Tag Archives: women

My Secondhand Lonely

(Klaus Vedfelt/Getty)

Zoë Gadegbeku | Slice | Spring/Summer 2017 | 15 minutes (4,081 words)

If it’s a Sunday, my mother is probably tucked into her bed, the stillness of the time between rest and the week’s unrelenting pace hanging heavy in the air, late afternoon light filtering through the half-drawn lavender curtains. She is probably reading, or maybe dozing and waking to the sounds of frantic sirens from the latest crime drama she has been engrossed in. The next morning, she will collect herself into the polished package she presents at work, just enough foundation to accentuate her cheekbones, dressed in a black suit with thin white pinstripes, her silver jewelry angular and slightly threatening like the point of her chin, eyes glaring above her glasses frames as if to say, “Don’t try me.” She has spent years building and defending her independence, interrupting a supposedly comfortable solitude only occasionally with relationships with men who eventually show themselves to be unworthy of her time. Still, her single motherhood never looks tragic to me, in spite of backhanded compliments that are supposed to affirm her strength: “Ah, in fact! You Mama Essie, you’re not a woman, ooh! You’re a man! Look at all the things you have done!” Working twelve-hour days, giving her family stern, frills-free advice, laughing with such unrestraint that it’s almost possible to see the fillings in her molars, she is single-minded in her mission to be excellent in every way. I can’t quite remember the exact moment she started to say, “Dzifa, I just want you to be happy. I don’t want you to end up like me.”

It may have been after I left home to go to college, after she began measuring my absence in the number of weekends she spends alone or how long it has been since I last called, but it is always distressing to hear, and I never let her continue long enough to give an explanation for this lament. I snap at her, “Why would you say that? Don’t talk like that!” Most of the time she sighs, or repeats in a resigned near-whisper, “I just want you to be happy, that’s all.” I’m only now growing to understand why being like her is supposedly an undesirable state in which to “end up.” She has spent a whole lifetime masking profound loneliness as self-sufficiency, and I have been her unknowing apprentice.

* * *

I’ve been engaged in the slow, careful process of constructing my own solitary fortress for the past five years — four in the unhealthily competitive atmosphere of an elite private college, one at a graduate program in the cold of Boston that feels unhealthy in a different way, as I’m constantly picking through my pain for the most exquisite parts to exploit for a story, or to bring the heavy black woman perspective, coded as “nuance,” to certain classroom discussions. I’ve learned how to carve bricks for the boundary around myself out of intricate excuses to explain away the obvious strain in my tight smiles: “Oh, nothing, I’m just tired.” “Yeah, I have so much shit to do, but it’s cool.” “You know, I’m a writer, so I’m always in my feelings.” Or my default reply, also inherited from my mother, “It’ll be fine. I just have to get on with it.”

I’ve developed great skill at stacking these platitudes between myself and anyone who may see me often enough to notice the cracks in my poor performance of strength. My aesthetic is always adapting to sustain the deceit. There are days when the hyper-feminine and form-fitting serve as the perfect costume: black skirt with slits on either side, paired with a black top making up for the modesty of its high neck and long sleeves with its slightly see-through material. On other occasions, I put on my tomboy disguise, still silhouetted in black but this time in the form of jeans and round-neck sweatshirts a few sizes too big, hiding a body that still feels uncomfortable at times with its dips and curves that I don’t always want to display. Each compliment is more than a validation of personal style; it is a warning to never let the mask slip: You always look so good. Always on point. Honestly, how do you do it?

Every word is a confirmation of what I’m convinced will happen if I choose to deviate from the customary gracious smile, responding instead with “Actually, I’m not okay. I’m scared and alone. Can you please talk to me?” As far as I’m concerned, the trick of “not looking how I feel,” another coping mechanism I’ve modeled after my mother’s never-ending capacity to keep going even on her most sorrowful of days, has succeeded to the point where no one will know how to react to my crumbling before them. There’s never an appropriate time to reveal the extreme isolation of harboring feelings you don’t quite understand, and every attempt lands clumsily in the space between myself and the other person, unashamed in its messiness but too frightening for either of us to touch any further beyond prodding the issue tentatively with a few ill-placed jokes.

She has spent a whole lifetime masking profound loneliness as self-sufficiency, and I have been her unknowing apprentice.

I tentatively crack open the door on a subject that I almost never speak out loud for fear it would swallow me with its terrifying reality. I drop vague references to how much I’m “going through it” at inappropriate times, like on the walk to the train station with a friend after class. I’m held back in my lonely place by the fear that I’ll expose the ugliness of my perfect farce. No formulation feels right or reasonable: I don’t know what this is. Every month since the spring of 2014, without fail, a smothering fog settles over me, before the premenstrual bloating and the pimples set in. Every month, seven to ten days before my period, every month with no exceptions. I think about ending myself for seven to ten days, every month, for two years. I flinch when my train rushes to a stop in front of me, only a short platform and a stripe of yellow paint between myself and its force. Every month, seven to ten days before my period, tears threaten to flood me in a too-hot shower, right before classes, in the middle of weekly check-in meetings at work.

It has taken this long to even allow these thoughts to whisper in my mind, because the training offered by my mother’s example has helped me to erase these grim blotches from the gleam of my effortless presentation, because for a part of those two years I dated someone I was always nervous would dismiss this horror as one of my “emotional excuses” for being a bad girlfriend, because if I don’t “get on with it,” there are friends who would find their calls unanswered at 4 a.m. when they have boy-related anxiety, or job-related anxiety, or what-am-I-doing-with-my-life anxiety. A heavy hand with the concealer hides the puffy eyes I get from going to sleep in tears I can’t explain, and I can get on with the lonely business of faking a life.

