Archive for the ‘sexuality’ Category

It’s Thanksgiving weekend up in Canada, which usually makes me crave Stove Top stuffing and pumpkin pie. This year I actually haven’t thought of holiday food, in part because I have some Canadian friends in town and instead we’ve been catching up on politics. I realize that one way to minimize job stress is to spend a couple of days NOT grading, NOT developing lesson plans, and NOT attending work-related events. The latter is especially hard to do—on Saturday I went to the Brooklyn Museum with friends to see the Mickalene Thomas exhibit, which is phenomenal. I saw one of my students, which I expected, since I offered extra credit to my Black Women in the Americas class. I walked out of the gallery feeling an overwhelming sense of pride—Thomas is brilliant and I’m sure my students will be blown away by her glittering portraits of black women.

I haven’t managed to do any writing this month, which is disappointing. But I was heartened to learn that Teaching for Change has a fantastic post on Banned Books Week and the OTHER barriers to equal expression:

Government censorship, of course, is just one element that determines what we can and cannot read. People often overlook another cultural phenomenon that can have a similar effect: publishing industry censorship. Each year there is a scarcity of excellent children’s picture books published. Missing are titles that reflect the realities of students’ lives and communities while encouraging children to think beyond the headlines.

The data bears out our suspicion: Researchers at the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center find the number of books by and about people of color fluctuating and decreasing slightly, at the same time that children in the United States increasingly come from families of color. This doesn’t mean that those books aren’t being written—rather publishers refuse to seek them out or reject them, fearing they lack universal appeal, or as one frustrated former editor laments, fail to speak to “the lowest common denominator.” Zetta Elliott, author of the award-winning children’s book Bird, writes on her blog that she is fighting to find publishers for her many children’s book manuscripts. Some are “slice of life stories.” Others, like Bird, speak sensitively to childhood trauma.

The post concludes with a list of wonderful books that have since gone out of print. It’s a wonderful resource for teachers and parents seeking books that truly reflect the diversity of our society.

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I had a moment yesterday when I wanted to quit teaching. As soon as I submitted my grades, the whining began…no matter how clear you are about the course requirements, no matter how many opportunities you give to earn extra credit, there are always a few students who think you owe them something more. I love teaching and I hope to teach for the rest of my life, but I’m wondering if there’s a way to build a life that lets me do what I love and discard all the rest. Yesterday’s meeting with Terry Boddie was great—I can’t imagine what I’d do without the support of fellow artists! Artist/professors who teach, and grade, and deal with ridiculous demands, and yet still manage to get their work out into the world (Terry’s got FOUR shows up right now). Giving up the academy would mean working as a teaching artist and supplementing my income with grants. I’ve gotten three grants so far this year, and right now I’m applying for a fourth. It’s a different kind of hustle but the good thing about writing grant proposals is that the process lends clarity to your work. Why do I do what I do, and what does my writing offer the world? I’m still working on my project summary but thought I’d share what I’ve got so far. This is Nevis book #1:

The Hummingbird’s Tongue

This nonfiction book—a blend of memoir, genealogy, and mythology—will attempt to trace the life of my paternal grandmother, Rosetta Elliott. Born on the small Caribbean island of Nevis, Rosetta was institutionalized approximately ten years after the birth of her two children, George (my father) and Ilis. Both children were removed from Rosetta’s custody when they were quite young; George was raised (alternately) by his maternal and paternal grandmothers, and Ilis was raised by her biological father and his wife (though his paternity was kept from her until adulthood). Stripped of her children, my grandmother continued to live in Nevis until the mid-1950s when she began having “fits” and was committed to an asylum in neighboring Antigua where she allegedly died.

Shortly after his mother’s death, my father emigrated from Nevis to live, for the first time, with his father in Canada. Fifteen years later, in 1972, my father returned to Nevis with my mother (who was pregnant with me at the time). They visited the asylum in Antigua and found no record of Rosetta Elliott. In his unfinished memoir my father implied that Rosetta was involved with prominent men on the island; I plan to investigate this claim and others, including speculation that my grandmother’s “fits” weren’t caused by epilepsy but by obeah (so-called “black magic”). My grandfather once worked as a policeman in Antigua—did he use his professional connections to make his former lover “disappear”? Was the news of Rosetta’s death prior to his departure for Canada a lie designed to sever my father’s connection to the less reputable side of his family?

