A raw excerpt, from a longer piece I’ve started on what I have learned from working in the field of preventing sexual violence and violence against women. Enjoy!
What have I learned by working in this field?
The easy answer is a lot. I’ve learned a lot. A lot about myself, specifically my upbringing, and those lessons that were passed down to me, reinforcing the idea that women are objects – not subjects, but rather, things in the form of sexual commodities.
How many girls you got, Ab, I was asked countless times by older guys on the block, encouraging me to have not just one girl, but several. Years later, those comments would turn into You hit that yet, which was code for, did you have sex with her. Not, Did you two have sex, which commands equality. Rather, Did you have sex with her. Meaning, did you do whatever it is you wanted to do to her sexually. She has no sexual needs, no emotions. She doesn’t even have to have a name. She only needed to have a fat ass that I was supposed to tap, hit, or smash.
After being in this field, however, I have been told that I should simply refute and reject these teaching, as if it were that simple. As misguided as these teachings are, it is not a matter as simple as flicking on a light switch – Click. I will no longer treat women like sex objects.
As in, after attending some training or hearing a speaker, my world is supposed to open up so much so that I change everything about the way in which I see the world, in particularly, my view of women. And if, for instance, an attractive woman is in my vicinity (whether it be Jennifer Lopez on the TV screen or someone at the gym), I am not supposed to gawk at them (rightfully so!); more than that, I am not even supposed to notice them, because even noticing that Jennifer Lopez has a voluptuous physique is objectifying.
Herein lies the complexity of it all. If we are able to freely admit that men’s sexual objectification of women takes years to formulate (and if cannot admit this, we are not critically assessing the situation), we must – in turn – acknowledge that it will take a significant amount of teaching and instruction for guys to unlearn their objectifying values and adopt new ways of behaving. If I’ve learned nothing else, it is that we should be patient when working with men.
Now, this isn’t to say that we should not continue to hold men accountable for fawning over the Jennifer Lopez doppelganger, for instance. Because we should. Accountability is one avenue for behavior change. But how we hold men account needs to come in different forms. Smacking men (figuratively) with verbal insults creates a divide, pitting men on one side, and everyone else looking to change men’s behavior on another side. Telling men that they need to change without acknowledging the complexities of it all (for instance, how media uses men’s values and caters by giving sexual images of female entertainers) is shortsighted. We must approach this as a critical issue, not one with a simple solution. Further, demanding that men change their behaviors towards women (in this case, sexual objectification) without giving healthy alternates is limiting. If we want men to behave better, we should provide examples, namely: how do we show men they can express an attraction to someone, while not treating that person as if they are only a fat ass or pair of perky boobs? How do we teach men they can give a compliment, while not harboring feelings being entitled to attention? How do we teach men they can express themselves sexually, while not treating the person as though their only role is sexual?
Too many times, we present men with what we think is a powerful message – in the form of a one-time speaker, which really just becomes a great optic. But as with many speakers, as time passes and luster of the words fade, behaviors return to the status quo. If we are to help men move along the continuum of seeing, and treating women more respectfully, empathically, equally, we should exhibit patience. If you have a guy in your life, it may take several conversations for that guy to see the issue with gawking at women at the gym. (They may never see the harm.) If you work with young men, it may take numerous programs and events before those guys have a true understanding of how they sexually objectify women without even knowing it. Just like exercising, getting men to change their objectifying behaviors will take repetitions, exposure to new ways of thinking (akin to muscle confusion), and further repetitions. This is not a process that will come about instantaneously like jello pudding, and we must remain cognizant of that. Through it all, we must be patient. Holding men accountable while exhibiting patience.
Oh, and just in case there is any confusion – the message is intended for men, not women. I am not asking women to exhibit patience with men’s behaviors, just like I would never ask our LGBT brothers and sisters to be patient (that is, content) with homophobic acts by the heterosexual majority. So I am speaking to me (primarily), and professionals who work with men (secondarily), to exude patience in getting men to change. In the end, we will not see results overnight. But the lessons we teach now, have the potential to last a lifetime.
Boy did I need a fix today. The white canvass of a blank screen is my drug. Seeing blank print on this screen is like my high – it takes me far away to a magical place where I have no worries (or at least they don’t worry me as much), where positive vibes are the only sensation running through my body, where I can feel, completely and utterly, safe. Safe to just be. Safe to be me. Years ago, in a distant world, it would have been a notepad and a pen. Now it’s a computer screen, providing me a fix.