* * *

I recognize a similar show of flawlessness — albeit without the morbid subtext that stalks me — in Molly, the successful, gorgeous counterpart to Issa’s slightly inept persona on the HBO series Insecure. I can see traces of my mother’s charm in Molly’s relaxed laugh in front of a room full of colleagues as she makes a presentation, the ease with which she plays a game of dominoes with three men in the parking garage, spotless outfits in variations of ivory and cream standing out against her dark skin because she knows how striking that combination can be, and also that we, her admiring audience, won’t be able to ignore its stunning effect. It only takes the quick fade-out announcing a new scene for me to begin to see the unraveling of Molly’s perfection, so familiar and expected that I feel as though I’m the one pulling at its increasingly fraying edges.

In one scene, Molly gets a text, a simple “Hey” from Hassan the engineer, the latest man she’s seeing, or “the Arab guy,” as another character refers to him. Molly seems almost wistful as she reflects on how “different” he is, and the fact that she never imagined ending up with someone who wasn’t black — which seems a rather permanent statement to be making after only three dates. Of course, Hassan inevitably lets her down, and when Molly later recounts the story to Issa over dinner, she ends with a resigned “That’s my life” before lamenting the futility of navigating a dating scene which almost always seems to play out against her no matter whether she’s smothering, aloof, demure, or any combination of approaches to letting men know that she is interested in pursuing a relationship. The brilliance of the show lies in lifelike moments like these, when I see two black women using humor to avoid hitting too close to the heartbreaking center of the moment they’ve just shared: Issa offers a “broken pussy” as the explanation for Molly’s dating woes. “I think your pussy is sad,” she says. “It’s had enough. If your pussy could talk, it would make that sad Marge Simpson groan.”

I see myself in Molly’s wavering smile, in her attempts to keep herself together for colleagues and a larger anonymous public, in the possibility that this could be who I am becoming — this woman who thinks she has figured out how to measure herself in appropriate proportions, to always be more than enough for every situation, incredibly qualified for her job, head-turning from board meetings to restaurants, only to discover that her sole reward could be the yawning void where a life partner and peace of mind should reside.

For every shred of fear of a loveless, lonely future I feel, there seems to be an infinite number of reminders that I should be ashamed to crave romantic companionship to the same extent that I’m working toward academic and professional success. Gloria Naylor’s Ophelia seems to be pointing fingers at my weakness when she says, “I was never in that camp of a night out with someone is better than a night alone. I was someone, and there was always something to do with me.” My favorite poet, Warsan Shire, appears to echo this accusation of low self-worth on my part, “My alone feels so good, I’ll only have you if you’re sweeter than my solitude.” It is as if these women’s affirmations of being enough for themselves, of loving their own company so wholly that they would not let anyone interfere with their serenity just for the sake of doing so, is some sort of indictment against my half-baked self, acting out a self-reliance I do not feel.

Listening to the two black women hosts of the official podcast for the TV show, Insecuritea: The Insecure Aftershow, deepens the embarrassment that I think I should feel for empathizing with Molly, for seeing in her the reflection of the same act my mother and I, and many other black women, fictional and otherwise, have been putting on for our entire adult lives. The hosts laugh about how “pressed” Molly feels to find a man:

“I wasn’t expecting to see a woman in 2016 who’s willing to openly say, ‘I just want to be married,’ cuz I feel like I don’t see that a lot anymore.”

“Right, I think for us we tend to be either/or . . . like either you’re heavily career-based and you’re just going hard in that direction, or you’re more family oriented and you’re just focused on building that side.”

Even as the radio hosts slip in the disclaimer that they are speaking only from their own experiences and those of women they know personally, the archetype of the no-nonsense black boss lady stands in plain view, complete with shoulder pads à la Teri Joseph from Soul Food in the early 2000s, or immaculate white suit and precise side part like Molly. I feel as though I am hearing the retelling of a myth that predates my existence — the independent black woman who doesn’t need anybody. I am drinking in the idea that longing for a love connection was a trivial concern, and that personal ambition and the gleaming summit of career success should suffice until such time as a woman decides to shed her professional sheen in favor of the muted tones of motherhood, marriage, and all the accompanying trappings. Being anything less than enough — yearning for another person outside of oneself, for the chance to be seen without the masks, to be cared for in the way one cares for others — then becomes off-brand for an unstoppable black woman™.

* * *

As I try, and fail, to fully understand what it means to revel in being alone, Toni Morrison writes to me through Sula on her deathbed, Sula who has truly lived life rather than plodding through it at a gentle pace. Her estranged friend Nel challenges Sula’s last boast that she is “going down like one of those redwoods,” majestically, and not “dying like a stump” like everyone else. Nel’s skepticism demands a deeper explanation: what does Sula have to show for this supposedly grand life of hers?

“Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me.”

“Lonely, ain’t it?” Nel’s question sticks out in my mind like the point of an index finger toward a shameful secret unfurled before a judgmental public. Lonely, ain’t it.

“Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.”

Sula gives me the language to describe my loneliness, to hold it away from myself and dissect it, tackling its complex mesh and dissecting it piece by piece in the hope of finding some fulfillment on the other side of its demise.

It is as if these women’s affirmations of being enough for themselves, of loving their own company so wholly that they would not let anyone interfere with their serenity just for the sake of doing so, is some sort of indictment against my half-baked self, acting out a self-reliance I do not feel.

