Tell me, have you experienced that acrid feeling of lying in bed, casually, fuzzy socks and a warm beverage? Not a care in the world. Maybe except those overdraft fees in your checking account. But nevertheless, you’re flicking from social media feed to social media feed. Then, all of a sudden, and it’s almost always out of nowhere—BAM!—somebody makes their way across your newsfeed preaching that racist, homophobic, misogynistic, respectable, colorist, slut-shamey, sex-negative bs yet again?
Sadly, I know the feeling too. And if you’re anything like me, where challenging harmful ideas comes to you more like a reflex than a carefully planned decision, you probably find yourself in those kinds of situations far more often than you’d care for.
I like to imagine that our beloved poet-mother, Pat Parker, felt similarly when she had those kinds of run-ins with the problematic ideologies of her time. She may not have had the headache of dealing with tea partiers, fascists in the alt-right, and idiots who claim #AllLivesMatter, but Pat Parker certainly had her fair share of reactionary ideologues and ideologies to circumscribe and counterpose.
Parker lived in the age before humans lived out their lives, simultaneously, with a foot to the floor and another one in cyberspace. A wordscraftwoman by trade, she would certainly have been struck, and perhaps critical, of how the internet weaponized the use of language in a way unprecedented in previous generations. She would have admired how social media has lent itself to dialectical activism. But, conversely, she would have also despised how it platforms ignorance and right-wing movements in present-day.
Between the 1960s and 80s, when Parker was professionally active, social media and digital publications weren’t around. But Parker did have poetry, and she took to the conventions of the poetic metre to convey and transform political thought, shaping and rebirthing discourse.
Parker’s body of poetry, an army of simple lines and sparse punctuation, reveals a witty writer with the ability to breakdown the logics of adversaries and, over its remains, build beautiful Black realities for Afro-women, their families, their spouses, and their ancestors where structures of oppression once existed.
So if Parker were still around, I’m sure she’d have a poem or two for the Pill Cosby defenders, with their thinly-veiled racial justice critique. This crowd belabors the fact that Bill Cosby will serve jail time while Harvey Weinstein hasn’t. They point out the racism endemic to the dynamic but they hardly discuss the more insidious form of racism contained in the details of the case. The details showing that while Cosby accumulated victims across racial backgrounds, it wasn’t until white female victims decided to come forward that the courts actually took the claims seriously. Parker would probably have a line and a rhyme for Kanye West as well, whose controversial takes on everything from a the Trump presidency to the history of slavery, has smacked of pseudointellectual contrarianism. What he dubs as “free-thought.”
But fortunate for us, Parker’s poetry is resilient as ever, and still carries with it some witty and needed words of wisdom, outpacing a number of the problematic ideologies that has unfortunately outlived the “Movement in Black” herself. From ignorance on race to sexuality, here are three commentaries that Parker gave us for problematic people of our time:
Likely phrase: “The feminization of the Black MAN!”
Parker was writing about Hoteps way before the term was even invented. What we now call Hoteps, roughly capturing Black people (largely men) who take an ahistorical and race-only approach to politics and consciousness, in Parker’s day, would have encompassed Garveyites, Nation of Islam adherents, reactionaries in the Black Power Movement, cultural nationalists and so on.
Hoteps are famously hostile towards intersectionality or political frameworks that do not center the political priorities of Black men, especially those that account for gender and sexuality. For Hoteps, enslavement, Jim Crow, and the institutional effects of racism felt in the post-WWII era have stripped Black men of their singular masculinity, and by rejecting white knowledge, subduing women, and suppressing deviations from heterosexuality and gender binarism, Black men can forge communion with a precolonial Africa that exists only within their own epistemology. As we can see (see images), this includes a rabid and unique animosity for feminism and the Black feminist/womanist movement.
It’s almost paradoxical how these images show Black women squarely within the intersections of Blackness and Womaness, with both Black men and white women demanding that Black women fight their struggle, while neither group seems willing to do the same for Black women. By requesting that Black women focus solely on racism, while suggesting that Black women are the political operatives of white women when they explore their gendered oppressions, Hoteps insult Black women’s intellectual and political intelligence and deny their right to self-determination. Pat Parker, before living openly and honestly as a lesbian, found herself married to one of these Hoteps: famous playwright and Black Panther Party Minister of Culture Ed Bullins, who in his fight against oppression, fought Parker down a flight of steps, killing her unborn child more violently than any “racist abortion clinic.”
Parker understood that Black women could not rely on the male-centered visions of various Black consciousness organizations and movements for their freedom. She wrote
i don’t want to hear
how my real enemy
is the system.
i’m no genius,
but i do know
you hit me with is called
i have a dream
…in my dream
i can walk ghetto streets
& not be beaten up by my brothers
Parker’s poems reveal how racism is not the only, or even the primary form of oppression that Black women and femmes can face. Hoteps should take Pat’s advice.
#2 HYPOCRITICAL HOMOPHOBES
Likely phrase: “I don’t have an issue with gay people, I just don’t like them shoving it down our throats.”
There are certainly levels to homophobia. Homophobia can be as virulent as physical violence, or as quiet as never leaving your daughter in the room alone with her lesbian aunt. But regardless, both its subtle and not-so-subtle manifestations underpin a deeper issue with the inability or unwillingness of that individual to view their own heterosexuality as merely one star in a galaxy of acceptable sexual expressions.
All forms of homophobia are hypocritical, but the kind that Pat Parker writes about and is the form taken up by the moderate homophobes. Those who dislike the feeling and image of being viewed as a bigot, but not enough to actually undergo a transformation of their thoughts and actions in order to shake themselves free of their prejudices.
