Archive for questions

14. Smart ugly?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 4, 2008 by alexis

\”We discovered that all of us, because we were \”smart\” had also been considered \”ugly,\” i.e. \”smart-ugly.\” \”Smart-ugly\” crytallized the way in which most of us had been forced to develop out intellects at great cost to our \”social\” lives. The sanctions in the Black and white communities against Black women thinkers is comparatively much higher than for white women, particularly ones from the educated middle and upper classes.\”

Hmmm.  What do we think? What are the economies of beauty, privilege and intelligence at work in our communities and movements?

Radical educator artist and writer Kameelah Rasheed says

Artist, Writer and Educator Kameelah Rasheed

Artist, Writer and Educator Kameelah Rasheed

we are the \’kinda cute nerdy black girls in glasses with the big asses.\’  we sneak to read pages of academic books hidden in fashion magazine covers and we sway in our silk stockings with golden seams as does nina simone\’s see-line woman.  we smile reluctantly while questioning the politics of gendered vulnerability.  we intimately know how we are treated when we are cute and quiet and we know that within a split second we can become ugly and undesirable if we use a polysyllable word or concession clause.  we know our partners would prefer us more soft spoken.  we know that the day we chose books over lipstick and wrote manifestas on any open space that we found that were choosing a lonely path.  it was/is lonely because we never knew where the \’weird\’ black girls hide out.  they are are scattered throughout the diaspora, tucked in corners where mail and internet cannot reach.  they wander if we exist too.

knowing this

we learned to shuck n\’ jive, veiling our opposition under layers of ambiguous sentences, demure smiles, and pants just tight enough to hint at a desireable feminity because we still yearned be seen beyond the duality of smart-ugly.  we pretended to not know the importance of the sepoy mutiny in india\’s colonial history, hesitated to explain the nuances of electron configuration, and feigned ignorance when asked about the pivotal moments in south africa\’s liberation movement.  we let him talk even as our faces are flushed with anger because we do not want to seem \’too aggressive.\’  we go to sephora when we really want to hit up that used book store down the street.  when we get home we eagerly plunge into books and other texts trying to reconnect with the parts of souls we abandoned for some semblance of belonging.  we attempt to exorcise our collective demons by seeking desperate refuge in paul beatty\’s \’neighborhood safe houses on the ghetto geeks\’ underground railroad\’ only to realize such sanctuary leads to more pain when we are called up for yet another performance.  we learn the grammar of smart-ugly politics at 8 years old.  we don\’t write down rules, rather these rules are written on our bodies and in the faces of folks who give askew glances when we walk out the mall with books instead of dresses.  we perform our blackness, our womanhood, our existence because to be smart-ugly is like permanent exile.  never fully accepted in the communities of other women and far too \’smart\’ to be authentically black, we are forced into limbo.  but limbo is the space of opportunity and dare i saw privilege.  to be in limbo is resist the satanic incantation that our female bodies cannot carry intellect as heavy as our thighs and as broad as our hips. ida b. wells gave a damn if they called her ugly because she had more important things to do.

and as queengodis wrote in 1991,

and while he was busy detesting yo\’ mama
for being so \’damn ugly\’–
she was busy building the underground railroad…

to be smart-ugly is to be a unspoken threat.

we are the beautiful black women whose light they fear.  instead of fanning our flames, they sought to extinguish our fire by calling us ugly so that we\’d be distract from the duties our ancestors and creator laid at our feet.  they sought to turn our attention away from survival and collective healing.  they saw beauty in us before we saw it in ourselves but named it ugliness in hopes that we\’d never reunite with this sacred knowing.  \’ugly\’ is the cry of the fearful who pray that we never recognize ourselves.

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15. Masculinities

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 4, 2008 by alexis

“We have a great deal of criticism and loathing for what men have been socialized to be in this society: what they support, how thy act, and how they oppress.  But we do not have the misguided notion that it is their maleness, per se -i.e., their biological maleness-that makes them what they are.  As Black women we find any type of biological determinism a particularly dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic.”

People sometimes think that gender is biologically based. that being a “man” in the way that society values a particular kind of masculinity is rooted in DNA, programed into our very beings as humans. The collective isn’t so sure. If you look around the world and the country you’ll see all different ways that masculinity is performed, not just by men but by so called biological women as well.

What does your culture or community mark as masculinity?

What do you think about the markers? Are they only for men? Are they useful characteristics for men to possess?

How would you want masculinity to look?

Is this different from what femininity should look like?


What do we actually have to do if we say that biological maleness and masculinity are not the same thing?

What new models of masculinity do queer and trans masculinities open up?

