Friday, May 30, 2008

Growing Up Army

I am an Army brat.

I have lived in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, California, and Germany, courtesy of Uncle Sam. By the time I was nine I had lived in and visited more places and flown in more airplanes than some of the members of my family. Watching soldiers pack up to travel to different places far away from their families with no indication of when they might return never struck me as particularly odd. People came down with "PCS" (Permanent Change of Station) orders on a regular basis. We moved often.

I lived in Killeen, TX located next to Fort Hood, one of the largest standing military bases in the world, when the Gulf War began in 1990. I knew very little about the conflict, only that Sadaam Hussein (my Generation's version of Hitler -- a homicidal, anti-democratic megalomaniac that we could hate with fierce American pride) was a bad guy that had to be punished by the U.S. I watched Killeen, empty, as embattled wives left the city, returning to their parents to await the return of their husbands. We lived in a ghost town and prayed for a quick ending. We wrapped yellow ribbons around our arms at school, tiny chests swelling with pride. We would win this battle, we were tiny child soldiers with no clue as to what all the fighting was about, only that we should be proud. We were Americans.

My chest no longer swells with pride at being American. I could feel the hateful eyes on me when I attended my baby brother's high school graduation and refused to stand and sing the National Anthem. I could only imagine the thoughts running through the minds of the other audience members. No doubt they guessed (rightfully) that I am anti-war and assumed (wrongly) that I hate soldiers and this country. I am the daughter of infantry division soldiers -- the people who often see the most action, are the most exposed and vulnerable, and most likely to die in combat. I don't hate this country and I don't hate the men and women in uniform who serve it. But I am working to change this country and helping to create a world in which the sons and daughters of poor and working-class folks, especially Black and Brown folks, won't be sacrificed for Christmas bonuses, nepotism, and the Good Ol' Boys Club that passes for our government these days. I can't be proud until I live in a world that is not dominated by the U.S.

These days going home, I am ambivalent. I am deeply opposed to this war, but mourn the loss of so many young men and women, 4,083 to be exact. You sat next to me at graduation, it wasn't supposed to be this way. You sigh with relief, as the high school sweetheart you left behind, writes you to say that he is okay, is doing well, and is finally ready to let you go. She has been holding her breath, praying a small prayer of thanks. You have come home. You were lucky.

They are all special and we cannot lose another one.

When we talk about the cost of war we do not talk about what it means for families to be separated for months at a time. The constant worry that a missed phone call date means that your partner is lying dead in the desert on the other side of the planet. Heartbreak is a part of war's collateral damage. All over Killeen, you see cars with bumper stickers stating "Half my heart is in Iraq." I walk into the grocery store wearing a black t-shirt with George Bush sitting in between Hitler and Mussolini. At a glance I am worlds apart from wives mourning the absence of their husbands. But I know that this assessment is only skin-deep. The bumper sticker reveals as little about them as my t-shirt does. My t-shirt doesn't reveal that my first love was a West Pointer, that both my parents served in the military, think it was one of the best choices either of them made, but explicitly forbid my brother and I to join the military urging us to choose college instead. Nothing wrong with serving your country but some of these rich white kids should have a chance to do it at least once instead of sending their servants' sons and daughters to do this country's dirty work. And the bumper sticker doesn't reveal all of the wives who curse George Bush's name every morning and are hoping that the next president will put his or her exit strategy into action as soon as they enter the Oval Office. The bumper sticker doesn't tell how much some of these folks long for peace.

I am opposed to this war and that will never change. But I recognize that for any kind of peace to be meaningful we must all begin to look at each other with new eyes that affirm our collective humanity and our need for sanity on this deeply troubled planet. We can begin this work when we can look at each other, across our differences and realize that anti-war, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, pro-woman Army brat can see the humanity of a soldier and an Army wife waiting for his return and they can recognize hers. Can we do this work? Absolutely. Will we do it? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I continue to pray for an end to this war and welcome the day when the Armed Forces will no longer need to exist. A utopian goal to be sure, but they are the only ones worth having.

Chasing Miss Scarlett...

It is by now no secret to anyone, lest of all you, dear reader, that race is always directly in the center of all my analysis, all twisted up and intersecting with sexuality, class, gender, and nation as I struggle to make sense of the world. There was a time in my life, specifically when I became truly politicized, that it seemed incomprehensible to me that other people could go through life not being obsessed about these things. As I grew, however, and began to think more deeply about these things I recognized that ultimately we are all different people with different paths on this planet -- mine is paved in critical social theory and justice work.

However, I never ceased to be amazed by how ignorant people can be about the reality of social inequality and the ongo
ing effects of white supremacy in the 21st century.

And by "people" I mean white folks.

I recently had to travel to Houston, TX for the final fitting of my wedding gown. My mother had agreed to come with me to learn how to fasten the dress and arrange the bustle for me (it sounds simple enough but trust me it takes an army of two to get this thing on and looking right). We, of course, were not the only customers being served. As we awaited instructions from the seamstress I observed a young Latina preparing for her
quinceƱera and a young white woman in an enormous white dress surrounded by three of her friends and her mother. We were all talking excitedly as the seamstress began to give my mom and the young white woman's mother instructions on how to fasten the backs of our dresses. Although our dresses were quite different, they both had corset backs that had to be tied in a particular way in order to look right and to secure the enclosures. And so the lesson began.