These are the ones who have made peace with the fact that homosexuals exist but find expressions of homosexuality pushy and over the top. “Shoving their sexualities down my throat,” is how they often describe it, while ignoring how heterosexuality is promoted and encouraged in our everyday lives: in advertisements, family gatherings, religious life, small talk, the workplace, government questionnaires, entertainment, and casual strolls down the street. Pat Parker points out the latent hypocrisy, sassing back:
You know some people
got a lot of nerve
…Have you met the woman
who’s shocked by 2 women kissing
& in the same breath
tells you that she’s pregnant?
…You go in a public bathroom
& all over the wall
there’s John loves Mary
Janice digs Richard
…Fact is, blatant heterosexuals
are all over the place.
…& they want gay men & women
to go hide in the closets.
…but i’m polite
For Parker, heterosexuals are blinded by the ubiquity of heterosexuality. So when there is a deviation, however slight, they buckle and churn but hypocritically would take great offense, if for example, non-heterosexuals behaved the same way towards their wedding photos or the stories they share about the children they birthed.
#3 CONSCIOUS EATERS
Likely phrase: “So, let me tell you how you’re actually participating in oppression and environmental destruction by eating that burger.”
Being both Trinidadian and born in Brooklyn, when I did move to South Carolina in 2006, my very first invitation to a countryfied Thanksgiving celebration had to have been one of the most conciliatory aspects of my move. I remember it like it was yesterday. The banana-pudding-oozing confection glory, the collards kissing your lips in a steamy haze, the fluffy biscuits guiding you to bed after your meal.
Soul food was and still is the story of the power residing in African descending people to create life out of baron wildernesses. Soul food was and is a foodstuff of nurture, forged in the same fire of ingenuity that led underprivileged Black creatives in NYC ghettoes to transform worn out records, and uninspiring turntables, into a global phenomenon referred to as Hip-Hop. Soul food is of immense importance to the cultural fabric of the Black community and the United States.
With that history in mind, its extremely unsettling that soul food, it seems, is always coming under attack by an increasingly racially diverse assortment of critics. The African American food tradition gets ransacked of its creative and intellectual rigor and devalued to the level of mundanity. It is never conceived of or appreciated in the same light as say Mediterranean cuisines or French delicacies, although equally unhealthy and fattening. And with the advent of the conscious food movement, soul food appears to have found itself a new enemy.
Conscious eaters are those who view food intake as a crucial component in a larger conversation that touches on every cornerstone from self-care to agricultural labor exploitation. Conscious eaters in the United States have been candid against genetically modified foods and artificial sweeteners like aspartame and high fructose corn syrup, for example. They have been calling for radical changes in American eating habits, advocating for vegetarian, vegan, organic and raw food diets.
Some conscious eating philosophies have been spiritually/religiously inspired while others have remained secular. As varied as the many alternative food philosophies may be, they tend to unilaterally share a racist and misinformed disdain for the oily, fatty perfection of soul food cuisine. A kind of disdain they hardly express for other fatty foods around the world.
The ancestors of today’s conscious eaters were fluttering around in Parker’s time too. Back then, they might’ve been thought of as simply hippies or tree-huggers.
For many conscious eaters, soul food is viewed as low-quality, unhealthy, and unattractive pig feed, slapped together in previously burnt frying pans and baked in shiny aluminum oven containers. Parker’s relationship with soul food transcended such a mundane, historically ill-informed picture. Parker writes in stern correction:
It’s not called soul food
because it goes with music.
It is a survival food.
Stated otherwise: soul food wasn’t created to impress the expensive tastes of cosmopolitan crowds in society restaurants. It was made to save Black babies, Black dads, Black elders from crippling starvation—and it just so happened to taste good as hell along the way. Soul food may not have the swankiest origins, but Parker acknowledges that:
From the grease
of my people
—that it served its purpose. And well. Therefore, for Parker, enjoying a plate of fat back is less a decision about food posterity:
it is a ritual
it is a joining
me to my ancestors
It is a choice of remaining in transcending communion with one’s ancestors while taking pride in one’s own cultural heritage.
Many conscious eaters reek of ideological orientations towards scientific positivism and cultural universalism, which are not wholly free of racist over and undertones. Conscious eaters tend to hold a universal definition of ‘health’ which they then apply to everybody, every body, everywhere, equally. Coincidentally, soul food for many conscious eaters, falls well within the parameters of ‘unhealthy.’ Parker flips that narrative upside down, defining and redefining what health looks like, chiming back:
…your words ring untrue
this food is good for me
it replenishes my soul.
So not only do many conscious eaters diss soul food, but they even feel empowered doing so on their own value laden definitions of health.
As highlighted above, conscious eaters can be extremely sanctimonious. Certainly not all, but one too many. But as always, Parker’s withstanding lyrics are not only riddled with incisive critiques but also wisdom-laden advice. So for all those self-righteous conscious eaters out there, Parker recommends:
…if you really
to look at my food
…& can’t keep those feelings
do us both a favor
& stay home.
So there we are! Three problematic kinds of folks and classic Parker poems that shut them completely down.
My advice is simply this: the next time some idiot with a keyboard decides to start typing away with problematic comments on your social media feed, remain cool and collected. Instead of slapping them with a wall of text, simply respond to them with a couple of lines from of our lesbian poet-mother, the late Pat Parker.
Parker‘s poetic quips have touched on everything from the politics of monogamy to communist revolution, often with comedic subtexts, and always with timeless execution. All of the poems quoted here can also be located in the 1999 Parker collection Movement in Black, published by Firebrand Books.