The Unintentionally Entitled

“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”  

(James A. Baldwin)

In the profoundly harsh words of iconic actor and artist Tupac Shakur, “They got (sic) money for wars, but can’t feed the poor.” We are not a moral nation when we assume that security is more important than basic needs. Forgive me, men of uniform. I am not discounting the various sacrifices made in the name of freedom by these brave men who enter wars with heart and solidarity to this country. But shouldn’t we, as a nation that prides itself as a beacon of hope, be as proud and caring of our citizens who cannot–whatever reasons may be–care for themselves?

Being poor is not a crime. No matter what the GOP tells you, no matter how Republican pundits insert it into the national conversation–there is not a soul on this earth who wouldn’t rather have a better station in life. It is an irresponsible habit of the GOP to cradle the notion that poor people enjoy a life of welfare entitlements. There are not, nor were there ever any welfare queens. If you have ever seen 1974’s Claudine you have witnessed, not an exaggerated fictional character drawn from the white-guilt of a conscious writer, but a remarkably truthful icon of what society has long viewed as the Welfare Queen. It takes a boot to the misconceptions that built the unfair image of poor single black mothers in the ghetto.

Claudine depicts the struggle for respectability of a black family. Written by Lester and Tina Pine, the film points its lens on Claudine, a single black mother of six living in a rundown apartment with little means to better their situation. There is no husband/father in the home. Claudine, though working, is dependent on “Mr. Welfare” to keep her family afloat. He is a noose and a help; a burden but also a gift. When title character Claudine falls in love with Roop, a black garbage man, “Mr. Welfare” releases his tentacles. To keep the financial aid of the government, Claudine must not have any man living in her home. She must also not work because it is illegal. If “Mr. Welfare” has his say, she will remain unemployed, waiting for her monthly allotment to barely cover her monthly expenses. But Claudine wants more; she wants to be perceived as a hardworking woman and responsible mother–not the welfare-dependent scion.

Roop attempts to woo Claudine under the distrustful eyes of her children.

Lester Pine said of the film: After so many movies depicting black people as violent and cruel, Claudine wasn’t like that. Claudine was a nice picture about people who strive for exactly the same thing everyone else does: respectability. To be respected as human beings.

Washington is gearing up to fight the looming “fiscal cliff” that promises to change government entitlement programs and taxes. There are changes that should be made to structure our country back on its feet. When I hear politicians speak in clipped language about drastic changes that will shift the already shaky ground of low-income families, I cringe. Is being hungry entitled living or thinking? Isn’t being able to handle basic needs a responsibility any human being would relish having? That is not an entitlement.  According to Republicans like Governor Romney:

“There are… (people)… who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to – you name it,” Romney is seen and heard saying. “That’s an entitlement…. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax…”

Poor people are not entitled. They have no idea what it means to assume that someone will stand up for them. Believing that a government large enough to manage multiple wars in countries across the continents and also do its part to ensure the stability of its citizens is a responsibility, not an entitlement. The language used to describe programs that enable some to live as respectfully as they can should not feel scathing. If we are responsible to bring peace to Iraq and civil rights to Afghanistan, then we are responsible to our own citizens. Why is my health and well-being any less important than a poor woman in some distant country that receives aid from the United States?

It’s not.

I have a very personal stake in this story. After working, going to school, and striving to become a part of the middle class, I found myself single and pregnant, without health insurance. I was also still in graduate school attempting to finish a program that would award me with a piece of paper that said I shouldn’t be on welfare, but guess what–I ended up there. Pride aside, I thought of the life of my unborn child. I didn’t ever want to be a person that needed the government’s help because society indoctrinated us to believe those who do are less than.

I entered the building with every assumption and justification on my shoulders. I sat down in front of a well-meaning woman who did her best to make me as comfortable as possible. I was literally shaking in the seat. What if I were denied? What if my degree disqualified me for aid? I didn’t know. I had all the ignorant notions of confronting “Mr. Welfare’s” entitlements. 

From the case worker I learned that I was eligible to receive SNAP benefits, cash assistance when I hit the sixth month of my pregnancy, and immediate health care. Mind you, I hadn’t been covered by health care since I was sixteen years old. It had been that long since I’d seen a doctor. Almost fifteen years. The tape running in my head wanted to shame me, therefore shaming my child and the situation that had brought me into the arms of my federal government. It wanted me to be ashamed to pull out that SNAP card in grocery stores to purchase food that nourished my growing pregnant body. It wanted me to watch the eyes of the doctor and nurse I had chosen to see me through nine months of pregnancy. To perceive judgement or disdain because I was covered by federally funded health insurance.

