and a shelf full of self-help books and dog-eared Bibles.  The white version of these women are the reason Hillary Clinton didn’t beat your husband in ’08.  They’re cut from the same cloth as Moses, Che, and Jesse Jackson.  They can’t let go of the revolution.  Worse:  they still define everything in the terms of the revolution and expect everyone around them, especially those in the same demographic group, to adapt to their version of the world.  If you want to know how well this works, see, e.g., the South African government.  Because here’s the problem of all successful revolutionaries:  when the war is over and the dust has cleared, you’ve won.  And unless you can adapt, we don’t need you anymore.

This is why the country that is so proud to have you as our First Lady is even capable of having a First Lady.  It’s why we rose to power so quickly and why we are, indeed, the greatest country on Earth.  Because our Founding Fathers understood that they had to change or get out of the way.  And change they did.  They learned to adapt, redo, modernize and innovate.  When the Articles of Confederation didn’t work they didn’t sit in a pew, praying over and over that God fix their lives/pay their bills/send them a man.  They didn’t learn to hate every country with a working government.  They didn’t buy expensive hats and march past the struggling single mother in the back row, nose in the air, white gloves poised for a blessing.  No.  They tried again.  They fought and debated and studied and struggled and worked and worked and worked.  And they got it right.  They wrote the Constitution and in so doing left a legacy of democracy for their children and the world that will never be surpassed.  And then they went away, and let us grow and change and become the country we are today, for better or worse.  Mostly, if I may say so, for better.

The same should be true for our mothers.

I’ll give you a little personal history here, ma’am, if you’ll forgive me.  Partially because I am very proud of my family and talk about them as often as possible, but mostly because I think we illustrate my point quite nicely.

My great-grandmother was Sioux, from North Dakota.  Through luck, intellect, a good family and sheer will, she made her way to Kansas, attended medical school, became a chiropractor, and married my black great-grandfather, a pharmacist.  She did this in the very beginning of the 20th century.  My great-grandmother adopted and raised my very handsome grandfather, a man so handsome that he caught the eye of my grandmother, Dorothy, from all the way across a bar in Okinawa.  My grandmother, who decided to marry the tall, handsome stranger across the room right then and there and did, three months later, is a singular woman.  Raised in Burgaw, North Carolina, a town so small that to this day people who are actually from North Carolina have never heard of it, she, like all of our grandmothers, walked back and forth to her segregated school while the White children passed her on the bus.  Malcolm Gladwell talks a lot about the factors that lead to success being made up mostly of luck and circumstance, along with a great deal of ambition and ability, and in my grandmother’s case, this is certainly true.  My great-grandfather was determined to send his children to college. The only problem was, the Greatest Generation was raised in a time of war.  Since he couldn’t send his sons to college, he decided to send his daughters.  I thank God every day that this farmer and seller of moonshine was so forward-thinking as to believe that his Southern daughters should receive a higher education.  And so, my grandmother and her sister were sent to college.  My grandmother, brilliant and determined, had always wanted to be a librarian, so that she could ensure that every black child had access to books, a privilege that the children in her segregated school rarely got to enjoy.  So she got a master’s degree in Library Science, joined the Civil Service, and ended up in Okinawa, where, at 28 years old, she met my grandfather.

Forgive me, Mrs. O, I know you have a birthday party to plan, I promise, I’m getting to the point.

Unfortunately for my grandfather, my grandmother gave him four girls (I’m sure the President can understand his disappointment), the tomboy of which was my mother.  Unfortunately for everyone in my family, my grandfather went to Vietnam, fought bravely, and died of a heart attack shortly after coming home.  It was 1972 and my grandmother had four girls, aged 13, 12, 12, and 7.  She could have packed up and gone home (they were in Arizona at the time).  She could have sent them to live with family members and lived her own life.  She was beautiful and easily could have gotten married.  But she didn’t.  She packed up and moved off base, bought a house, and raised four brilliant girls who all went to college, half of them earning graduate degrees, and lived their own lives.

And so we come to my mother.  At 18 she left Arizona for Mount Holyoke College, met and married my father and gave up a chance for a career to raise my brother and I as we followed the Army’s orders and moved all over the world.  When I was 12 (12 is not a good year for fathers in my family), my parents divorced, my father left, and my mother got a job for the first time in a very, very long time.  She could have gone back to Arizona.  She could have sent us to live with our grandmother.  She could have gotten remarried.  She didn’t.  She got a tiny apartment.  She got a job.  She got an MBA.  She made us meatloaf on the weekends that we could heat up when we got home from school.  She attended every play, concert, sporting event, parent-teacher conference, college recruitment dinner, and took pictures for every dance.  She made me take the PSAT, the ACT, the SAT, and every other standardized test she could think of about 25 times.  And she worked herself to an illness to pay my college tuition.

Everything the women in my life did is remarkable.  Everything they did inspires me to be my best every day.  And since I was 7 and understood where I came from, my only goal in life has been to make them proud, to live up to the nickname “little Dorothy”, and to never let their struggles be in vain.  But the most important thing these women did, for me, and for each other, was to let go of the revolution.