Loneliness may exist for me as a craving for romantic love, as a hope that a partner may be able to help me untangle the web of reasons why I feel alone with my emotional turmoil, but it also moves far beyond the presence and potential abandonment of a lover. It lives in the moments after a strenuous day, when my monthly distress threatens to destroy the titanium resolve I have bolted down firmly over any hints of softness that may betray me. It is in my trembling lips pressed tightly together, but not hard enough to stem the outburst of sorrowful isolation that eventually spills over the edges of heavily made-up eyes, streaking jet-black down my face. I’ve cried the full length of the ride on a red-line train and onto the bus. In public I crumple into myself and wallow in the awareness that no one will be waiting at home or on the phone to listen to me cry, no one will turn away from their own worries to listen to mine. I’ve cried staring directly into the faces of strangers shut tight with lack of concern, or with apprehension that my tears may open a gateway to some erratic and potentially dangerous behavior that could affect them. All this lonely isn’t mine. Even after I get home, I imagine it still clinging tightly to my hair and clothes, smelling like the man in the faded navy hoodie sitting next to me on the train, who didn’t seem to care that I don’t want to chat.

Loneliness rests in the soft tap on my shoulder, clad in my favorite wax-print outfit, a wrinkled hand, a quiet smile leading to the question, “You’re from Nigeria? Or Ghana? I saw your dress and I knew.” Every African woman of a certain age on the train could be my great-aunt or grandmother, with the same manner of folding their arms in front of their chests, the same gold-framed glasses with perfectly round lenses. We are looking for relatives, long left behind and hardly spoken to, in each other’s faces.

Yet, I can’t afford to immerse myself in the sentimentality of being lonely, to make sweeping statements about the nostalgia that immigrants face, miles and temperature points too far from the Equator’s reassuring heat, to address it as a uniquely urban plague that defines the landscape as much as skyscrapers like glass cages and an anonymity that crushes those who are unable to fend for themselves and bolsters those who have come to escape a dull elsewhere they used to call home. This lonely I’ve been carting around every month for the past two years is sinister. My lonely is life-threatening, as it grows more and more difficult to convince myself that anyone would notice the space I left behind if I were to cease to exist. My lonely is my mother’s, but it’s also a secondhand acquisition that could be hormonal or psychological, one that scares me into concealing what could be a very serious mental health condition whose dimensions I haven’t been fully able to grasp. My lonely is also that of Ahine, my best friend, who moves from work to home and back again amidst London’s eternal dreariness, isolated in the exhaustion of striding forward in her career while helping her mother through illness, who sends me a tearful voice message after months of unusual silence to explain how her loneliness felt so insurmountable that it seemed easier to retreat further into herself than to reach out to anyone. It is also Bre’s, when we pass each other on the street, and at the exact same moment we are screaming private crises but somehow cannot topple the boundary of expectations and break down to each other. We make eye contact, and she smiles. “Where are you off to?” the single cowrie shell in her locs flashing back and forth as she shakes her head slightly to the rhythm of her waving hands. Later I’ll explain to her that I was marching as fast as I could to disappear onto a crowded train before someone caught me out of character, drinking back the lumps of sobs forming in my throat, and she’ll already know.

“Girl, I was going through it too!” So why didn’t we stop for each other?

There must be some unfortunate birthright we have inherited, my black girlfriends and I, that traps us beneath its weight, some powerful entity that widens the distance between ourselves and any source of comfort and support. We take care of ourselves only to the extent that we can paste on a cheerful face and keep showing out and showing up for others to feel at ease, keeping our hurt and our fear tucked away in the desolate, uncharted territories of the hours in the early morning when sleep is replaced by a depression that appears impossible to chase away. Twenty-five years after Sula’s death, Nel visits her grave and mourns not only the loss of her friend, nor the betrayal of the affair between Nel’s husband and Sula, nor the secret the two women shared of the day a little boy drowned after slipping from Sula’s grasp and into the river. “Sula?” Nel calls into the emptiness, with only the leaves and the ground beneath her feet answering her call. “All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.” Nel’s cries descend into an endless loop, “circles and circles of sorrow,” as she realizes that the source of her loneliness had roots deeper than the absence of her husband. “Girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.” The gaps between myself and the women in my life grow wider and more impassable the more we hide our difficulties from each other under the guise of being, or at least appearing, strong.

* * *

I finally speak my agony out loud one Wednesday in September of 2016, because my mother’s training has not prepared me adequately for a time when private suffering becomes unbearable and spills out into the open no matter how much I try to halt its flow. I’m standing in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom, my reflection framed by its glossy black border. I’m about fifteen minutes away from the arrival of my bus but unable to keep putting on my face because I’m not confident that my wobbly hands won’t stab my eye with the mascara brush I’m holding. There is the familiar tightening in my chest and my throat, and I try to steady my shaky breath by inhaling and exhaling deeply. Panic is winning a silent war against me, and I whimper as quietly as possible so as not to alert my two roommates. It wouldn’t do to bother them while they’re also getting ready for school and work. Instead I call my mother in Accra, hoping she can hold some of this chaos for me.

There must be some unfortunate birthright we have inherited, my black girlfriends and I, that traps us beneath its weight, some powerful entity that widens the distance between ourselves and any source of comfort and support.

“Baby, just try to calm down. Take deep breaths. Oh, baby, I’m so worried about you . . .”