I have lived with depression and anxiety since my teen years, and suspect that my father battled depression throughout his life as well. Fortunately, I evolved into a black feminist writer, though my commitment to self-expression led my father to call me “a stranger in the family.” I feel a strong sense of kinship with the woman for whom I was named, though we never met and I have not even a photograph of her. My great-aunt once told me that Rosetta had “hair down her back”—a significant feature for a poor black woman. Was she beautiful? Was marriage unavailable or uninteresting to her? Perhaps my grandmother traded whatever assets she had in order to survive.

If my grandmother did indeed suffer from some type of mental illness, I would like to know what symptoms she exhibited and what services were available to women in the eastern Caribbean at that time. Could any “undesirable” be institutionalized? Was Rosetta truly a danger to herself, or was her sexuality deemed dangerous to an insular, patriarchal society that expected women to know and stay in their “proper place”? The 2009 study of Nevisian girls, Pleasures and Perils by Debra Curtis, reveals disturbing patterns of coercion and early experimentation with sex; my book will consider contemporary conditions for women in Nevis and will offer strategies to ensure that girls have the tools they need to recognize and resist exploitation and marginalization.

Green-Throated Caribbean Hummingbird

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Yesterday was not my best teaching day. I try to let my students express themselves in class, and I try to listen patiently even when problematic ideas are coming out of their mouths. After all, the point is to figure out where they’re starting from—what they know now so that we can try to move forward together. I’m usually ok if they disagree with me on something—so long as they can back it up. But when we’re talking about sensitive issues (like homosexuality) I find I sometimes lose my patience. Yesterday was one of those days. I knew we had fifteen minutes left in class and I didn’t want to “go there” when it was clear that this one particular student wasn’t ready to reconsider her position. So I left her there and moved on. Didn’t feel good about it, but I had another class to teach and a faculty film group to facilitate after that…and there will be opportunities later in the semester to revisit the subject. I got back to my office after the faculty group wrapped up and another student from that class had sent me this email:

Good afternoon Professor Elliot, I’m _____ from your noon class on Tuesday and Thursday and I just wanted to say that I’m really enjoying this class. I almost didn’t sign up for it but I’m happy i did. You are a excellent professor and I’m really learning more in this class than my others. By the way this Isn’t sucking up or anything I’m just showing that i have interest in your class.

Sounds like sucking up to me, but you know what? I really needed to hear that yesterday! Attendance in my morning class was down by about a third, and I couldn’t help but wonder if students skipped class because they didn’t want to talk about homosexuality. I need to do better. And I’ll try, though this semester is proving to be much harder than I thought. On Monday I got this sweet email from a former student, which reminded me of the long-term impact great teaching can have:

I am SO happy to hear you are still teaching and showing some of the materials you used for us at MHC; I really cannot even begin to tell you how much your courses continue to help me. It is really crazy to see how so many students have never spoken about or taken any classes on race relations in the US or on Black studies/Black history at an education school like ____ of all places; so, I find myself longing for and appreciating the work we did in your courses at MHC all the time. I am using so many of the readings from both of your courses, particularly from the Black Studies Reader, Tricia Rose articles, and poems from Amiri Baraka to conduct a literature review on work regarding ethnic studies courses, hip hop collegians, and language (particularly signifying–to this day, the most fascinating thing I ever learned, so thank you!) Please stay in touch and let your students know just how incredibly fortunate they are to have you as their Professor. Best of luck with the launch of your new book!

