Preliminary Notes NCORE (day 1/PM)



In-between sessions, I usually take a 10-15 walk out on the harbor, where’ it’s always hazy and very humid.  Can’t see the Washington Monument behind the wall of haze.

Another note: I’m totally surprised that at such an expensive conference about Race & Ethnicity, several systemic realities give me pause:  in the conference center, internet access has to be purchased (I don’t); coffee is put out twice a day, then quickly removed; no water anywhere, except near bathrooms; the food in this disneyesque place is very, very expensive (I’ve heard from people counting pennies) and, other than last night, nothing in terms of food is provided (most people have out of pocket expenses and we’re not all exactly rich; besides, this really hurts all organizations that are vanguard, on the margins, that might contribute to these conversations — who is being left out? I wonder).  This note/thought makes me think critically about the role of NCORE in the work towards a more equal world along race and ethnic lines.

Anway, on the way to 90, let’s get going…

2:30-4:0 (Potomac Ballroom C/Convention Center, Level 2)
A Conversation with Beverly Guy-Sheftall (Spelman Faculty for 39 years)

Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women’s Equality in African American Communities, I am Your Sister: Selected and Unpublished Works of Audre Lorde

Book: Who Should Be First (released in August)


•    Not possible to do anything with Audre Lorde without having her words in the the room
•    “Reflections”, by Audre Lorde (papers held at Spelman College); Alice Walker wrote a piece called, “Audre’s Voice.”  bell hooks, “Lorde of the Imagination of Justice.”
•    A “reading” (Sheftall read from Lorde) notes:
*Affect change for a livable future.  Black, feminine, socialist poet, lesbian, mother – defined as inferior or just wrong
*Opression has no hierarchy.  Heterosexism: superiority of loving of one form over another.  Racism – one race over other and believes in its right to dominate
*No aspect of the self can profit from oppression, particularly when seeking the right to peaceful existence
*Whether there is oppression, black people can be victims
*Any attack on the black community is an attack on gay and lesbian, because “I am” both
*Anti – black is anti gay : cannot fight only one form of oppression; when they appear to destroy me, they appear to destroy “you”
•    Lorde looms large b’cause she understood that there are no hierarchies of oppression
•    Guy-Sheftall: wants to start with a convesation. Lorde was the first “out” black feminist.  First Lorde visit to Spelman was very controversial, and the Woman’s Center was asked whether it was prepared to be always be associated with lesbianism.  Before 1996, had never had an African American female president.  Spelman was founding in 1881.  President Cole was progressive – global and anti imperialist, anti oppression, and a self-identified feminist.  Cole established a reading at her home and invited Audre Lorde to the campus – a controversial gathering.  First person to come to the campus to speak about all her identities.  A student began to cry during Lorde’s talk.  Audre asked her to come and sit with her and hugged her.  Audre’s visits to Spelman helped transform the school and give power to the Woman’s Center.  Radical, black feminist work has not always been embraced, even at a woman’s college, Spelman.  Still operationalizing the work of Audre Lorde.  Work of Lorde is groundbreaking and still very important and relevant.