I cry to her with my head tilted back so I don’t damage the mask I’ve just painted on. I’m not terrified because my morbid thoughts have intensified but because they are now beginning to overpower my desire and ability to just get on with it. I make it to the bus stop right as the bus pulls up, and I’m even twenty minutes early for work. I look good, always stylish, as my supervisor says, my hair at its hugest and fluffiest, the way I like it, because the humidity hasn’t started to shrink it yet. Later that day, the distance across the desk between myself and my favorite professor doesn’t seem quite as vast because I blurt out a summary of the monthly struggle I’ve been navigating, sharing with her my fear of conceding defeat to loneliness by even considering seeking the advice of a therapist.

“I don’t know, it’s just such a lonely feeling to know there’s no one who can listen the way I listen to them, so that I have to go and talk to a stranger.”

Her eyes widen behind the smudged lenses of her glasses with a concern that I know isn’t pity, but still makes me anxious.

“Zoë, it’s one thing if your friends are a safety net that you can fall back on, but if you don’t have that . . .”

* * *

There was a time when I controlled my lonely, when I would have been glad to claim ownership over it, to take it by the hand and along with me on adventures only I could see or appreciate. Being an only child meant that I was a self-contained source of my own joy. I climbed the twisted trunk of the same forget-me-not tree almost every day of the long vacation between July and late September, most of its velvety yellow flowers stuck in the red gravel at its base. Sometimes I was brave enough to jump back down from among the branches, following the path of descent back to solid ground that one of my slippers invariably took; other times I would have to wait for my mother to come back from work to help me down, my grandma’s arms unable, or more like unwilling, to get me out of my self-made predicament. I grew up always carrying a place for myself where the only other invited guest was my imagination, which allowed me to twist life’s mundaneness into whichever shape intrigued me the most. It seems fitting that the process of reclaiming my lonely as a place of satisfaction with myself, rather than a haunting jail that I’m too scared to escape, is a solitary one. I want to feel motivated to keep living for my own sake and not solely because giving up would alter the lives of people around me, to be “on point” for myself and not to be just a symbol of “black girl magic” for other people to cling to. I’m throwing away these secondhand burdens to avoid handing them to the daughter I may have in the future. I don’t want her to think it’s her duty to hold the fractured pieces of herself together long enough to fool others into thinking that her strength is unmatched. I’m prying open the vicious clamp of my lonely trap and pointing it out to other people in my effort to rid it of its power. No, I’m not okay. Can you please talk to me? 

* * *

This essay first was first published appeared in the Spring/Summer issue of SliceOur thanks to Zoë Gadegbeku and the staff at Slice for allowing us to reprint this essay.

New York Radical Women and the Limits of Second Wave Feminism

New York Radical Women protest the Miss America Pageant on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, 1969. (Santi Visalli Inc./Archive Photos/Getty Images)

At New York magazine, Joy Press has compiled an oral history of New York Radical Women (NYRW), a collective that existed from 1967 to 1969 and played a large role in defining second wave feminism in the United States. Its founders were generally younger and more radical than the women of the National Organization for Women (NOW), who’d come together in 1966 to address specific legislative failures in Washington, DC. NYRW focused more on elements of the culture that held women back.

The theatrics of the group’s organizing has been seared into the public’s imagination. In 1968, they protested the Miss America pageant by interrupting its telecast, crowning a live sheep on Atlantic City’s boardwalk, throwing objects symbolizing female oppression into a “freedom trash can.” The media called them “bra-burners” for this spectacle, and though nothing caught fire that day, the myth endured.

Along with their image-making, NYRW’s intellectual work, in the form of speeches, essays, pamphlets, and books laid the foundation for women’s studies as an academic discipline. Press explains:

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Bronx Rapper Cardi B Became a Pop Sensation, But Will She Make it Last?

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 26: Cardi B performs on stage during the Power 105.1's Powerhouse 2017 at Barclays Center of Brooklyn on October 26, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic)

On the strength of her quirky, vivacious personality, a fantastic head bop of a beat, and fun, post-feminist, sex-positive lyrics, Bronx born hip-hop artist Cardi B took her single “Bodak Yellow” all the way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. She unseated Taylor Swift for the number one spot and became the first female rapper to sit atop the chart with a solo record since 1998’s “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” by Lauryn Hill. 

Allison P. Davis profiled Cardi B for New York magazine, capturing the artist between appearances, feeling anxious about recording her full-length album. Davis has a way of seeing the Cardi B moment for what it is, and for understanding what the rapper means to her audience, beyond the flash of celebrity.

Cardi B is, considered one way, only the latest bombastic, came-up-on-a–New York–block female rapper to fascinate the world with her sharp lyrics, sharp six-inch acrylics, and grab-you-by-the-balls sexuality. Before her were Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Remy Ma, Nicki Minaj, forgotten groups like HWA (Hoez With Attitude). All share an insistence on demanding, over hard-rap tracks, what their male counterparts demand — money, power, respect, quality oral sex — from the female point of view, in the face of criticisms of everything from their overt sexuality and their weaves to their perceived lack of talent.