So tomorrow I’ll put on my new school marm dress and try to get it right. I did learn yesterday that I got a travel grant to help pay for my trip to France, so I’m going to focus on the positive and keep pressing on…

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My head’s full of stories but I haven’t allowed myself to sit and write. The fall semester starts in less than two weeks and I’ve been obsessing over my syllabi; new courses are always a challenge, especially when the course (African Civilization) falls outside my area of expertise. I like the course I’ve designed, and keep stumbling across texts that “fit”—like this response to historian David Starkey’s racist rant on the BBC. Are the riots a result of “whites becoming black”? Did black people (and Jamaicans specifically) really teach white youth to act out violently? Nabil Abdul Rashid went straight to the Moors: “we taught you how to bathe.” He goes on to use historical events to demonstrate that violence and looting are deeply embedded in British culture, predating the arrival of Jamaicans in the UK. He even suggests that the African slave trade was a form of looting…I see an interesting class discussion following this text. I also decided to show Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” video on the first day of class as an example of how ancient African civilizations manifest in contemporary culture…

Saw two great films in the past week but don’t have headroom for a thorough review. Gun Hill Road is an important film about a Latino father who returns from prison to find his beloved son is transitioning to a young woman. Mikey (Harmony Santana) has grown his hair out and regularly performs at a poetry club as “Vanessa.” Accepted by her friends, her mother, and her mother’s boyfriend Hector, Vanessa nonetheless struggles to live as a teenage girl; she’s harassed at school, the boy she’s servicing sexually (in part to raise money for breast implants) doesn’t want to be seen with her in public, and her father—who was raped in prison—can’t accept that his son is rejecting masculinity. Enrique (Esai Morales) learns that his rapist has been released from prison and brutally exacts revenge in an alley; he then takes Mikey to a prostitute and waits outside the bedroom door to make sure his son “becomes a man.” Traumatized, Vanessa leaves home and finds sanctuary with Hector (who has also been menaced/mugged by possessive Enrique). This film is incredibly honest and Harmony Santana gives an amazing performance—her difficult sexual encounters left me with a knot in my stomach. But there are moments of tenderness in the film as well, and Enrique softens his stance before leaving the family once more. I have to admit that I left the theater wondering what would happen to Enrique—Vanessa still faces a lot of challenges as a transgender teen, but I felt more confident of her transition than her father’s. How likely is he to “become a better man” in prison? At least one of Enrique’s friends, though a petty criminal, was able to accept Mikey as Vanessa. Without that kind of support, it doesn’t seem likely that Enrique will be able to address his transphobia, nor is he likely to receive treatment for his own trauma as a rape victim.

Attack the Block also attempts to redeem predatory masculinity—like Super 8, this film follows a group of teenage boys who discover that aliens have invaded their government housing project. For the first half hour of the film I had to agree with the white female character (Sam) who, after being mugged at knife point, described the boys as “fucking monsters.” Of course, she later realizes that the real monsters are the greater threat and aligns herself with Moses and his crew after they defend her and kill one of the aliens. The best moment in this film—for me—was when Moses’ prospective girlfriend jumps into action to save his life; paralyzed by fear, Moses hides as one of his boys gets killed by the aliens, unable to repeat his heroic samurai sword act performed earlier in Sam’s apartment. His female counterparts grab a halogen lamp and an ice skate (I’m still laughing as I write this!) and disable the alien, giving Moses time to find his courage. Nonetheless, he’s saved by Sam who daringly plunges a kitchen knife into the alien’s jaw just as it prepares to devour Moses. There are witty jabs at white liberals throughout the film, and unlike the innocent boys in Super 8, the teens immediately accept Moses’ theory that the Feds (police) planted the aliens on their block just as they sent in drugs and guns to decimate the community. The film’s ending was pleasantly surprising—Moses realizes his own aggression (killing the lone female alien) is to blame for much of the chaos, and we see (through Sam’s eyes) the neglect he faces at home, which made him self-reliant by pushing him into the street. Read against the recent riots that swept across the UK, Attack the Block offers an honest and entertaining look at a multiracial, working-class “band of  brothers” who demonstrate loyalty, creativity, courage, and humility. I know it’s showing in Toronto and NYC—do go see it if you have the chance.

