The Voices of Others: F*ck I Look Like!

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More strong opinions and good words created by other people.

It will be noted that I am white and this poem is about black experience. I fully acknowledged that I do not have her experience. Our differences do not diminish the power of her words or make it wrong (or improper) for me to include them in my list of good words and strong opinions. Additionally, there were points where she is definitely speaking to my own experiences as a poverty survivor – a few quotes:

  • “You’re looking at me like I’m not supposed to be standing here next to you. Like we’re in the same class but your idea of advanced is to advance that my mind can’t match you.”
  • “White people think they run shit because they got money to buy the source.”
  • “As soon as I raise my hand for anything other than a bathroom break, I become a weirdo.”
  • “Why would I use big words? So I can sound like you? You know what I sound like? Like I’ve read a book before.”

Gold Diggers Survive

I have a love-hate relationship with this song: Fancy from the album Rumor Has It by Reba McEntire.

Fancy was a big hit in 1990. During that year, I was a poverty survivor working insane hours at multiple jobs while going to college. The lyrics do not tell my story (per se) but they touched on something within my own experience.

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“She said here’s your chance Fancy don’t let me down
Here’s your one chance Fancy don’t let me down
Lord forgive me for what I do, but if you want out
Well it’s up to you
Now don’t let me down you better start movin’ uptown”

Every time I hear this song play, I want to turn it into a personal theme song or a Poverty Survivor anthem because of lyrics like this:

“I knew what I had to do but I made myself this solemn vow
That I’s gonna be a lady someday
Though I don’t know when or how
I couldn’t see spending the rest of my life
With my head hung down in shame you know
I might have been born just plain white trash
But Fancy was my name”

Good strong words, but they are taken out of context. Context is important. This song tells the story of a young woman who is handed over to a pimp because her mother was poor, sick and desperate to find a way for her daughter to survive:

“Then I saw the tears wellin’ up in her troubled eyes
When she started to speak
She looked at our pitiful shack
And then she looked at me and took a ragged breath
She said your Pa’s run off and I’m real sick
And the baby’s gonna starve to death.”

But, in the end, Fancy not only gets out of a life of prostitution, she becomes extremely wealthy and famous. How? She finds several rich men who like what she has to offer.

“It wasn’t very long after a benevolent man
Took me off the street
And one week later I was pourin’ his tea
In a five room hotel suite”

“I charmed a king, a congressman
And an occasional aristocrat
Then I got me a Georgia mansion
And an elegant New York townhouse flat
I ain’t done bad”

The story describes a young woman who is physically attractive and blessed with a personality that is both subservient enough to ‘pour tea’ and outgoing/entertaining/manipulative enough to ‘charm a king, a congressman and an occasional aristocrat.’ She literally serves, entertains and flatters her way into the right bedrooms and, therefore, is able to both survive and thrive.

This is complete fiction. Under the ownership of a pimp, human trafficker or abusive boyfriend (taking a cut off of her earnings), it would have required the intervention of the police and/or an act of God to get her off the streets.

This is destructive fiction. This is one of the fatal contradictions inherent in the definition of Deserving Poor utilized here in the United States – a common fable passed around by Hollywood, television, romance novels and politicians. It’s disturbing just how many people actually believe it is factual, common and proof that women who don’t land rich husbands ‘deserve’ the punishment of poverty. Specifically: if you want to get out of poverty, you must land the right man. Girls who ‘work it’ are the ones who succeed – the rest are just lazy and worthless. Worse…those who get pregnant, raped or otherwise suffer less than ideal consequences are ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ who deserve nothing better than prostitution and single-parenting-on-welfare.

Street Feminism. If you’ve ever wondered why feminism is not popular among poor women, take a good hard look at what it takes to survive and what is expected of the Deserving Poor. These lyrics and this music video provide an excellent illustration of the reality of poverty for women – a reality which feminism, in its current manifestation, does nothing to address. Sadly, many upper-class feminists actively (aggressively) support this fantasy and the Deserving Poor fiction that goes with it – through their actions. Your theories and opinions are nothing if your actions contradict those words. Why does this happen? Because class and classism overshadows solidarity and negatively affects the feminist community.