We all need something to help us cope with the stressors. Nothing is absolute, so maybe not everyone needs something; but I sure as hell do. My father-in-law would say you need something to take the edge off. I guess he’s right…sort of. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many of my family members, and my friends’ family members, hooked on drugs that I could never understand turning to a substance to ease the pain. I remember my uncle getting into heated arguments with my grandmother, past midnight, walking up the whole block. Shouting, cursing. Talking about what she better not do, spitting off about when he is going to do. He was a high as he wanted to be. Probably off hair-ron…or as it is classically known, heroin. Those memories are burned within my conscious, the way an animal would be branded by its owner.
Still, taking the edge off isn’t what it’s like for me. Neither is it as described in New Jack City, when Pookie cried out, “but that shit just be callin’ me man, it be callin’ me.” That which gets my high isn’t calling me, I’m calling it. Feeling all sorts of mixed up inside, with an irritating itch, and only thing can scratch it. To be taken away from this world, even for a brief period of time. To let go of the inner strife – the frustrations and anger and disappointment – if but for a moment. To feel safe enough to just be, and just be me.
So right now, I don’t need a shot or a drink or a glass of wine. That would only make me resent the amount of time I’d have to work out, to work off the calories. No, I just need the white canvass and the blank print. Because what happened today, was some bullshit.
Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” inspired this piece. This poem isn’t so much of a rebuttal (or in any way disrespectful) to Master Angelou’s brilliant work. Instead, it’s meant to be a different take on a caged bird singing, which I felt like, years ago, when I couldn’t find a job for about half a year, and it seemed nothing was going my way. As with many difficult times, you go through a series of ups and downs. On the good days, I could tell myself to remain optimistic and felt like “Caged Birds” Angelou writes about. On the bad days, though, I felt defeated and downtrodden, like this bird.
“Please don’t tell me the Caged Bird Sings”
I often wonder what a bird trapped inside of a cage does all day;
Sitting on his perch…rocking back and forth…chirping as if someone is listening;
Looking at the same four walls,
Sick of the hideous green paint and yellow wallpaper.
I bet monotony soon sets in – perch…food pellets…water beaker…crash against the bars…perch…food pellets…water beaks…crash against the bars…
His arms probably feel heavy as lead,
Every time he flaps those wings,
He smacks his beak against the cage,
Reminding himself that he’s a prisoner to the cage.
He chirps high and loud, like birds singing in the trees,
And I wonder if he ever thinks, or imagines, or dreams
What it must feel like to be free;
Does he know what it feels like to have the wind blowing against his feathers as he soars through the sky;
Or to own the skies and have it play second fiddle to a show where he is the brightest star;
Or to fly all the way up to the sun, and kiss her on the cheek, and feel her radiance against his breath.
The caged bird doesn’t move much – perch…food pellets…water beaker…crash again the bars…
He listens to their callous laughter, patronizing tweets, and chitter-chatter of how content he should be;
As if they’ve already forgotten what it’s like to gulp mouthfuls of air,
That tastes so pure, and clean, and fresh,
The way he only hears about on those infomercials, which drown out his nightly chirping spree.
The caged bird sits on his branch,
Sulking, and swinging back and forth,
Dreaming what it must feel like to be free,
Just to drown out the voices screaming inside of his head
Please don’t tell me that you hear the caged bird singing.
I am that caged bird,
And I am screaming,
And dreaming for the day my soul will find freedom.
As I continue working on A Matter of Semantics second edition, a NEW lesson has worked its way into the revisions. Here are parts of that new lesson, raw and uncut. Enjoy!
But, if you want this unforgettable, magical, intoxicating sort of college experience, you have to do it right, and give the experience all that you have – the full complement of your time, energies, and focus, as though you were in a monogamous relationship. You have to take advantage of the myriad of opportunities your college experience will present and afford you and not just those that are within your comfort zone. You have to allow yourself the ability to transform as a result of the experiences you will encounter, and not fight reality when you realize you have grown into someone new, someone different, or someone your high school friends no longer recognize.
There is no underestimating the impact of the college experience. It has the ability to change your life, for the better.
This life lesson – of dedicating yourself completely, fully, unselfishly – one you can carry with you in every facet of life. Whether you’re in a committed relationship, on a sports team, involved in an organization, or pursuing graduate studies. If you want to get the most out of those experiences, you have to commit yourself.
Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with being content with your backup role on the soccer team, for instance. Nothing wrong with playing for the sake of playing or just to have fun. Nothing wrong, whatsoever, with being on a team, in an organization, or in a relationship just for the experience of it all.