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I’ve written three thousand words over the past couple of days. Funny how everything comes all at once. I saw a scene unfold while I was on the train a couple of weeks ago, but never bothered to write it down. Then I read a gentle, quiet book and by the time I was done, all these angry, violent scenes started to flow. Nyla’s a character from Ship of Souls; her mother abandoned her as a child so she was raised by her African American father and Japanese American stepmother on a military base in Germany. In this new book, I’m building off a line I heard upon waking up one morning last spring: “Are you sure you’re fully human?”

“What kind of mother just walks out on her kid?”

“You had Cal—and he had his mother.” Graciela screws up her lips but thinks better of disrespecting the dead. “Besides, it’s not like you were a baby or anything. I waited until you were grown.”

“Grown?! I was four.”

“You’ve always been mature for your age. I knew you could handle yourself. You could walk, talk, flush—you didn’t need me anymore.” She wavers then pushes herself on. “Plus…you didn’t show any signs. You were clean then. I couldn’t—I couldn’t risk you…picking anything up from prolonged exposure to me.”

“This shit’s contagious?”

Graciela shakes her head. “Genetic, apparently. But I didn’t know then what I know now. I was trying to do the right thing. And I’m trying to do that now. So listen to me, ok? Just…lay low for a while. And whatever you do—stay above ground.”

“That’s it? Avoid the subway? That’s the best you can do? Something tried to kill me—and my friends.”

            “Which is why you need to stay the hell away from them, too. I’ll speak to your father—now’s a good time for a little family vacation, I think.”

“Are you planning to join us?”

“You really don’t get it, do you? I’m trying to keep you safe—and that means staying as far away from me as possible.”

“They’re after you, too?”

Graciela sighs impatiently and tries not to lose her cool. “No, Nyla. They’re not after me. I’m after them.”

I stare at my mother without blinking as an image forms in my mind. “You mean you’re—like, a slayer?”

“God—everything’s a TV show or a comic book to you! I’m not a vampire slayer and I’m not a mutant—and neither are you.”

“What are you, then?” Graciela turns and takes a few steps away from me. “And what am I?”

Sequel’s aren’t easy. This summer was supposed to be my time to finish the sequel to Wish, and instead I’ve started a sequel to Ship of Souls, which hasn’t even been published yet. I’m getting ahead of myself. I have a short story to work on, an interview, and a guest post for another blog. But it’s hard to stop the story once it starts coming. This is the last scene I worked on last night:

“You on the Pill?”


“Birth control—you know what that is, right?”

“Of course, I do! Not that it’s any of your business…”

“That’s my blood in your veins—I’m making it my business.”

“I’m not sexually active, alright?”

Graciela finds Keem lingering over by the window. “You will be soon, the way that boy keeps looking at you.”

“He doesn’t decide that—I do.”

Graciela looks at me with something close to admiration. “I’m glad to hear that.” She watches me a moment longer and then asks quietly, “You learn that the hard way?”

I hesitate, then nod and avoid her eyes.

“Did Cal make the kid pay for it?”

I look at my mother. “I did. I split his head open.”

Again Graciela looks at me with a strange kind of pride. She reaches out a hand and flicks my bangs out of my eyes. “That why you went punk? To scare the boys away? Your father must have had a heart attack when you cut your hair. He was always so proud of his little princess.”

“I couldn’t be daddy’s little girl forever. Besides, he’s supposed to love me no matter what.”

“Love’s never unconditional. There are always strings attached.”

“Is that what I was—a string that tied you down?”

Graciela says nothing for a moment. “I thought that if I mixed my blood with your father’s—I could dilute it. I thought it would be ok.” Graciela tries to laugh but can’t. “And look at you now.”

“You wish I’d never been born.”

Graciela ends my pity party before it can even begin. “I never said that!” She glares at me for a long moment before letting go of my wrist. “I just want you to think things through. If Marta’s right and your power really is off the charts…then you can’t afford to reproduce.”

“Why not? What if that’s the answer—making more and more soldiers for the cause. We could build our own army and end it once and for all.”

Graciela makes a sound of contempt. “You sound like your father.”

“I’m just saying there’s strength in numbers. You don’t have to do everything all by yourself.”