Which brings me to the next point…

Real life in the United States. Entirely too many people (particularly children, teenagers, and young adults) are desperately poor and/or homeless in the United States. They need reasonable and easily accessible options, not fairy tales that essentially glorify an ideal that, in reality, guarantees a life of sexual slavery.

“Now in this world there’s a lot of self-righteous hypocrites
That would call me bad
And criticize Mama for turning me out
No matter how little we had”

This is a bit of truth. Self-righteous hypocrites calling poverty survivors ‘bad’ (and many other things that are far worse) because they have the audacity to survive poverty. So many things about this story are wrong….just plain wrong….because they accurately portray reality for entirely too many people (including the complications stemming from popular misconceptions). This last bit of nastiness is no exception.

Poverty survivors have a right to live. They do not owe anyone an explanation, excuse or apology for refusing to die (no matter how inconvenient that reality may be to select groups of people). Those who are lucky enough to leave poverty deserve respect, not nasty attempts at degradation, public humiliation, and slander. Slander which can, and often does, negatively affects social standing and employment – thereby sending survivors right back into poverty.

Yeah, this song strikes a chord. It grabs hold of my anger and frustration about the lack of real change in the areas of poverty and homelessness and plays those emotions like an instrument.

To her credit, Reba McEntire’s video for Fancy ends with the main character opening a home for runaways. It’s an excellent video. I just wish the lyrical story were more realistic.

The Voices of Others: Rape Joke

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It’s 2 in the morning. I’m listening to…and posting…the words of others. Sometimes, it’s good for the spirit to let someone else do the talking.

Bonds of Sympathy or Love

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“Who can tell what metals the gods use in forging the subtle bond which we call sympathy, which we might as well call love.”

The Awakening and Selected Short Stories by Kate Chopin

Not Pretty, Not Angry, Just Honest

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Not A Pretty Girl

“I am not a pretty girl
That is not what I do
I ain’t no damsel in distress
And I don’t need to be rescued”

“I am not an angry girl
But it seems like I’ve got everyone fooled
Every time I say something
They find hard to hear
They chalk it up to my anger
And never to their own fear
And imagine you’re a girl
Just trying to finally come clean
Knowing full well they’d prefer
You were dirty and smiling”

Not A Pretty Girl by Ani DiFranco

A Book Is…

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A Book is like a child to an author. When it goes out into the world, we do not know how it will be received, or how we will be changed through it. Also as every mother and involved father knows, worlds of people open up through one’s child.

Moving Toward the Millionth Circle: Energizing the Global Women’s Movement by Jean Shinoda Bolen

Show Way Quilts and Family History

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February is African American History Month!

“Slaves whispered what no one was allowed to say: That Mathis know how to make…a Show Way. Came to her when they needed to talk; came to her for the stories of brave people; came to her for the patch pieces just before they disappeared into the night.”

Show Way, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Hudson Talbott

Sterilization Forced on Poor Women

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“Forced sterilization and welfare have been linked for nearly half a century. Mississippi state legislator David H. Glass instituted a bold experiment when he sought legal means to force sterilization upon welfare mothers in 1958. By 1960, his “act to discourage immorality of unmarried females by providing for sterilization of the unwed mothers” passed in the House by a vote of seventy-two to thirty-seven but died in the Senate as the black activist Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) protested and distributed a pamphlet entitled “Genocide in Mississippi.””

“In June 1973, the abuse of two young sisters in Montgomery, Alabama, exposed the decades of stolen African American fertility. A Montgomery Community Action Agency nurse took the girls to the hospital for a federally funded contraceptive shot and obtained the “X” of each illiterate parent on the consent form. But their parents later learned that the girls had been surgically sterilized, and they asked Atlanta’s Southern Poverty Law Center for help. When SPLC filed a class-action lawsuit to end the use of federal funds for involuntary sterilization, its lawyers discovered that 100,000 to 150,000 women had been sterilized using federal funds and that half these women were black.”