It took a long time to overcome the shame in the grocery store. I live in an area that is not particularly low-income. Some of my neighbors would be considered upper-middle class. The first couple of times that I pulled out that food benefits card, I did so in the safety of a store that catered to the kinds of people I assumed wouldn’t judge. I  thought that by staying in the comfort of my shame, I wouldn’t have to look away when an angry shopper saw my card and thought to themselves that here was another one on the tax payer’s dime. But gradually I remembered a couple of things. One was, I had worked since I was eighteen years old. I had paid taxes. I contributed my share for those who were benefiting from a system I was not on. I didn’t complain. In fact, I saw it as my reasonable duty as a healthy citizen of these united states that we call America. It wasn’t my shame to carry. It was the person who would sneer at a pregnant woman who had the same nutritional needs. Eventually, I did end up in a grocery store that catered to a higher income bracket without worrying about their perceptions. In fact, there were times that other people who didn’t look like they belonged on SNAP pulled out their food benefit card ahead of me in line.

Intuitively, I happened to choose a doctor who treated me as if I were any other patient. I never saw one ounce of judgement over my healthcare insurance. No arrogance or disdain. My pregnancy was as wonderful as it could be with a doctor whose first thought is medicine, and not the politics of welfare. I don’t believe that all doctors practice this way. (I wouldn’t have mentioned it otherwise.) She showed compassion and never ever looked down on me. In fact, she always showed genuine interest in educational background and my accomplishments, my family and what I intended to do after I gave birth.

During the last couple months of my pregnancy, I was classified as high-risk which meant that I needed to see a specialist weekly, as well as have stress tests every two weeks. Without health care, none of these needs would have been met. My specialist came highly recommended and his practice was one of the more lucrative in our area. When I walked into his practice for the first time, I actually expected to see a chilly face when I mentioned my insurance provider. This doctor and his staff showed only compassion and humanity every time I saw them. The situation was highly stressful enough. I didn’t need the burden of my own imagined shame to add anymore. It was one of many unbelievable gifts of humanity that I never felt lower class, not ever.  I had a seamless delivery, a healthy baby, and health insurance for her upon delivery.

Am I a Welfare Queen? Did I take advantage of a system put into place to do exactly what I needed it to do when I needed it? Did my inability to find a job in this economy after graduating with two degrees make me hopeless? Was I any less qualified for these entitlement programs than Mitt Romney’s dad when he needed them?

I believe that I am a good citizen who has done my share to contribute positively to society. I am an advocate for education, the arts, cultural diversity, and leveling the field so that other players can enter. I do not believe that I am any less of a mother because I relied on the government until I was able to stand on my own two feet. But let me tell you, standing on my own two feet is wonderful, but without those benefits, there is a struggle there. I’m not starving, neither is my daughter. We are healthy. She will continue to receive health care until I find a full-time job that provides those benefits. Like many other Americans, I’m gambling that I will remain healthy and well until that time.

If I were entitled, I would assume that I should able to keep health insurance and cash assistance and food benefits so that I can move into the middle class. But I’m not. I’m a single parent, a black female, a woman, the mother to a daughter who simply wants the same opportunities as the next person. I am blessed to have a job that I love, good pay, and fair health. I don’t expect America to do anything except support me in maintaining those attributes.

 

Four Days in November

“We need men who can dream of things that never were.” – John F. Kennedy

On the occasion of the anniversary of one of our nation’s darkest moments, I have an impulse to reflect. For a moment, let’s forget the conspiracies, the adultery, and legend of a curse. Let’s instead remember, that for a brief shining moment, there was a time referred to as Camelot (Thank you, Mrs. Kennedy).

I don’t want to talk about the fact that he was murdered–not yet. President Kennedy’s assassination is what history chooses to remember.  Lost as a footnote is that President Kennedy, Eternal Dreamer, tried his best to create an America that fit his vision, be it flawed or righteous. My view of history is not long as I’ve spent only three decades as its student. It is colored by the grainy black and white images of a motorcade, blood-stained pink suit, a wife cradling the head of her husband having herself tried to scurry over the trunk of the convertible. This was his last day.

But what of  his 1000 days in office?

We’re so soiled by the unforgiving mark of violence and the truths that tumbled out afterward, that we forget how this president and administration once sat comfortably in our fawning. It is often said that this is the president who inspired a generation. But what gave him such distinction? What was it about this wealthy son turned politician that moved a generation to become unmoored from apathy? And did we ever reach the high standards he boldly espoused?

