Phone Conversations with My Mother
Baton Rouge, LA and Brooklyn, NY
Writing is a very solitary act. Yet it, like many other art forms, is only fulfilled in community. It lives when it is read by others. Some artists don’t like to be influenced by others while developing their work, but I find a large part of my progress as a writer, and as an individual, is based on interaction with others.
From the beginning, my father, Kalamu ya Salaam, was my editor, spurring me on to create work and submit my writing for publication. His questions about my content and his challenges regarding my themes caused me to dive deeper into the theoretical questions of my work; therefore, his feedback had a direct impact on my writing.
Years later, I now have two friends who read and comment on my work. Almost everything I submit for publication has been through one, if not both, of their hands. My friends’ responses teach me about the strength and weaknesses of my work. Badly phrased fragments, underdeveloped sections, and uneven characters can pass under my radar easily, because often I’m filling in the blanks in my head, but not on paper. Outside eyes catch and stumble upon those awkward places in my writing and push me to work harder at creating a smooth ride for readers. This process is something my mother would call “I/We.”
As I mentioned before, my mother, Tayari kwa Salaam, is a Ph.D. student. She calls me up from time to time to talk about the theories she’s developing for her dissertation. “I/We” is one of those theories. Well, she’s decided it is a methodology (rather than a theory): in other words a method to approach critical thought. My understanding of “I/We” is that it is the process of developing an idea or a thought by partially birthing it in private, then bringing it to your community (whoever that may be) for discussion and contemplation, then using the ideas sparked by discussion with the community to cement your idea or thought into theory. She’s embraced this as the methodology for her dissertation. She finds that she is able to have a stronger grasp on her ideas through discussion with others. Her most exciting theorizing happens in conversation with her community.
The moment my mother explained the I/We methodology to me, I recognized I/We as a profound experience I had with one of my essays: “Navigating to No.” Just now, as I type this, I realize that I began my career as a writer out of an I/We moment. The first story I ever wrote (as an adult) was entitled “How Far Have We Come?” In 1990 (or 91) a classmate of mine had a bizarre experience while reading a Haki Madhubuti book on the train. A white man—who happened to be reading over her shoulder—became so incensed by a particular passage regarding white people’s fear of black people that he knocked the book out of my classmate’s hand, and eventually hit her. Although everyone on the train was black, no one came to her aid. After the classmate told us this story in class, the thought of this happening in 1990 would not let go of me. It just kept running over and over again in my head. So I wrote the story down as a mechanism for coping with it. In the story, when the character is hit by the man on the train, she suddenly finds herself back in time, sprawled in the cotton fields—her back burning from the sting of a whip, a book on the ground inches from her fingertips. The classmate assaulted by a self-righteous white man became an enslaved woman beat by a zealous overseer. I sent the story to my father, he suggested I send it out for publication. The Black Collegian published it in 1991. They paid me $100. I just knew I was in business, it was years before I made that kind of money from a piece of fiction again. [I know now that commercial magazines pay way better than anthologies and literary magazines. It’s the economics of the business.]
I/We is all over my beginnings as a writer. If that woman, a member of my community, hadn’t stood up and shared her story, that material wouldn’t have nagged me until it was written. I have no doubt I would have become a writer anyway, there would have been another entry point on the path of writing, but this woman is the one who got me started. I told her story, threw in my own speculative fiction twist drawing on the communal history of Americans, and started my own individual career. Then a member of my community, my father, said “Hey, you need to publish this.” For sure, I would NOT have sent that story out without someone suggesting it to me. It just wouldn’t have occurred to me. But anyway, back to the story I intended to tell.
My largest experience with I/We transformed me personally as well as professionally. In 1993 a friend of mine told me she was raped. She “rushed over the confession quickly. She didn’t really want to discuss it. Why?—because it wasn’t a ‘physical’ rape. He didn’t have a gun or a knife and he didn’t beat her up. They were, in fact, friends. She was attracted to him, it was late, and she was in his home…. Although she clearly believed she was raped, she couldn’t explain why she considered it rape.”—from “Navigating to No.”
I found myself fascinated by my friend’s story. How could you say you were raped and not be able to explain why? How could these things happen? I never forgot her story.
In 1995 I told a male friend that someone “seduced me.” He said “Oh, you trying to say you didn’t want it?” “No,” I said, “I mean he made it happen, but I wanted it.” He said, “No, seducing is when you make somebody have sex when they don’t want to.” “Are you crazy?” I said, “That’s rape.” As we were arguing about what seduction is and isn’t, something clicked. I realized if men think seduction is making women have sex when they don’t want to and women aren’t strong enough to say no in the face of extreme pressure or harassment, that’s how “date rape” happens. Two people with two different definitions for seduction and two very different models for interaction. I put together my female friend’s rape story with my male friend’s definition of seduction (two elements from my community—the “we”) and wrote a personal essay entitled “Seduction vs. Rape.”
“Seduction vs. Rape” was published on an Internet publication called Topsoil. A college professor found it and asked if she could use it in her classroom. So here I am, having a discussion with my community. My community expresses some ideas to me, I think about it and write an essay, my community posts it online and a member of another community reaches out and asks if she can spread it to more people.
In 1996 I suffered the same type of sexual experience. I clearly didn’t want to have sex, but the man was not picking up on my signals. When he didn’t respond to my mumbled suggestions that we should slow it down, fear set in. Rather than confront him, I went along with his program and had sex with him. I went home the next day and didn’t tell anyone about it. Yes, I believe this too, is a piece of conversation from my community. It was certainly an I/We moment.