But if you think of Lil’ Kim and Minaj as the queens of New York rap (or the king, as Minaj often prefers to call herself), each can be understood as representing the rap Zeitgeist of a decade: Lil’ Kim brought a gangster-rap authenticity in the ’90s; Minaj’s savvy image-making, entrepreneurial ownership over herself as a brand, and impenetrable air of control were indicative of the genre’s maturity ten years on from that. And now, one decade later, we have reached, for the first time in history, hip-hop–R&B beating out rock and pop as the dominant music genre in the U.S., according to the 2017 Nielsen midyear music report, and so Cardi has a certain competitive advantage over her predecessors. She can seem almost like a caricature of a female rapper who has remixed the vibes of those women who came before her. (Cardi wouldn’t be pleased to hear this — the only conversation she dislikes more than “which female rapper she’s beefing with” is “which female rapper she’s most like.”) She’s taken the concept of “ratchet” — a southern rap term, first used as an insult akin to “ghetto,” that evolved over the years to mean “raw” — and played with it to her advantage. She’s an adroit creature of the media she’s been saturated by growing up; like all of her age mates, she is highly self-aware, referential. She understands on a cellular level what might go viral, how to craft something for social media, how to speak in sound bites, and how to reveal enough of herself, seemingly unfiltered, to be interesting. But that’s not the real charm or genius of Cardi, which is her ability to not let all of that get in the way of what and who she actually is: funny, a little neurotic, unabashed in her ambition and desire for money, and yet sincere in her attachment to how and where she grew up.

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Brit Bennett Reflects on Living the Past Year in “Trump Time”

380887 34: A young African American woman listens during a civil rights rally at the Lincoln Memorial August 28, 1963 in Washington. (Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers)

On the night Trump was elected president, I sat at home alone feeling winded; just hours earlier, I’d been at a polling site in Bed Stuy where black and brown people, many of them women, smiled and waved and high-fived each other, certain that we’d soon be celebrating a national milestone just like we had eight years before.

Writer Brit Bennett, whose debut novel The Mothers will be adapted for film with actress Kerry Washington as producer, reflects on her experience of reality in the past year since President Trump’s election in a poignant personal essay for Vogue. Back to back scandals, large and small explosions of racial animus, and the whiplash-like event of Trump following the nation’s first black president have “compressed time,” Bennett writes, and have made the author, and her mother, who grew up in Jim Crow-era Louisiana, question the notion of progress.

In Trump Time, the clock moves backward. The feeling that time itself is reversing might be the most unsettling aspect of a most unsettling year. What else is Make America Great Again but a promise to re-create the past? Through his campaign slogan, Trump seizes the emotional power of nostalgia, conjuring a glorious national history and offering it as an alternative to an uncertain future. He creates a fantasy for his base of white Americans but a threat for many others. After all, in what version of the past was America ever great for my family? “The good ol’ days?” my mother always says. “The good ol’ days for who?”

Last September, I traveled with a publicist who is also black to a warehouse in Westminster, Maryland, in order to sign books. As we left Baltimore and headed toward a city that is, according to the latest census, 87 percent white, we began to see red Make America Great Again signs on lawn after lawn. “When I see those signs, I feel the same way as when I see a Confederate flag,” I said. She understood what I meant—that visceral sense of dread. Both symbols represent a racialized nostalgia that, to me, only evokes fear.

I did not realize then that, within the year, those two symbols would collapse into each other.

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In the Wake of Weinstein and #MeToo, Why Does R. Kelly Still Have an Audience?

(Rex Features via AP Images)

At Rolling Stone, reporter Jason Newman recently revealed another round of sexual assault and abuse allegations against R. Kelly. The allegations are from one of Kelly’s former girlfriends, disc jockey Kitti Jones, who dated the singer from 2011 to 2013.

It was June 2011, and R. Kelly had just performed to a frenetic crowd at the Verizon Theatre outside Dallas, Texas. It had been nearly two decades since the singer’s raunchy lyrics and honeyed voice turned him into a R&B superstar and sex symbol. But despite multiple controversies over his alleged sexual relationships with underage girls, his still-dedicated fan base sent his latest album — the throwback soul LP Love Letter ­— to number six on the Billboard 200…

[Jones had] been into Kelly since she was a teen in the early 1990s, when she’d hide in her room with his music to escape her mother’s tumultuous romantic relationships. She’d buy every magazine he was in and, upon the release of his 1993 solo debut, 12 Play, took a limo to a third-row seat at her first Kelly show. She’d seen him in concert seven times since. “He was my Brad Pitt,” she says.

The story of Jones’s relationship with Kelly includes food deprivation, forced sex acts, and a dormitory-style, cult-like atmosphere with his other girlfriends. It echoes Buzzfeed’s July story, “R. Kelly is Holding Women Against their Will in a Cult, Parents Told Police,” reported by Jim DeRogatis, who has followed the cloud of allegations surrounding the singer since before his 2008 trial for child pornography.

Jones says she went to Rolling Stone to support the women mentioned in the Buzzfeed report, some of whom are younger than 21 and are, according to one woman’s parents “brainwashed” by the singer.

Reports of Kelly’s illicit, predatory behavior go back to his marriage to singer Aaliyah in 1994 when she was 15 years old and he was 28. (Vibe published an apparent marriage certificate in its December issue that year). Over the years I’ve personally heard from Chicagoans with memories of Kelly traipsing the halls of local high schools looking to befriend teenage girls. Much less clear than Kelly’s gleeful exploitation of women and girls — he calls himself the “Pied Piper” of R&B — is how and why he gets to keep an audience and a job.

Rolling Stone’s article came out just a week after accounts of producer Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior were first published in The New York Times and The New Yorker. The public responded with shock, outrage, and then action. Weinstein was fired from the company he co-founded, expelled from the Motion Picture Academy, and could face criminal charges. Some of his accusers, like Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, are powerful Hollywood players, but regular women also stepped forward on social media to tell their own stories of sexual violence, using the hashtag #metoo.