It’s not as if John F. Kennedy appeared from a misty fog. This is a man whose future was assured from birth. History reminds repeatedly of the storied background of the legendary Kennedy family. Whispers of a fortune made nefariously surround that history. Yet, what family in these Americas who find themselves fortunate enough to be members of the 1 percent have not been made so on the backs and fears of others. It’s a symptom of white privilege. Perhaps the Kennedy family was visibly ruthless in his pursuits while others do so with backbiting smiles and false encouragements. He was given all the privileges of wealth, avenues to an education that shaped his enlightened vision of the world. Indeed, it is an easier life to pursue when money is of no consequence. John F. Kennedy pursued it with vigor.

I often wonder how much truth lived in President Kennedy’s loftier words. He challenged a nation to be its best self, while  faltering to his worst at times. He moved the nation to embrace the arts without cynicism and arrogance. He cautiously entered the Civil Rights arena in a deeply fractured, racially segregated country. He encouraged others to seek public service.

Petraeus: The Art of Slut Shaming

Sex and politics isn’t exactly breaking news having come from the generation of President Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades in the Oval. So, the current platter of General David Petraeus and Lieutenant Colonel Paula Broadwell for public consumption over a recently discovered affair between the two isn’t  blog-worthy in and of itself. Affairs between married people in esteemed positions happen, unfortunately. They also happen between poor people, by the way. This isn’t the issue consuming my passion at this moment. However, comments by conservative televangelist Pat Roberts are.

Mr. Pat “Haiti is cursed for it’s pact with the Devil” Roberts is no stranger to odd comments that lack logic and compassion during inconsiderate times, such were the thoughts he expressed during Haiti’s recovery from a devastating earthquake in 2010. Roberts genuinely believed and said that Haiti’s natural disaster was a deserved curse brought upon the people of Haiti due to their Non-Christian religious background. Unfortunately, Roberts public platform at CBN, a Christian broadcasting channel, on its show “The 700 Club” enables Mr. Roberts to continually expound on newsworthy events with raw and tacky comprehension. Of the Petraeus and Broadwell scandal, Roberts essentially landed all of the blame on Lt. Col. Broadwell’s doorstep. Roberts flawed logic begins and ends with Lt. Col. Broadwell’s aesthetic qualities. “The man’s off in a foreign land and he’s lonely and here’s a good looking lady throwing herself at him. I mean, he’s a man,” he said on Monday’s episode of “The 700 Club.”

It’s disturbing that this blame pattern, typifying beautiful woman into sluts intent on using their female wiles to bring down powerful men, isn’t only coming from the likes of Pat Roberts. Since this scandal was unearthed pundits and journalists of both genders have quietly inserted a disturbing thread to the story: how could a man like General David Petraeus have allowed this woman to end his sterling career?

Let’s discuss first that, this woman, Lt. Col. Paula Broadwell is not a witless bimbo seeking to destroy her paramour. She is no Alex Winters, driven to contaminate her lover’s life with venom for accrued wrongs. Broadwell has credentials. Impressive credentials. She also has a husband and two children. She had a career long before she stepped into this landmine affair. She graduated from the prestigious West Point Military Academy with degrees in Political Geography and System Engineering as well as countless other educational and career distinctions. Let’s not pretend this is a woman who needed to have sex with Petraeus to better her career or life.

Let’s not reduce a woman who has obviously made risky and questionable decisions based on her libido into a slut.

Society has done its best to classify women as simple creatures with distinct roles. Slut. Mother. Wife. Daughter. Either of these assigned not based on any true assessment of the female complexities other than being born with a vagina. We blame rape survivors, and domestic violence survivors. We tell little girls that men are stronger and smarter through marketing messages. We tell them that men are powerful and to be powerful you have to either act like a man, or sleep with a powerful man. We confuse them by encouraging them to get an education only to then tell them that the glass ceiling will never break for your entrance.

We do this to our little girls.

Not only has the media shifted unfair blame completely on Petraeus’ purported mistress, it has also shamed his wife of 37 years into being a frumpy mess who couldn’t compete with Broadwell’s youth and beauty. Holly Petraeus is said to be understandably “furious” at her husband’s fall from grace. Who wouldn’t be? She is also a well accomplished woman who finds herself in the harsh spotlight of her husband’s messy uncrowning. Holly Petraeus has shared her life with Gen. Petraeus, stood in the shadows while his career grew, mothered his children, and managed to carve out a role outside of being a military spouse. In 2011, Mrs. Petraeus was appointed by newly-elected Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA) to a position in the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau as an assistant director of service-member affairs.