Some years after, I decided to develop “Seduction vs. Rape” into a full-length magazine article. I didn’t intend to tell my own story, in fact, I don’t think I even categorized myself with my friend. My plan was to focus on men and women’s differing definitions of seduction. I embarked on a series of interviews and talked to as many men and women as I could about seduction and sex that isn’t quite seduction, but not quite what our society defines as rape either.
In interacting with my community, I stumbled upon many disturbing sex stories. Women who had given in to sex up to five times, women who were forced into sex in their own homes, women who clearly said no and were raped. In discussing all of these experiences, I found that I wasn’t so unique. My experience was almost textbook; my shutting down in bed was scripted.
I completed the article and almost turned it in when I realized an essential element of the issue was missing from the article. The huge chunk that was missing was my revealing my own story. After delving into so many powerful conversations with women I admired, I was ready to add myself to their numbers. In the company of friends, due to the commonality I found between my experience and that of others, I was able to admit that I had been weak, I had not protected myself, and I was ready to examine the reasons why.
My community healed me. Speaking to various “victims” who had been both stronger and weaker than me, yet who had suffered the exact same experience freed me to relate to the unwanted sex as an aspect of our world that we all need to heal. It granted me license to attack the issue from a more balanced perspective. My new draft of the article not only told my story, but discussed how men are responsible for this issue AND how women are responsible for this issue. I emerged from the conversations able to suggest tactics for both men and women to make the sexual experience better.
I sent the article to Essence, they renamed it “Navigating to No” and accepted it for publication. I was ready to move on to new work. Then the emails started coming. (Another of my father’s suggestions: Put your email address at the end of the article so people can contact you.) My community responded in full force. I got over 100 emails from women telling me their rape stories: Ph.D.’s, teenagers, mothers, wives, college students. Emailing me with stories like, “Just last week…” “I cried the whole time…” “I thought he was my friend…” “He said we were going to watch television….” I got about three or four emails from women and men saying I was being ridiculous for holding men accountable, women are responsible for what happens to them. And I got one detailed response from a 24-year old man.
He said: “The most important thing is that a woman needs to be clear with her message/intent. That whole no/yes thing is too open to interpretation. It should not be up to the man to interpret whether the woman wants to go all the way. A woman needs to know that if she is thinking ‘No’ and she says ‘No’, her actions need to be consistent with that message. Saying ‘No’ and following it up with kisses, while letting him unbutton your blouse or pants, kind of defeats the purpose.” Clearly he offered good, clear advice that was well aligned with my ideas about what women are responsible for doing to protect themselves and communicate their interest (or lack thereof).
Then he went on to share his own experiences:
“My next statements will probably make any female reader vomit, but, in my opinion, it’s the truth. Women have played a significant role in this whole situation. It’s the women that “Freeze” and give in, that are NEXT TO the heart of the problem. A man is usually naturally aggressive when it comes to sex. He has to learn that aggression pays off. I learned. The first time I “Muscled it” (that’s the common term males use for Navigating to No), I was scared to death afterward. It was a situation where she and I were together and things were getting heavy. We were kissing and she was in a submissive position. I proceeded to remove her pants and she asked me what I was doing. I told her nothing and proceeded kissing her and removing her pants. She was still very responsive, returning the kisses and not providing much resistance to me removing her pants. When she got back into a submissive position, she said that she didn’t want to do anything, but she was still kissing me in the process. Once I got in position, she said no, and I paused. I recited the usual rhetoric men use at this point. I then continued kissing her and she occasionally returned the kisses. The rest is self-explanatory. At no time did she ever try to get up, or force me off of her. At no time did I use any force or threat of violence towards her. After it was over, while I was on my way home, I started to wonder. What had I just done? I began to worry that I may have just raped her and that if she called the police, I would go to jail. I was sick to my stomach. The weird thing was that when I saw her the next day in school, she acted like everything was fine. We never had sex again, but I figured everything was OK.”
In reading his lengthy letter, I learned a lot about my own behavior in the situation. I realized I had been trying to compromise my way out of the situation. But when I read this man’s words, I see that considering the feelings or desires of the aggressor is utter stupidity. The letter disturbed me, but I was so grateful he sent it. I sent it to as many women as I could, because it was a clear notice that in the realm of seduction, many women and men are NOT on the same page. Could my understanding of this issue get any clearer? By publishing the article, I got profound insight into a social ill that I (and many other women) had been dealing with as a private issue. I/We indeed.
What happened next? Out of the blue, I was invited to go to Spelman, my alma mater, and address a convocation. I participated in one television program and two radio shows. And everywhere I went women were saying, “me too, me too,” and men were saying, “Huh? You mean to say…?” The gap between women and men’s perspectives became something I could smile and laugh about. And when a man challenged me, it wasn’t personal, it was a commentary on the state of our society and a commentary on how little women and men understand about each other’s lives. We really are living, working, breathing, writing, creating art in a communal world. Though we may be alone in our offices and our studios, in our triumphs and our traumas, there is a communal element to it all.
I’m blessed that my mother shares her work with me. Her finding words to define the way she lives, gives me words to explain the miracles that happen in my life and work. It’s so cool is to know that just as other people’s work and ideas influence us, we influence others. Just last week, I got an email affirming the power of I/We. A dancer and a performance artist, after reading about my Catcalling essay asked to read it. After reading it, he decided to do a performance piece on the topic. He says:
“By you expressing your ideas and voice, I was able to find my voice. It is a tag team if you will. I appreciate this process that life offers, it gives life flavor and movement which is unplanned and unlimited.”
As my mother would say: Life is a wondrous thing.
Be well. Be love(d).
: : : August 2001 – present : : :
No acceptances and no rejections this week. I hold at 3 to 3.