My grandmother didn’t raise my mother to hate White people for the way they treated her in Burgaw.  She didn’t raise her to never fall in love because her husband died and left her alone.  She may have made them hide their Fatback records and listen to Mahalia Jackson on Sunday mornings, but when my aunt brought home not one, but two White husbands, and when my mother brought home a tall, Jordanian, Muslim man, she put them to work fixing doors and oiling cars and puzzled over why on Earth anyone would refuse to eat pork.  In short, she let the future be the future and found her place in an ever-changing world.  I have always thought that she and Nikki Giovanni should teach an AARP class in moving forward.

My mother must have learned from her, because she understood that the Mount Holyoke I was attending was a different world than the one she attended.  She encouraged me to study abroad, to seek new experiences, to major in theatre, of all things.  My grandmother even came all the way to Massachusetts to fall asleep at a play.  They were thrilled when I decided to put law school on hold for Teach for America.  They were there when TFA was the hardest thing I’d ever done.  They have even learned to accept the fact that I will probably never have a traditional job.  Although I’m pretty sure they’re keeping hope alive on that one.  Unlike many of my friends, the women in my family have never (to my face) lamented a decision, given me a blueprint for my life, or ever, ever said, “I didn’t work this hard for you not to be X”.  This, in our community, is remarkable.  This, in our community, is rare.  And this Angela Davis-like ability to let go of the revolution and move on to the next, is something that we did not witness last night at the reading.

And now, FLOTUS, the point.

This letter is not intended to derogate, insult, or deride, although my overly sarcastic tone and unfortunate gift for hard-hitting metaphors may at times make it seem that way.  All of the issues addressed in Sophia Nelson’s book are valid, important, and vitally need to be addressed.  And I certainly do not mean to belittle the significant amount of research, passion, and drive (and, also, according to Ms. Nelson, a measure of sacrifice that led her to neglect her own health, forget to take her pills, and go deaf in one ear) that went into writing this book.  I have nothing but admiration for anyone who can actually finish a book.  I’m still not there.

The problem is, all of those issues and all of those needs and all of that research is  interpreted through one very singular and very traditional worldview.  Which is fine, because everything comes from somebody’s point of view.  That’s the point of writing a book.  But when Ms. Nelson and the women shouting “Amen!” in the Borders bookstore on 12th and E  see the entire world through the rose-coloured glasses of the blood of Christ, they are asking us to conform our behaviour to their expectations.  They are judging us for living our own lives and stuffing every single black woman with all of our history and experience and education and passion and drive and possibility into one very tiny little Pandora’s box.  They complain about the mass media and general public judging us all by one very, very bad example (I believe NeNe was the example used quite often by Ms. Nelson and I hope, for your sake Mrs. O, that you have never heard of her) but then they do the same thing.  Black women are not a monolith.  Never have been, never will be.  My friend Jae said it best when she said that White girls are judged as “Britney”, “Whitney”, and “Ashley” where as Black girls are judged as “ALL BLACK WOMEN, NOW, THEN, AND FOREVERMORE”.  I may have taken some artistic license there, but that’s what she meant.

To these women, there is no individual.  We all relax our hair.  We all wear tights to work.  We all want to be married and have children and will follow Steve Harvey’s advice to do it.  We all go to church.  We all listen to Tom Joyner.  We all either are, want to be, or should be in a sorority.  We all behave as one.  We are Cylons.  When Michael Eric Dyson speaks a radio clicks on in our heads and we all listen and act accordingly.  We are Black fembots.  And if one of us malfunctions, watch out.  We’ll skewer you just like they skewered Helena Andrews.  And NeNe.  And Oprah, that one time.  It is absolutely unthinkable to the fembots that the smart, ambitious, educated and independent young women that they raised might not (gasp!) go to church.  Or that we might like being single.  Or that we might be lesbians.  Or that young men minding their own business on the corner might take offense to a preacher coming by and telling them how to behave.  Or that it actually isn’t acceptable or even legal to “knock out” a black teenager on the Metro for cursing in public.  Or that the village is supposed to raise a child, not brainwash it.  Or that we don’t live in the Black Stepford.  And until they do, until they wake up and realize that the revolution is over, that they’ve won and now they need to adapt, or step back, I’m afraid every book reading will be filled with church ladies with bare left hands and big hats and girls who are disappointed, confused, and just a little bit mad.

I’m sorry to take up so much of your time, Mrs. O.  I know you have better things to do.  And besides, I have a hard time believing that you would ever stop your girls from becoming everything they can be now just because they might make choices that are outside of your experience.  But I’m afraid our only common denominator is you.  We may like you for different reasons, we may talk about you in different ways, we may even disagree on whether we like the fact that you did The Dougie in public.  But as far as we have a North Star, it’s you.  And even after the revolution, we still need something to reach for.

Thanks for listening.
An American Girl in Washington


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