It’s the same animal that bit into Hillary Clinton when her husband’s affair came to light. Less than glamorous wives are seen to be lacking in departments that sexier counterparts are not. Younger. Vivacious. Risky. Holly Petreaus has not been spared this typifying humiliation.

I am not siding with mistress or wife. What I am saying is that women have to stop being sacrificed in the fire pit every time a man is caught with his pants around his ankles. When I think of slut in this case, Paula Broadwell is not the image I see wearing that shameful name.

There is a reason I haven’t written much about David Petreaus directly–it’s not about him. It’s about being truthful about what happens between two consenting adults and how both parties should be subject slut shaming. Not only the one who has a vagina.

Julia Sugarbaker lands the point perfectly.

Cicely Tyson and then some, lest we forget.

I did a quick Google search of Cicely Tyson’s name beside Miles Davis’ to find an essay about their allegedly violent relationship last night. I had made a comment on Twitter about the marriage between these two creative people and someone mentioned that the kind of marriage it was was a violent one. Intrigued by this thought, I wanted to gather the elements of the story to read over.

You know what I came across? I did find some references to Miles Davis’ genius musical career, and though she was at once a good friend, then encouraging lover and wife, he did physically abuse not only Cicely Tyson but also other women with whom he was linked. That part didn’t actually surprise me. I’ve been in the world long enough to unfortunately understand that there exists a dangerous dynamic between men and women with regards to violence within the relationship. I’ve witnessed it as a child on through adulthood. That did not surprise me. In fact, I wish it had.

The reason I had been interested in marriage in the first place was due to watching Oprah’s reunion special broadcast with the cast of Roots. It was the first time since the airing of Alex Haley’s epic mini-series that this group of black actors had been together. Among them were Levar Burton, James Amos, Leslie Uggams, Ben Vereen, Louis Gossett, Jr, and Cicely Tyson. This illustrious group of black actors who had done so much to advance the cause of black people through their craft. Oprah was in awe of them. I was equally affected by their respectable statures and profound views on their historical performances in Roots. The most impressive being Cicely Tyson. There is a regal air surrounding Ms. Tyson that I’ve always seen whenever she’s before my eyes. She has the most beautifully exotic dark skin, graceful cheekbones, omniscient eyes and mouth. Just beautiful. And she speaks with such force and knowledge that I always stop and listen. I have respect for her as my elder but also as an artist who has given much of her life to preserve a respectable black image on film.

When I searched Cicely Tyson’s name, I came across a blog site that among other vile things stated that this “ugly old bitch” needs to come across a young person who didn’t respect their elders so that she could be taught a lesson in the same way that Miles Davis had years ago in their relationship. This was one of several comments made about Ms. Tyson because she had allegedly been surly at Nelson Mandela’s birthday party in New York City a couple years ago. I was floored by the level of vitriol for a woman who had given so much to our race and the cause of black people. Totally amazed that her beauty could be measured as anything other than what it is–beautiful. The taunting the comments made in light of her alleged physical abuse by Miles Davis turned my stomach.

It was an ugly reminder on Martin Luther King’s day of how much progress that we, WE as black people, have not made. I watched repeated programs about the movement that would eventually cause Dr. King’s assassination; the fight to be treated as equals in a society that would still like to see us as slaves. I shed tears over the treatment of my elders, the Freedom Riders, the voting registers who bravely went down south and lost their lives in the cause, Emmet Till, four little girls–Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, Medgar Evers…so many people unnamed but equally as important. All of their struggles for what? For what did those brave people give their lives?

Walter Gadsden in Birmingham, Alabama on 3 May 1963, attacked by police dogs during a civil rights protest. Photo by Bill Hudson

We do so little to honor their memories and achievements. We’ve gotten too casual about respect and honor. It’s a cancer that has stricken the generations following Dr. King’s assassination. The legacy of our people is downtrodden under the boots of the willfully ignorant. Those who treasure clothing over education, singlehood over fatherhood/motherhood, questionable economic gains over legitimate business, and so many other issues I don’t have words or space to name. These are the people commenting on a Cicely Tyson post with “ugly bitch” responses.

What would Martin Luther King say about us today? Where is our accountability to do our parts in order to honor his legacy as well as preserve his dream. HIS DREAM. To see that all of us, not only black but gay, young, women, men, ALL of us live with equality. Where are those among us who truly appreciate the shoulders that we have all stood on to become a better people. He didn’t die so that we would not honor and respect the generation who took the beatings, who marched, who beat down the doors, who challenged a system, who gave their very lives.