“Oh yeah? Well, before you start popping out superbabies think about how you’d feel watching one of your kids die before your eyes. Because it happens, Nyla. It almost happened to me today.”

I stare at the cold food on my plate and quietly admit, “I wasn’t sure you were going to save me.”

“I wasn’t sure I’d be able to. I had to send G**** back into the depths. I just hoped I could banish him and still hold onto you.”

“You hoped?”

Graciela just shrugs and avoids looking at me. “Think about what I said. I’m sure your stepmother could help you get on the Pill without Cal finding out.”

Finally our eyes meet and for just a moment I see the woman my mother used to be. The woman she was before she became a hardened warrior. “If I’d stayed longer, I only would have loved you more. Understand?”

Before I can answer, Graciela walks away and slams her entire tray into the trash.

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I’m waiting for the latest proof of One Eye Open to arrive. During our self-publishing event in Toronto last month, someone asked us to break down the steps involved in publishing your own book. I tried to explain that the steps change with each book because you’re accumulating more and more knowledge. They’re now considering removing the proof option on Create Space, but I can’t imagine why you’d want your book to go up for sale before you had a chance to look it over. At first I was excited about shooting my own photo for the book cover, but then found out my camera’s automatically set to low-res so had to do it over on high-res. Fortunately, Cidra knew a professional photographer and Valerie ended up doing the shoot for me. Next I selected the photo, cropped it, boosted the color, and sent it to a photolab to be retouched. The lab technician’s first question was, “Want me to make her lighter?” NO! The retouched photo came back a few days later and I think it’s stunning, but still worried that the technician might have gone against my instructions. Representing women faithfully is really important to me. I’ve been writing this weekend and there’s a new kind of anxiety stirring within: if I create a female character who’s questioning her sexuality, is it a mistake to also make her a victim of sexual assault? I can recall all the times I’ve taught The Color Purple and had students insist that Celie was “turned into a lesbian” by the abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather. At the same time, I think it’s important to show that *all* children are vulnerable to abuse. In God Loves Hair, Vivek Shraya includes a disturbing but important scene where his child narrator is abused by a man while at an ashram. Although he’s been warned about the man, the child—an aspiring religious devotee—sees in the adult the same loneliness and alienation he has experienced at school: “I look at him on the bed, sad and hunched over, like the last one to get picked for a team. I know that feeling. He is my brother, I tell myself.” Unfortunately, the child’s empathy leads to exploitation. His religious community is one place where the narrator feels accepted—even admired because of his exemplary singing during prayers. At school, it’s an entirely different experience. Children who are bullied and/or isolated are made more vulnerable to abuse. Yet my character, Nyla, is something of a bully herself and is still victimized by an older teenage boy. The result is perhaps the same: Shraya’s narrator and Nyla are both likely to be blamed for the abuse. You led him on, you went with him, you asked for it. I need to do some more research on this. In One Eye Open, the main character is a rape survivor who meets her best friend, Vinetta, in a support group for victims of sexual abuse. Nina’s response to the rape is to shut herself off and avoid men entirely; Vinetta takes an opposite approach and engages in (sometimes risky) sexual behavior with women and men. Her bisexuality frightens Nina who can’t imagine herself as a sexual being with the right to make a wide range of choices; she’s trying to play it safe but that only binds Nina to the past. In my class we talk about Toni Morrison’s definition of freedom: “choice without stigma.” For Yvette Christianse, freedom is “not having fear.” We’re reading Unconfessed this week, which is a fictional narrative of an enslaved woman jailed on Robben Island for taking the life of her enslaved son. Imprisoned in several jails, Sila is raped repeatedly by guards and yet offers very few details, choosing to focus instead on the children conceived through rape. Sila won’t be defined as a beast, a drunkard, a murderer. She is a mother, a friend, a daughter and she clings to the memories that reinforce these identities. But she can’t shut out the vuilgoed, the filth. Sometimes teaching this material helps my own writing, but sometimes it wears me OUT.

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Keep an eye out for this film on changing the misrepresentation of women and girls:

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