It was all very fun and innocent until one of the young woman's friends made one of the most off-the-wall statements I'd heard in a while. As she tied her friend's corset and watched the
silhouette of the dress take shape she stated, "Oh my God! You look just like Scarlett O'Hara!"



As in Gone With the Wind (1939) Scarlett O'Hara? As in "I don't know
nuthin' 'bout birthin' no babies Miz Scarlett!" As in "With God as my witness I will never go hungry again!" The problems with this great heroine of the South are too numerous to lay out but I'll try. The character of Scarlett O'Hara reveals the extent to which race and gender interacted and created the social, cultural, and political landscape of the antebellum U.S. South. She is the quintessential southern belle, pampered and spoiled, a beautiful young woman who uses her charm and beauty to entrap young men and get what she wants out of life. In this sense some have looked to her as a pre-feminist model who recognizes the gendered power dynamics of her environment and attempts to flip the script on stupid men to have her own way. On the other hand, she also fully relies on men to protect her, provide for her and take care of her throughout the film. From her father to Rhett Butler to the enslaved Black men who serve her family (before and after Emancipation), men are central to her life and survival.

Second, the figure of Scarlett O'Hara as the essential Southern belle is rooted in a history of plantation violence that is erased in the romantic and nostalgic representations of the antebellum South. Some (white) women might like to look to Scarlett as a feminist
foremother because of her fortitude and strength in the face of adversity, the fall of the South, and the Yankee invasion, but there are some of us who are the daughters of the women who nursed her, raised her, served her. And although Scarlett might not have known it, we are the daughters of those dark women who were sexually abused and raped by the white men that she looked to for protection. Those same white men who felt her white beauty and pure femininity were so valuable that she must be protected from Black men, our fathers, who posed a threat to her virtue. We are the daughters of Black men, swinging from Southern trees, that strange fruit Billie Holiday sang about, sacrificed on the altar of the Great Southern Dream. We remember the plantation, too, and our memories are quite different. In order to embrace Scarlett O'Hara, we must forget all that we know about the antebellum and postbellum South. White people may have the luxury of amnesia but for Black folks and other people of color that sort of memory loss is suicide.

Is this what young white women in the 21st century aspire to become? Do they still want to be Miss Scarlett? What does it mean that the ultimate standard of white beauty and femininity continues to be that of the Southern belle, living in the lap of plantation luxury, oblivious to the violence that makes her pampered existence possible while simultaneously entrapping her in a world of white patriarchal control? It seems to me that white women if they are to become truly a part of the struggle for justice (be it gender, racial, economic, or environmental justice) must begin to find and embrace new models.

A short detour, however, back to our original story. When I heard the young woman's friend tell her that she looked like Scarlett O'Hara, I nearly stopped breathing. In my mind, if this conversation followed its logical conclusion there was only one place it could go. And it did.

Laughing, another friend responded "Yeah, but she had servants," followed by more laughter. Finally, the mother states, "Yeah, except they were slaves, but, well, you know..." she began to trail off uncomfortably, as the three friend twittered and giggled nervously. Perhaps they looked over to the right and noticed the two dark-skinned Black women, my mother and myself, standing there, the descendants of enslaved Africans and suddenly became aware of their own whiteness. That's my optimistic reading, it's more likely that they saw our black bodies and just didn't want to make a scene. The paradox of the post-Civil Rights Era, since outright bigotry is beyond the pale now, white folks don't stop being racist, they just become more polite about it. Another fine example of good ol' fashioned Southern Hospitality.

This incident reminded me how exhausting patriarchy and white supremacy are for me. I don't wake up in the morning looking for this stuff, mostly I'd just like to live and enjoy my life like every other human being on this planet wants to. As I stood there in my wedding gown, I should have been thinking about how excited I was to be jumping the broom with my partner, a radical man that I adore. Instead I was churning critical analysis as the seamstress showed my mom how to handle the bustle. Feeling like Black folks and women of color are the only people who ever have to work about race or gender is exhausting. The burden of memory is heavy and if we are ever to set this world right, it is time for others to take up their own cross and understand the memory of racial terror, sexual violence, slavery, and white supremacy that provides the foundation for the cultural fantasies that they hold dear. For white folks who don't understand why Black people are still so pissed about race or Black women can never seem to shake the effects of patriarchal white supremacy, ask Scarlett. I suspect she knows quite a bit more about it than she ever really let on.

Postscript: And since my wedding dress was the source for this blog, I have to wonder why is it that so many tired and messed up cultural scripts get reproduced in the wedding/bridal industry. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me that I would look and feel like a queen or princess on my wedding day, I'd be suffocated by all the newly acquired cash. Why do these wedding businesses capitalize on the most racist and patriarchal fantasies -- I can assure every little girl does not want to be a princess, a Southern belle or anything else on their wedding day. I had not spent my whole life dreaming about getting married or getting to dress up like a princess...but that reflection is for another blog...maybe.