Accusers of other powerful, predatory men soon followed: actor Kevin Spacey, Amazon Studios executive Roy Price, NPR’s senior vice president for news Michael Oreskes, former New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier, and ex-New Republic publisher Hamilton Fish.

In a tough news cycle, the courage of survivors heartened me. I’ve been the victim of sexual violence more than once. I know many women who can say the same, but often, it’s only behind closed doors, in voices thin with internalized shame that we speak of these things if we ever do at all. Also heartening, of course, were the consequences forced on many of the predators — the public shaming of them, the loss of deals, relationships, credibility.

Weinstein’s victims, that we know of, were mostly white — with the exception of Lupita Nyong’o, who published a detailed account of her experience with the producer in the New York Times. Bim Adewunmi, a critic I admire, wrote that black actresses, who get fewer roles for less pay than their white counterparts, were mostly saved in this instance because of their lack of desirability in the eyes of the mainstream. Weinstein was reported to have turned down actress Sophie Okonedo for a role because he doubted that she was “fuckable” enough to draw audiences. Adewunmi’s thinking didn’t sit right with me; sexually predatory behavior isn’t fundamentally about desirability. Also, women of color — especially indigenous women — have a higher lifetime incidence of sexual violence than white women and are less likely to report it to authorities or use social services to get help. We haven’t been saved from anything just because multitudes of us aren’t on one predator’s list.

There was a lot of silence after Nyong’o spoke up, and with R. Kelly’s victims, there’s been a similar silence. Perhaps it’s news fatigue: Everything is exhausting and heartbreaking, and one can only be outraged so much. Still, it’s curiously telling who the outrage and action follows. There are black women writers and activists who’ve tried to wake us up to the horror of Kelly’s behavior, yet he continues to tour and record music. Right now, on this very day, about half a dozen girls and women may be held in a weird, multi-city sex cult in R. Kelly’s homes. Some of their parents have asked for help. Aren’t they worthy of our collective fury, too?

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We’re Going Through Hell, and Men Need to Join Us There

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

I know what you’re thinking: Not another sexual harassment post. Bear with me.

I’ve spoken to many women over the past few weeks who feel exhausted by the current news cycle, I count myself among them: the endless onslaught of horrific stories, interspersed with the occasional, extremely bad non-apology.

I know it’s tempting to look away, and it’s fine if you have to; please take care of yourself. It doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad feminist. But it’s important the stories keep coming out, that the issue remains in the public discourse. It feels like we are in a moment of momentum, working our way towards something better, however clumsy, messy, and painful the process can be. It’s a little cheesy, but I keep thinking of the quote often misattributed to Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” This momentum feels like hell, and we have to keep going.

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Multi-Level Marketing’s Feminine Mystique: A Reading List

Women attend a Tupperware party, 1955. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The commodification of female friendship began in the living room, often with a small party or a conversation between neighbors. Then the goods came out: cosmetics, vitamins, jewelry. The multi-level marketing scheme was a suburban phenomenon, a way for homemakers to earn some money among friends. In the 1960s and 70s, Mary Kay, the pink-hued cosmetics company, dominated the market; in the 1980s, it was the Pampered Chef, with its kitchen tools and cookbooks; in the 2010s it’s LuLaRoe, a clothing company with coveted patterned leggings that are sold primarily through social media.

Today, multi-level marketing is booming online, with entire transactions taking place in the comments sections of Facebook posts, and aspiring entrepreneurs dispensing tips on YouTube about unloading their inventory. The products may vary, but the tactics don’t. Products are displayed, promises made. And whether a woman calls herself a consultant, a retailer, a partner, or distributor, there’s always a thinly veiled sense of desperation beneath the pitch.

Women who participate in MLM companies make a hefty up-front investment. To profit, they’ll need to recruit others to invest, and once drawn in it can be difficult to get out. Take a look at any website for an MLM company, and you’ll see sparkling promises of wealth for women. They don’t just sell products; they sell fantasies of empowerment, control, and financial freedom. Thanks to the stories below, it’s easy to understand how and why these companies target women, and what happens when they do.

1. “How a Single Mom Created a Plastic Food-Storage Empire” (Jen Doll, Mental Floss, June 2017)

It’s easy to associate Tupperware with beehive hairdos and grimy leftovers, but the company—pushed to success by social networker Brownie Wise—set the stage for today’s MLM culture. Doll tells the story of how Wise grew the company from a food storage novelty to an unstoppable national phenomenon. Why did hosting home parties as a Tupperware consultant appeal to so many women? For many, it meant a chance to work again, after the loss of employment after World War II.

Most of Wise’s Tupperware recruits fit neatly into the stereotypical role of a proper housewife. But, in reality, they surreptitiously represented a new kind of female empowerment. During World War II, many women had no choice but to enter the workforce. At its end, many of them had no choice but to leave it. Suddenly, selling Tupperware at parties allowed women to straddle both worlds. They were employed, yet they didn’t appear to challenge their husbands’ authority or the status quo. This pioneering entrepreneurial model allowed them to inhabit a workforce outside of the one the hustling salesman inhabited, and, in many cases, to do even better than he did. And that power relied specifically on a network of female friends and neighbors.

The parties weren’t just a way for women to keep occupied—it was a way they could contribute to their family’s bottom line. Most women who worked outside the home had low-paying jobs in fields like light manufacturing, retail, clerical work, and health and education. The money—committed dealers could bring in $100 or more per week—was a revelation. The opportunity for success was so great that the husbands of some Tupperware ladies left their own jobs to work with their wives.