But if you want get the most out of your involvement on that team, organization, relationship, or in this case, college experience, you have to give yourself the permission to be vulnerable and allow the experience to transform you in ways you never thought possible. You have to give yourself – completely, fully, and unselfishly – to the experience. In short, you have to do it right, and that means going all in.
I attended a powerful student event, yesterday. A group of students organized a rally, of sorts. Whereby all members of the campus community where invited to a forum, where students shared their experiences of discrimination or discomfort, feelings of shame and self-hatred, as related to being a part of the campus community. One student shared an experienced he’d had where a faculty member questioned him, to his face, as to whether he was an engineering major. As if students in the engineering program couldn’t be black. Another student shared her feelings of not belonging – for, although she identifies as Korean, she does not identify with the culture and experiences and expectations of other Korean students. How she has no place to call home. How she doesn’t even know who she is.
These stories resonated with me, loud and clear. Bringing me back to my college experience. I had decided to join the Black Student Union after attending the first meeting where one of the members shared an ugly experience where a fellow student had called her a nigger. It was then that I made it my personal mission to stamp out every discriminatory act I encountered. More than that, I made up my mind that this was my fight. Fighting for equal treatment of those who were marginalized, although I wouldn’t have used that term at the time. I probably would have said second-class citizens. Because that’s what it felt like – all the students of a certain race, or sexual orientation, or religion were of first class, and here we were, the second class. Three-fifths of a person. Looked over, like we were not even there sometimes. Not treated with respect. Not not because we were different – the guy with the tattoo and the girl with the Boston accent were different – but because we were them, those people, their kind, the Others.
And I thought back to friends I’d made in college. Most of whom were surface-level. Non-threatening conversations such as I’m having a party toorrow, you should come by. Then there were a few that were deep and meaningful friendships, where we shared experiences shared of abusive fathers, tumultuous families, even cancer. The drug addictions that rocked my family, being broke as a joke (when it seemed that everyone around me had money to burn), raised by a single mom. With my closest of friends whenever we discussed these matters, I remember feeling comforted knowing that even though my friends who were White didn’t know what it was like to be black, and thus, marginalized or second-class, they never downplayed my experiences. That even if they were ignorant about certain matters dealing with unequal treatment of Black and Brown people, at the very least, they were willing to listen and learn about those experiences. Even though I could not connect with most of my friends on a racial level, I connected with them over shared experiences of feeling like an outcast (for different reasons). I remember my friends allowing me to be myself: “I talk like I walk, with a fucked up pivot”, a line from a song I’d listened to a thousand times describes it pretty well.
But probably the one sentiment that stuck with me the most from that student event, is the sense of not being able to put down my weight not for any kind of brief reprieve, not even for a second. I can’t undo the color of my skin, nor would I want to. I can’t undo the unjust treatment of my ancestors, no matter how much I wish I could. Similarly, I can’t stop myself from thinking, breathing, and seeing the world through a lens that tells me I am an Other, no matter how clearly the Declaration of Independence reads all men are treated equal.
From a pragmatic perspective, this means I can’t not help but feel the stares and glares I receive in certain communities, when I’m just trying to buy a pack of gum. I can’t not express frustration over the senseless killing of Black and Brown folks, not only by police officers, but also by other Black and Brown folk. I can’t not speak up about president candidates who fail to recognize the systematic discriminatory treatment of people of color, women, and our LGBT brothers and sisters, and how their slogans may as well be, Working for a Whiter America. I can’t not do all of those things, and countless others, because I live them, on a daily basis. See, every day I’m reminding that I’m black, and that I don’t quite belong, and that is part of the pressure, or weight, that I feel.
So I thank my college friends for letting me be me, and listening to my stories and for sharing their journeys with me. For accepting and celebrating my plight, just I accepted and celebrated theirs. For standing by me (and even sticking up for me when necessary), and all of my Blackness, just as I stood beside them.
But like a game of tennis, I can’t help but go back and forth. I can’t help think how I might react if some punk assaults my daughter. Rage. Or how I might respond if some coward with a gun shoots my son, for no other reason than being a Black man. Fire. Or how I might spiral out of control if some cop throws my daughter across a classroom. Wrath.
I wish I didn’t think about these things, but I do. The reality is… no, my reality is these instances could happen to me because of the color of my skin. But, they may not happen to someone else for that same reason. Which, on the one hand, is great. It’s utterly fantastic and progressive that someone can go to school, be disobedient, and even disrespectful, and not have to worry about being Tased, or thrown, or killed. On the other than, as a responsible parent, I have to have those conversations with my children. About how the mere color of their skin will determine the unjust treatment they receive.