C. Riley Snorton is a radical intellectual

C. Riley Snorton is a radical intellectual

C. Riley Snorton, a scholar, activist and filmmaker who engages queer masculinities in his work provides the following thoughts:
Masculinity is always an unstable term–its relational nature suggests that it shifts and moves differently across communities and cultures.   Its instability also relates to the ways in which various cultures and communities seek to produce, maintain, and police masculinities even as any definition of the term dissolves under closer scrutiny.  For example, in many societies, there is a collapse in distinctions between “male,” “man,” and “masculine.”  These collapsed designations play out in encounters with medical personnel or in one’s local barbershop.  Similarly, societies organized under heteropatriarchy are interested in proscribing and circumscribing articulations of femininity—that is to say that controlling women becomes part of the project of stabilizing masculinity.  Hence it is often important to refuse conversations that assume (without problematizing or critique) the need to rescue the always-already black man in crisis.  These types of conversations do in fact draw on both a politics of respectability and forms of racialized nationalisms that seek to regulate and control (often through disavowal) gender multiplicity, femininity, and gender non-conformity.  Queer and trans masculinities do not presume a feminist politic, but are surveilled and subject to similar regimes of power that seek to constrain women’s lives.

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17. Being Difficult: Questions

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 4, 2008 by alexis

“We have found that it is very difficult to organize around Black feminist issues, difficult even to announce in certain contexts that we are Black feminists.”


What desire, anxiety, hope and love do you feel towards fellow members of your oppressed group?

What’s a time when you could not speak your political stance out loud? What caused that? What would it take to make your vision more speakable?

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“The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address a whole range of oppressions. We do not have racial, sexual, heterosexual or class privilege to rely upon, nor do we have even the minimal access to resources and power that groups who possess any one of these types of privilege have.”

One of the biggest ways that the Combahee River Collective has impacted the world is the development of what some call an “intersectional” political practice. This is a belief that all forms of oppression are linked and that in order to rebuild the world in the image of our own miraculousness we need to work together to work at the place where different oppressions meet.

The “major source of difficulty” that the collective members point out remains today. Those of us working to transform the world often lack many privileges and don’t have access to power because of who we are and the work that we do. And, even within our movement we have different levels of privilege of power.

Use the space below to imagine some ways that we can use our privileges creatively? (from driving a car, access to education, technological skills, connections to people with wealth, to citizenship, race, class and gendered privilege) What are ways that we can build power without access to the rewards of the society we are intending to replace with our radical vision?

Alba Onfrio is a Queer Radical Southern Missionary

Alba Onfrio is a Queer Radical Southern Missionary

For example Alba Onfrio of Southerners on New Ground says,

Use the space below to imagine some ways that we can use our privileges creatively? (from driving a car, access to education, technological skills, connections to people with wealth, to citizenship, race, class and gendered privilege) What are ways that we can build power without access to the rewards of the society we are intending to replace with our radical vision?

Sitting at the feet of an amazing elder, Pat Hussain, she once told me that the thing about privilege is that “you can either spend it or you can waste it, but ya’ can’t give it away.”

Growing up with a coal miner’s daughter, I learned real fast that you use what you got, that’s how you get what you need to get by, and as the youngest of eight, growing up as a sickly child in an Appalachian family, what she had was manipulation, and she taught me it well. In those sweet, Southern arms she had the power to control life and death. Protocol and gentility never wavered in our home, and it is there that I learned that the power to inflict the most pain did not, in fact, lie with the one who has the biggest stick, but with she who truly knows your soul and can crush your spirit with a word.  Let them do for you and pay for you and carry the heavy stuff and call you darlin’, not because you can’t carry the load yourself(that’s beside the point) or because you like it(even if you do), you let them do it because it makes them feel important and needed, but you’d better be paying close attention because if you ever have to do for yourself(which you will), you damn well better know how to do it without asking for help. That’s where the power lies—in your survival, and that’s what they can never know… until it’s too late. The secret truth that we are all we need, and we can make it.

Now I’m a thrifty shopper, but I like to spend my privilege strategically, subversively, and when it’s done to perfection, well, my, it is delicious! I don’t know if she knew it or not, I think maybe she did, but as they were correcting the “fer” in my accented speech, and making me set that 10-piece place setting for dinner, and that tea party for my tenth birthday, and read Miss Manners with my feet crossed at the ankles… those were all the lessons I could never learn in school. Did she really want me to aspire to that? or did she know that the propriety I learned would inevitably mix with the mental agility and femininity I was honing? Those grammar rules and that proper English… I use them to teach our beautiful, struggling “illegals” how to use those words to survive, and those dresses and stockings and heels… I wear them proudly as I get on my knees to give my lovers pleasure, to enjoy my own lust as it runs down my thigh to greet them. And those manners for that fancy dinner party? Why, yes, thank you for asking, I use those too and that $120K piece of paper from Duke; I use them to infiltrate space they would never let us in if they knew who I really was, and while I sip that expensive wine; I listen; I study; I learn, and as I thank them for the wonderful evening, I strategize how best to use it in their demise. The revolution is not coming, my dear, it is here, and while I fight for its swift collapse, I have to disclose that this system of oppression does well by me, in so many ways, and then I remember that even though the promised land is intimidating because I can’t always see it, these moments I feel so connected to you make me willing to spend every ounce I’ve got for the chance of getting us to freedom.  And as I’m sitting in that pew, calling on those verses I learned so long ago and asking God for the faculty and opportunity to convince them of our worthiness to exist, as queers, as women, as people of color, as refugees, I am also asking for strength to keep spending this privilege and thanking God every day for letting me find you along the way.

song_logo_2-Alba Onofrio, January 16, 2009