2. “The Pink Pyramid Scheme” (Virginia Sole-Smith, Harper’s, August 2012)

For decades, Mary Kay has sold a two-sided promise to women: You can buy cosmetics for youth, but for actual power, you should sell them. When Sole-Smith became a consultant for the cosmetic brand, then nearly fifty years in business, she witnessed the revival-style tactics used consultants to recruit women. She also saw a flip side of the brand for women who found both friendship and financial peril in their new roles.

Lynne resigned from her directorship soon after, but she stayed on as a consultant. She had over $15,000 in credit card debt and a basement full of unsold products inching closer to their expiration dates. It took three more years to fully extract herself, paint over the pink wall, and get rid of the products. In 2011, her husband filed for divorce, citing as one of the reasons their “different attitudes towards money.” “He meant the whole Mary Kay thing,” Lynne said. “We just never got past it.” But it wasn’t for lack of trying. When her husband first began to talk about leaving, Lynne cleared every last Mary Kay product out of the house, selling much of it at a loss and throwing the rest in the trash. “I didn’t want him to see so much as a bottle of lotion and be reminded,” she said. “I didn’t want to be reminded either.”

But she hasn’t left Mary Kay behind entirely. The consultant who debuted with only two guests at Lynne’s party remains one of her best friends and is her son’s godmother. Lynne’s new career in real estate allows her to apply her sales knowledge, and the commission checks are at least bigger.

“Oh gosh, we were all so happy,” Lynne said as we looked at a picture of women in sequined cocktail dresses and layers of Mary Kay makeup smiling into the camera, their arms slung around one another. “I guess I didn’t know who I would be without Mary Kay to define me.”

3. “How Essential Oils Became the Cure for Our Age of Anxiety,” (Rachel Monroe, The New Yorker, October 2017)

When Monroe embroiled herself in the wild world of MLMs that sell essential oils, she found that it meant more than money for its sellers. Part of the appeal of grassroots-style selling came from consultants’ belief in their products. And when it comes to essential oils, it could feel like a matter of life or death.

Lara distributed a handout that listed various ailments and their oil treatments: eucalyptus for bronchitis, lavender for third-degree burns, cypress for mononucleosis, rosemary for respiratory syncytial virus. Diffusion “kills microorganisms in the air which helps stop the spread of sickness,” the pamphlet read. Oils “repair our bodies at a cellular level so when you are not sure which oils to use, don’t be afraid to use several oils and the body will gain a myriad of benefits.” Lara told the people in the room that doTerra had oils that were “very antiviral” and could knock out bronchitis in twenty-four hours. She shared essential-oil success stories—her migraines gone, her friend’s rheumatoid arthritis reversing, a colleague’s mother’s cancer in remission. A blond woman at the back of the room raised her hand. “Cancer?” she said, sounding both skeptical and hopeful. She explained that her sister-in-law had recently been treated for breast cancer, and was taking a pill to prevent its recurrence, but the side effects were terrible. The blond woman was hoping for a more natural solution.

“There is an oil for that,” Lara said cautiously. “There is some research. It is an option. It would not have those side effects.”

4. “The Truth Behind Rodan + Fields (And Its Takeover of Your Facebook Feed),” (Lauren Lipton, Allure, September 2015)

Women can become involved in MLMs for both friendship and financial gain. But what happens when everyone you know is involved in a sales scheme? After all, there are only so many showcases and special sales a person can attend, and for some, it might feel like an entire friend group has morphed into eager saleswomen. As Lipton learned, not everyone is thrilled about those endless invitations and events.

There’s a fine line between inspiring and annoying, and not all Rodan + Fields consultants tread it well. In fact, if you sell Rodan + Fields and think your friends might be dodging you, they probably are. “This is the suburban scourge,” says Rachael Pavlik, a Houston mother and the blogger behind rachriot.com, who says she goes out of her way to avoid anyone trying to sell her anything. “At first I would buy all of their stuff because I was kind of guilted into it….What is that? That’s not friendship.”

Pavlik is more outspoken than most. Most women we spoke to can’t bring themselves to hurt their friends’ feelings, so they roll their eyes privately, secretly blocking Rodan + Fields consultants who clutter their Facebook feeds and deftly fending off clumsy come-ons. One East Coast mother says she’s been approached multiple times by everyone from the woman who does her brows to childhood acquaintances she hasn’t seen for decades. Last year, an old high-school friend asked her to lunch — for reasons that soon became all too clear: “It wasn’t long into the conversation before I realized that this was a thinly veiled attempt to make me join her team,” she says. “She’s not trying to be friends with me; she’s trying to build her empire.”

5. “Multilevel-Marketing Companies Like LuLaRoe Are Forcing People Into Debt and Psychological Crisis” (Alden Wicker, Quartz, August 2017)

Wicker’s deep dive into the business practices of retailer LuLaRoe finds women grappling with everything from disappointment to financial disaster. On its website, LuLaRoe hypes not a company, but a movement—one that offers retailers a happy ending complete with balance, flexibility, and personal fulfillment. However, Wicker finds that the ending can happen quite differently for most consultants.

When consultants wake up to the fact they’ve been hoodwinked, many don’t warn their friends to stay away. That’s because if you speak out against any of LuLaRoe’s rules or mishaps, the community could publicly shame and harass you for being negative. “I can’t believe you call yourself a Christian,” one retailer wrote to someone trying to sound the alarm. “Where is the Jesus in you? I have to block you due to your constant-gross-delusional-uneducated opinions of LLR.” If you reveal you are struggling to make sales, you might be told to stop playing the victim, that you’re not putting in enough effort, to be more enthusiastic, and, of course, to buy more inventory.