“Women were also forced into sterility by governmental welfare programs, upon which unskilled black women workers relied to supplement their meager wages. While a social worker in upstate New York during the 1980s, I learned from old case files that during the 1960s and 1970s, social workers conducted frequent late-night raids on the homes of aid recipients. If a man was discovered, the family’s aid could be cut off unless the woman agreed to sterilization, guaranteeing there would be no additional children for the state to support.”

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington

Community Defined

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If diversity’s what it’s all about, then our neighborhood is all that and a bag of chips. But without a shared sense of purpose, diversity spells conflict and isolation, not opportunity. I figure that tract of land is what brought us together. None of us is about to give that up.

Before I stepped out of my house that cold morning three years ago, I might have told you “community” was some kind of Up with People fantasy—like-minded folks sharing a Norman Rockwell moment. Now I think community has little to do with like minds. It has to do with very differently minded people finding a way to get along because we all live in, are connected to, and share a sense of place.

Animal, Mineral, Radical: Essays on Wildlife, Family, and Food by BK Loren

Avoid the Light

This is a blog post made in response to the Daily Post Daily Prompt: Safety First

Before I explore the scary, I just want to tip my hat to Ngobesing Romanus whose blog post Almost burnt to death inspired me to write this.

I don’t often make biographical posts to this blog. If you were expecting a quote or book review, rest assured, more are scheduled for later today. As for this particular posting – everything you are about to read is true.

Avoid The Light

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I entered an undergraduate program in 1987 and quickly learned that some people held strong opinions about what kind of students belong in college, and people like me (poor, not-properly-connected, non-military and without a scholarship) were not among them. My high school counselor directly expressed this opinion during my senior year in high school and pointedly refused to help me apply to college (any college). There were other teachers (and adults) who made similar opinions clear…but those are stories will have to wait for another day. Suffice it to say that during my first semester at University, a few authority figures made it clear they agreed with the you-don’t-belong-here sentiment. This prejudiced resistance led to my continued reliance on a long-standing habit of ‘passing’ as the ‘middle class white girl.’

Fast forward to late in the spring semester of  freshman year (1988). The weather was warm and the trees had their leaves. A little after 1:00 AM, I went for a run in the neighborhoods adjacent to the University.

It was late.
It was dark.
I was alone.
I was wearing spandex.

In other words, I was doing everything women are told not to do. It was a risk I’d chosen to (repeatedly) take, despite the dangers, for two reasons: 1) college was a stressful never-ending cycle of very late nights, which made it almost-impossible for me to sleep without an end-of-day run and 2) Oshkosh was the safest place I’d lived in for several years.

I was several blocks away when I spotted them and half a block closer when they spotted me. A group of men were sitting in a car parked beside a playground. Their drunken voices were occasionally interrupted by the sound of empty liquor bottles smashing against the ground. The crash of breaking glass was unmistakable, but the voices were what caught my attention. I couldn’t make out the words, only the sound of drunken men getting excited about something. One of them leaned out a car window and glanced in my direction. We made eye contact and I knew exactly what was coming next.

A potentially fatal moment of hesitation occurred as the street-wise poverty-survivor proceeded to push the ‘proper middle class’ persona into the background. This was not a college classroom or an administrative office, this was a nearly deserted city street and I was faced with an extremely dangerous situation. Predators had spotted me. Action had to be taken, but which action?

Proper middle class female college students choosing to take a risky run, alone, after midnight, all follow the same rules – stick to safe, well lit roads in populated areas. Good girls do not run in shadows.

I was on the appropriate well-lit path…and the drunks in the car were pulling away from the curb.

Proper middle class girls do not leave the lighted path, they keep their eyes on the sidewalk and ‘ignore’ the men until they ‘go away;’ just keep going, trust in the rule of law and it’s ability to protect.

My real self was neither proper nor middle class. I knew better.