It’s disturbing.

If we can respect Jay Z and Beyonce, then we can muster up a bit more than a nod to the people who made it possible for those two to be in the positions they are in. Yes, they too needed a shoulder to stand on.

We have to remember the bridges we crossed over, not continue to burn them.

(To be continued)

What’s next?

You know the moment when everything in your life feels overwhelming? The edge is, maybe, two steps away and you’re absolutely sure that you can not make those next steps without losing “it”? Yes, the leap into insanity is one hop away. What is that? More importantly, what are we supposed to learn?

I am thirty years old. I have a Master’s degree. I am relatively intelligent. Maybe a little cute. Very self-aware. Intuitive. Slightly obsessive. Highly ideal-ed. And yet, I’m struggling through moments of self-doubt and fear. The truth is that I am all of those things but only because someone else told me so. I don’t know that I can own those attributes within my own power. I don’t know at thirty what I knew at twenty-eight, twenty-nine. I’ve forgotten how to read an inspirational quote and allow the chills to run the rails of my back. I’ve allowed daily living to bog down the freedom of creativity I owned only a year or two ago. I’ve forgotten myself.

So what am I supposed to learn? How am I supposed to get back to myself?

Most people in my life would scream, “Just do it!” And they would be correct. The problem I seem to be having is the place after achievement, after you’ve done what you set out to do. I felt very powerful when I was learning my craft of writing at graduate school. I wore my status–black, female, underprivileged–on my chest because I was absolutely proud to have made it into graduate school. For two years, I had the advantage of being under the tutelage of powerful women and men of letters whose voices spoke affirmation over my life. I read books and wrote fiction that enriched my life. I  had goals and went about setting each on fire through completion.

But now what? What’s next for me?

I’m in this very lonely vulnerable state. This stagnate state of being is one I can’t accept. Writing is one way that I keep my creative sparks shooting. There are things I can’t always say that my writing says back to me. There are feelings I have that I don’t want to feel but have through revealing them on the page. I’m going to write my way through whatever this is. I’m going to continue to look for work in my field. I’m going to accomplish the next set of goals and then begin another set thereafter.

I have the power. I’ve had it all along. Today might be horrible, and tomorrow may be a little less horrible. I’m going to own whatever kind of day it is.

The unsilencing of C.

“One writes out of one thing only — one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.”     –James Baldwin

My two-month-old daughter is sleeping behind me. Every now and again, she makes a sound. A little squeak. It’s her way of telling me, Mom, I’m with you. This is now my experience. The mother to a daughter. People ask: Do you feel more fulfilled now that you’re a mother? I always answer very honestly. I do not. I was fulfilled before she entered my womb. I had a very clear idea of who I was and was going to be. The only thing that having her has done is make me more of who I wasn’t yet. My daughter has only added to my portions.

As an artist, the gift I’ve been given is the ability to write through my experiences. For twenty-nine years, I lived with rigid rules to my behavior and lifestyle. I read books, educated myself, and assumed I was growing as a person. And I was. But, there is a way to go through life hauntingly. Like a ghost on the outskirts watching the living with envy. That was me. I was always so afraid of everything. Of emotions. Of being out of control. I think having a child gives you courage you never knew existed.

That’s why I’m writing this blog. It’ll be the place where I’m free. I’m unmasking the elements that are me. It’s the unsilencing.

I did two amazing things this year. I had a baby and I completed my graduate program. Those are significant accomplishments. There were moments I didn’t think I could do either of those things. I was certain one would consume the other. They exist, however, as a twin celebration that I alone have to celebrate. Why is it that for as long as I’ve been gaining educational credentials, voices have said with no shame, “Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re better than me because you have a degree?” this on the day of my graduation, or “I know people that are smarter than you.” I was also told, “I”m so glad you had a baby. Now you’re normal.”

What do you do with that? How do you live peaceably beside those who don’t know how or want to acknowledge the unique thing that makes you exactly who you are?

You don’t. You find another path and hope that along the way somebody gets it. It would be nice to have that embrace, but the reality that I may never is there. I acknowledge and accept it. I am defining myself within my own framework and that is scary for others who can only define themselves through others’.

This is my path. My words. My abilities. The stories that will come through me. The connections there are to be had. I’m always hoping. I’m always waiting.

Until then, I hear my little girl sleeping.