The Conversation

•    Over the past 30 years, women’s studies have been transformed.  Theorizing has not made its way to the public sphere. Hillary Clinton is categorized as a woman, not a white, middle class woman. Obama was constructed as an African American, primarily.  The 2008 presidential debates was one of the most contentious moments among feminists; hostility took place in women studies program; forced many of to raise the question, “what happened?”  30 years of theorizing seemed not to make its way to the media, to even feminists in the classroom.  Kimberly Crenshaw and Guy-Sheftall and Gloria Steinem convened a meeting in NYC. The Nation published overview of the meeting. Douglas and feminist debate that took place over the 15th Amendment needed to be revisited.  Media does not get intersection theories.  We seem to slip into old paradigms to talk about race.
•    Connection btwn Audre’s essay and what happened to presidential candidate?  Very few groups that are fighting for liberation are progressive on all fronts.  Groups can be radical about one issue, i.e. race movement was strong on issues of racism, but totally oblivious to issues of feminism.  Nothing peculiar about feminist. They have to be pulled, too, into an intersection or areas about race.  Disappointing when people are committed to only one issue, rather than all the issues pertaining to liberation. Progressive black folks were willing to support a totally unprogressive Clarence Thomas.  Lorde attacked all issues of oppression.
•    2008 debate and the national media: press keen on highlighting the split btwn students who supported Clinton, in Spelman, and those that supported Obama.  Where are these students now?  Students have yet to internalize the intersectional approach.  Obama was almost a taboo subject to speak about; could not speak about what might happen or emerge should Obama be president. This could not be talked about.  Racism, at the time, was on the internet, circulating in disgusting ways and never made it to the mainstream.  People are now surprised about racism, particularly in the Tea Party.
•    Michele Obama experienced racism and sexism in obvious ways.  She experiences tremendous commentary about her body, particularly her butt.  Over referencing of the first lady’s body, who can’t escape the gaze.  References to skin color, hair clips, etc.
•    How did “Precious” end up in the movie theaters?  Why Lee Daniels chose to do “Precious”?  Movie would have been a sleeper if it wasn’t for Oprah.  Has to be factored into analysis.  We all share incest, survival narratives.  The “obsession”, almost, that majority white audiences have with the film, “Precious.”  The Bush women had parties in their homes to show the film: if you want to understand black life, look at this film.  Coverage of Precious is quite obsessive in mainstream media.  It’s an old pathological black family narrative. Every imaginable pathology is in that film.  In the novel, Precious does not weigh 350 pounds.  Lee Daniels chose the character: we have to raise questions of Daniels, Tyler Perry, Oprah and the white woman who raised money for it?
•    What does it mean to have the Obamas in the White House and Precious?  What does it mean that a a gay African American male is associated with Monster’s Ball and Precious?  We have to also add the black and white consumer public.  Commercial success came when Oprah endorsed the film.  These are not pathological narrative being created outside the community; the issue is the persistence of these narratives that have no counter narrative.  (A mother daughter incest is very unusual.  The monstrous black mother is another persisten theme, the quintessential horrible mother in the public’s mind. In the novel there is no root to this behavior. Safire, the author, doesn’t help us see who she is.)
•    Back to Lorde’s visit to Spelman: the school is a very gentile place.  There has been some critique among progressive African Americans around ways in which the Obama family gets constructed in the media as the perfect heterosexual couple – perfect wife and two children reinforces the dominant heteropatriarchal family, which eliminates us from having the freedom to see other black families, constructed in different ways.  Obama represents any antithesis that anyone may have about men.  Relieves women from the notion that there are “no men out there.”  What is the impact within the black community of this overwhelming notion that Obama is this quintessential man?  Media coverage makes it impossible to think of families in any other way – privileges heteronormaty.  A more nuances, complex analysis creates problems – but it’s almost impossible for us to think about it right now.
•    When did we as a race (black Americans) move away from our own measurements?  People have made a lot of Obama’s skin color and his biracial background – but if he was not married with two perfect children, he would never have been in the White House.  Obama fits the normative that Lorde is always railing against.  Michele had to play the role of the traditional wife – unfortunate that you have to be a particular kind of wife: she is no longer the career woman; talks about the importance of her role as mother.  The discourse had to be recrafted: supportive wife that follows very traditional gender roles.  Even the issues she’s taken up – gardening, childhood obesity, not violence against women, for instance.  Feminists believe that this is crafted. Early on she was henpecking Obama; she was toned down, even in body language.  Her aggressive, black woman’s speech had to be toned down.  Lorde would say that these are the only options as first lady.  Michele was willing; she had to become something else, givent he negative PR she was having.   Negative, particularly among average white women.  She had to be recrafted to be more palatible. Gender – race issues around this issue that are very problematic.  Cultural narrative as black women as ball busting, controling – not a construction that’s around from white women.
•    Lorde would be saying that there is a “norm” out there that have to be adhered to – and we have to think about this.  She would be paying attention to what Obama is saying about race, gender and sexuality.  She would be looking at all the progressive issues Obama’s has taken up; she’d be placed on some, not pleased on others, such as Obama’s position on Afghanistan.  Bothered about the long term stay in Afghanistan and militarism.
•    Back to Michele and her agency in dealing with her image: are moments of agency resistance?  There’s no question about Michele’s agency; however, anyone in the White House cannot operate their radical politics because of constraints.  Obama is the Commander in Chief and Michele will stay away from highly controversial issues that can get Obama in trouble; she’ll exercise her agency in areas that won’t create controversy.  There are positions that they cannot publicly annouce.
•    CLOSING: Audre Lorde’s Oberlin Speech (1989), a Reading

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