Ducking down the first dark side road I came to, I scanned the area for a place to run and felt the first real shock of fear: the houses were built into low but surprisingly steep hills and divided by fences. Being cornered here meant climbing a hill and a fence to get away. Yet, the streetlights were burned out and every house had turned off both interior and exterior lights, making it comfortingly dark – they couldn’t catch what they couldn’t see.

Picking up speed, I made for the end of the street which was equally dark, turned right and felt a moment of relief as the sidewalk leveled out and opened up. This area presented many options for both running and hiding, all of them lit by a small number of street lights. I could make it back to campus, almost entirely in  shadows, in a reasonably short period of time. If the drunks found me, I had options for escape.

This realization was interrupted by a second stabbing of fear as the car slowly drove by the side street I’d just left. I’d seen them watching me when I took the turn. One of the drunks was leaning out a window, craning his neck and peering into the shadows. He was looking for something.

Looking for me.

They kept driving. I don’t know how far they went before giving up, but it was many long minutes before I saw the car double back towards the park at a much faster pace, with voices and music returned to full party-mode.

Later, safe in my dorm, I stretched, changed and re-lived the entire experience. Only one fear remained: what if someone saw?

I couldn’t risk being exposed as both lower class and street wise. I do not have a criminal history, my pre-college grades were (despite all odds) good-enough to get in and remained good-enough to graduate. There were no legitimate legal, behavioral or academic reasons for making me leave school. Sadly, these kinds of facts have no power over prejudice.

Standing there, alone in the dorm, I did not review the faces of potential rapists. What I saw were those specific individuals who had already tried to either prevent or end my college education.

Anyone dead-set on eliminating me from the student rosters had only one real option – create the illusion of scandal out of a toxic combination of truth, fiction and virulent gossip. If enough people believed I needed to be removed, then I would be removed. It was that simple. Thus far, those who disapproved had neither the reason nor the material to take up that kind of campaign. A story like this could provide enough ammunition to inspire wicked action.

Call it paranoia, but I had already lived through and witnessed this exact scenario, and all of it’s devastating results, multiple times. It was possible, but was it probable?

Finishing college was my one and only goal. Literally. I had no post-college plans. That meant convincing the powers-that-be that I belonged there…or, at least, wasn’t worth close examination.

Reporting the incident, talking about what happened and how I handled it, admitting to having the skills required to survive that kind of situation as a direct result of surviving it prior to entering college…this was what I feared.

The exhausting act of ‘passing’ had significantly affected my youth. Here in the halls of higher education it continued to infuse every breath and color every thought. My faux ‘proper middle class white girl’ persona slowly crept back into place and asked one stupid question: how did I know how to do that? Of course, I knew the answer; but I also knew the game. The stakes were too high. It was time to keep silent and, if necessary, play dumb.

Predatory Excuse Making

Over the past few decades, I’ve made a few attempts to talk about this experience with a variety of different people. What I find most disturbing about these conversations are the most common responses provided by other women:

  • Nothing happened so they probably weren’t really after you.
  • If they’d wanted to do something, they would have caught you.
  • You’re being so negative, what if they were really nice?
  • They were probably just trying to help you.
  • You’re looking at it wrong.
  • You don’t know they were after you. Maybe they were looking for something else.
  • You’re exaggerating.
  • You made it up, that didn’t happen; if it had, you’d be dead.

I’ve had similar conversations with men, some of whom were members of various security and protection services (e.g.: police, martial arts, etc.), and the most common reaction was this: you’re lucky to be alive.

I include this information here because I believe it’s an extremely important aspect to rape culture. Not only do we teach our children do not get raped instead of do not rape; we also train women to discount the experiences of others and view potentially deadly situations through a dangerously distorted lens.

This is an example of something I call predatory excuse making. Sometimes people do it will full knowledge and ill-intent (e.g.: accessory to a crime). Sometimes it’s a response to complimentary manipulation (e.g.: I can’t believe that person would do something like that). Sometimes it’s born out of culturally enforced ignorance, naivete or an inability to face facts (see above).

The only people who benefit from predatory excuse making are the predators.

Think about that.