“Success as a retailer results only from successful sales efforts, which require hard work, dedication, diligence, leadership, and perseverance,” says a LuLaRoe spokesperson. “Success will depend upon how effectively these qualities are exercised. As with any business, results will vary. In addition to the factors above, retailer success is influenced by the individual capacity, business experience, expertise, and motivation of the retailer.”

In other words, it’s not the system that’s broken — you’re just not trying hard enough.

Wives, Queens, and Other Comedy Heroes: A Reading List

(Rex Features via AP Images)

Honestly, I thought I was handling the Trump presidency okay. At least I wasn’t crying every day. I realize that not crying every day isn’t much of a litmus test. But when Trump codified his transgender military ban, I could no longer deny that I was struggling in other subtle and sinister ways: “I have to sleep more than nine hours a day or I cannot function physically,” or “My finances are shot because I don’t have the will to work and provide for a future that may or may not come to fruition.”

Of course, this is what fascists want for someone like me. They want me fatigued, struggling mentally, and hopeless. They don’t want me alive. Logically then, I should fight really, really, hard to thrive. I am trying, when I sit here to write for the first time in almost two months. I am trying, whenever I bring myself to get out of bed before noon, when I cook for myself. I am trying to imagine a fascism-free future. I am trying to imagine a future where evangelical Christians don’t take time out of serving the poor to disparage and damn the marginalized and their allies. I document the moments I laugh the loudest. I try to be honest with myself and with the people I care for.

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On Why Joni Mitchell Deserves Her Due

(Photo by Larry Hulst / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

At Bookforum, Carl Wilson writes on the genuis of Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. In looking at David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, Wilson argues that Joni’s musical talent and accomplishments have been “asterisked” over the years because she was a woman, and that it’s long past time she got the recognition she deserves for pushing musical and cultural boundaries with songs built on her “chords of inquiry” (unique chords based on her own tunings).

It’s 1984 or 1985, Prince and the Revolution are in California, and they decide to drive out to Joni Mitchell’s house in Malibu for dinner. All devotees—Prince says his favorite album ever is 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns—they chat and admire her paintings, and then Prince wanders to the piano and starts teasing out some chords. “Joni says, ‘Oh wow! That’s really pretty. What song are you playing?’” as band member Wendy Melvoin later recalls. “We all yelled, ‘It’s your song!’” Prince will perform his gorgeous arrangement of Mitchell’s “A Case of You” in concerts up to the final month of his life.

This anecdote from David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell is rare for being sweet and funny, not sad or rancorous. It’s endearingly humbling, while still hinting at her ample ego: She really does love her own stuff, even when she doesn’t know it’s hers. And why shouldn’t she? For more than a decade, the singer from Saskatchewan bounded from masterpiece to masterpiece, her second-string songs superior to almost anyone else’s best. Yet, among her generation’s legends, she is the most persistently sidelined.

Mitchell excelled at channeling the subconscious of her time, especially as it was negotiated between men and women, but she was also always trying to get outside that orbit. She didn’t want to be a case of anything, except herself. The very chords she played were unique, belonging to no tradition except the one she generated with her own tuning system. She’s called them her “chords of inquiry—they have a question mark in them.” It wasn’t until she began working with jazz musicians that she found a band that could follow her (the rock dudes were hopeless). Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter took her as a musical peer. With rare exceptions, she refused to let anyone else—that is, any man—produce her albums, making her a pioneer in the studio too. No wonder Prince identified.

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A Thousand Miles of Bad Roads with No Maps and No Men

As someone who grew up in the desert Southwest, I feel a kinship with anyone who goes for a long desert ramble for no other reason than to enjoy a nice long ramble. Whether by foot or by car, spending time in nature restores and grounds you, and finding your way around wild places requires parts of our minds and senses that we don’t always use back home in the city. This is especially true now that we’ve been spoiled by digital navigation that helps us find the coffee shop down the street.

At Marie Claire, Whitney Joiner narrates her seven demanding days driving through the desert back-country without GPS or cell service. Part of the U.S.’s first all-female endurance rally, where drivers navigate with only topographical maps, Joiner and her teammate went through some of America’s most challenging arid terrain as they competed against seventy other female drivers. This land of sand dunes and rocky ridgelines presented constant challenges, and drivers added their own. (As Joiner described hers: “I live in Brooklyn! I don’t even have a car!”) But the race was about strategy and endurance, designed by a woman racer with women’s strengths and uniqueness in mind. What Joiner found was the terrifying, exultant beauty of the desert.

Every night, when the scores for the day were posted, we’d land in the bottom four. But wethought we were champions.

All week, the experienced competitors were itching for the final day, when we’d be competing in sand dunes—notoriously difficult to navigate. We woke up that last morning in California’s Imperial Sand Dunes (where Return of the Jedi was partially filmed) to a blazing sun, a high in the 90s, and a range of shimmering white sand mountains towering over base camp.

I didn’t feel particularly ambitious about the dunes, but Jaclyn wanted to attempt some final point-collecting. We caravanned with a few competitors, helping each other find the safest routes, then ate lunch around a green checkpoint, sitting in the shade cast by our vehicles. It was our last green of the rally.

But when I stood up, I saw the top of a blue flag in the recess of a group of dunes to the south. I nudged Jaclyn: “Let’s try it.”

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