No, I don’t want to think about how I might react if someone harms my children, or my wife, or my family simply because they are one of the Others. But I do. It’s become part of my weight. That which fills my conscious, casting aside happier thoughts I could have about vacationing in Hawaii, on a beach, under the blue skies, on a perfect day.
It’s my weight, and it means when I speak with my realtor about finding a place to live, we have to talk about diversity. While I can’t protect my family from all the evils of life, I’ll be damned if I live in a community where neighbors bear, wave, or otherwise celebrate the Confederate flag. My weight also means nurturing those friendships that are deep and meaningful, and include tough conversations like one I had with my best friend – the double whammy I felt years ago when I was jobless. Being Black AND unemployed. All the rhetoric of country says that you should be able to get a job. But, for the life of me, for a six month period of time, I could not. The rhetoric also says that Black folks who can’t find work are lazy parasites, mooching of the system. No matter how hard I tried to shake those thoughts, I could not. They reminded me daily that I was a failure.
But that’s my weight, and I accept it. Like the students who organized the event, I am not searching for someone with a magic pill to take the weight away, or even shoulder it from me while I catch my breath. Instead, I’m hoping that when I struggle from the weight of the weight, that my friends will ask how I’m doing, and not demand that I just need to catch up. Because it’s my weight. And if we’re going to be friends, I need more from you.
There’s nothing wrong with having Facebook friends – those people you rarely see, and even when you do, it’s surface level, how are you, knowing you really don’t want to know. But for my friends who want to really be friends with me – that is, a deep, meaningful connection – you can’t be scared to conversations simply because they are tough. Whether it’s about my drug-dealing step-father who was murdered, the terror and anger I feel every time another Black man is killed by a White cop, or even about how I am struggling, on a daily basis, to become more aware of my own male privileges. No, we must have those conversations if we are to be friends. Those are the thoughts running through my mind. I’m not asking that you agree with them. But, what I am asking, is that you learn to understand why it rocks me on my heels and shakes me to my core whenever another black man if killed by a White cop, or another teenage girl is sent home from the prom because her dress is too distracting, or another presidential candidate talks about deportation, or the woman who wouldn’t grant marriage licenses to LGBT couples. These are my realities. They’re weight that I cannot put down. Not even for a moment.
If you ever hit a point where you couldn’t walk, our friendship would mean sitting on your couch. If you ever hit a point where you couldn’t drink alcohol, our friendship would center around diet cokes and limes. Similarly, if we’re going to be friends, and I hope that we will be, I want you to know that you have to become comfortable letting my Blackness play out in whatever way that feels organic to me, comfortable discussing things that most people don’t want to talk about, and comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because that’s what I live, on a daily basis.
I’m taking it waaay back with this piece. This is one of the first stories I composed, in its original form, teenage voice, flaws and all. I was a high school senior and was given an assignment for my creative writing class. I’m not sure what my teacher was expecting, but this is the story that pour itself out, from inside of me. I hope you enjoy it!
The Long Way Home
Damn! I knew I should’a waited for the twenty-seven. I don’t feel like walking down this street, Victor says to himself while riding the bus back to his house. He looks out of the window and can hardly see anything; it’s very dark outside. His stop is nearing. Almost half-heartedly, Victor presses the bell which signals the bus driver that a passenger wants to get off. He slowly rises out of his slouched position and walks to the nearest exit. “Back Door” he yells while struggling to push the twin doors open. The bus driver presses a button on his control panel and with a slight touch, both doors open. Victor takes three steps downward onto the sidewalk, turns around, and waits for the bus pull off. He looks straight ahead. Across the street from the bus stop lies a vacant lot. Victor is all alone. He doesn’t like what he sees. He waits for the cars to pass, looks both ways, and begins his journey:
Complete darkness surrounds the city streets as Victor crosses over into the vacant lot. He again realizes he shouldn’t have taken the No. 13 bus; it may indeed be a long walk home. He could have waited another five minutes for the No. 27 bus that would have dropped him off around the corner from his house. Instead, Victor gave in to his impatience and settled for the long walk. He enters the lot which serves as a short-cut for two adjoining streets. He flows freely over dirt, candy wrappers, and empty crack viles. He trots around rocks, broken glass, and used condoms. The sounds of the streets play an unnerving tune on Victor’s ear drums. He hears random gun shots, police sirens, and skidding stolen cars. His taste buds are so displeased with disgust that he almost vomits. Yet, Victor calms himself and tries not to inhale the smells of piss (which has amassed from constant urination), feces (from stray dogs), and weed (from the people standing outside getting high). Despite the distractions, it’s simply Victor against his journey, one-on-one, man-to-man. He takes one last step out of the filth and escapes, though he’s far from relieved.
As he continues his journey, Victor comes across a frightening sight from his childhood: a circular, three story gray house surrounded by roaming cats. He always trembled upon sight of the house and tonight was no exception. Right next to the lifeless house lies a similar house with a rectangular shape and a huge side yard. A streetlight shines down in front of the rectangular house revealing its color, a dull green. Victor begins staring at the two house, noting their similarities and difference. Suddenly, he hears sounds of swift movement and chains rattling: “Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof!” Two humungous Rottweilers violently charge in Victor’s direction. He’s saved only by the gates which seals the beasts in their den. The dogs’ ferocious barks almost send Victor retreating to the opposite side of the street, nevertheless, causing him to walk with more caution and more quickly too.
Victor’s journey is almost over. He’s now able to see his house on a street which is otherwise, a ghost-town. However, darkness is still following him. All the streetlights are out, save three. A slight joyous feeling enters Victor’s body as he becomes more relieved. While looking about, grinning, and almost mocking the darkness and horrors of the streets, Victor notices a small animal lying on the ground. Somebody done ran over another damn cat, he says to himself, shaking his head in disappointment. The cat’s gray fur is torn and stained with its blood. The cat’s intestine, guts, and brains are all over the street. The feline’s internal organs hanging out look like spaghetti and Victor anticipates the horrible odor the corpse will give off. If I close my mouth and try not to inhale, I won’t even smell the dead cat, Victor says to himself. Victor takes a deep breath, performs the arduous task, and in an instant, it’s over. Ha! He laughs to himself knowing that he has the streets beaten.
As Victor heads for the home stretch, a car on the opposite side of the street drives slowly towards him. The car stops. A dark figure wearing a black leather jacket gets out. The figure begins to walk in Victor’s direction. Victor looks to his right, sees another vacant lot, and assumes the figure is going to take a leak. As suspected, the man in the black jacket darts towards the lot. He unzips his jeans and takes a piss. Steam rises above the figure in the cold air. The man in the black jacket turns around. He zips his zipper and walks back in the direction from which he came. On his way back, he stops just before Victor, unzips his jacket, and pulls out an enormous handgun.
“Come up off that cash now, motherfucka”, the man in the black jacket says. Suspecting that he sells drugs, the man demands Victor’s nightly earnings. He takes a step towards Victor. Victor can not see his face. He only sees a dark figure and the large gun.
“C-C-Cash…”, Victor replies.
“Yeah! That loot you just got finished making…Hand it over!” He takes another step towards Victor. Victor is now able to capture every detail of the weapon: as dark as night itself, its huge rectangular frame conjures thoughts of the house with the Rottweillers; it appears to be a .45mm pistol. The man’s finger is gently caressing the trigger. Victor pleads for his life. He’s so terrified that he can barely speak.
“I…I don’t got no loot. I just…I just got off the bus man. I don’t even clock”, Victor responds. He pulls his pockets from inside his pants. He offers a handful of lintballs.
“Then what the hell you doin’ out this time-a-night?!”
“I just…I just came from downtown. I had to walk my girl home”
The man in the black jacket stares blankly at Victor. Victor looks up at the man as if he was receiving communion from a priest. Time seems to stop. The man in the black jacket opens his mouth. Victor fears the result.
“Get the fuck out my face”, the man in the black coat utters.
Yes! He’s spared me, Victor thinks to himself. Victor’s first instinct is to run. No. He can’t. He slowly walks away. The man in the black jacket returns to his car. Victor speeds up his pace. Before long, he’s sprinting.
While Victor is racing home, he hears a door open. “Where the fuck the money at”, someone shouts.
“He ain’t have none.”
“What the fuck you mean he ain’t have no money! He wouldn’t be out this time-a-night if he didn’t!”
“Man, get your ass in the car so we can bail.”
“Come on man, let’s get the fuck outta here.”
“Naw! He holdin’ out on us!” Someone shouts to Victor, “Yo motherfucka you ain’t leavin that easy!”
Victor hears the voice calling, but cannot turn around. He continues running. Suddenly, he hears a series of shots being fired. Victor falls after being hit multiple times. Instantly, he loses his sense of smell. Before too long, he can neither hear nor taste. Victor’s vision is still strong. He can see his own blood as a streetlight shines down upon it. He starts convulsing. The sight of his own blood is horrifying. His eyesight begins to weaken. He soon goes blind. The last thing Victor feels is a hand taking off his sneakers and wrestling off his socks.