Non-Consenting Adults

As of yesterday, my wedding is less than 2 months away.

I have been planning my wedding since I was about 6 years old, fantasizing about what it would look like, what I would wear, what it would be like to have all eyes on me for a day. I’ve since grown up, but the idea of being wedded has never become less romantic for me.  The fantasies of my wedding day have become more and less intense, usually inversely related to how remote it seemed that my chances were of getting married. I have never dated. As I noted to one of my good friends yesterday, I have never, ever gone on a real pre-relationship date with anyone. This fact has very little to do with religion.

There is much that has to do with religion. For example, I am steadfast in my commitment to abstinence before marriage, for a number of reasons–among them my extremely subaltern approach to radical feminism (another discussion entirely)–but the foundation is religion. I am not Christian; I am a Christian, and I believe that my walk with Christ requires me to adopt a certain lifestyle so  that I can best let God use me, and bless me, too. That’s me.

But the fact that I have never dated has almost nothing to do with religion, and probably much more to do with culture, class, education, race, gender norms, and statistics. I don’t need to go into it; many are aware of the struggles that Black women in America have with dating and relationships.  Some could be (but won’t be)  forgiven for thinking that I had settled for my current relationship, that I had just picked up the first person who really came along. Because, after all, why wouldn’t I? Women are supposed to get married, are they not? They need men, do they not? They need BLACK men, do they not? Black men are rare, are they not? She found one, didn’t she? Okay, then!

I have shared the story of how Yerim and I met with many. I love our story. It’s a story that reaffirms my faith, that gives me inspiration and aspiration. I also love our relationship. It’s real. We are, like everyone else, extraordinary people, but we are connected by both the divine and really, really ordinary, mundane things. As many people know, we love tea and coffee, and chocolate, and music, and soccer. We are both interested in progressive politics, and sociology. We are intrigued by business, and economic development. We love New York. We love Dakar. We like going out for mussels and fries. We are both very spiritual, even religious, people who believe strongly in the power of prayer.

Prayer is where it gets interesting. Yerim is from Senegal. He is Muslim. Like many Senegalese people, he comes from a family with members who adhere to different religions; he has a half-brother and half-sister in Texas who are Christians, but he is Muslim, like his parents and grandparents.

“Don’t you think that will be complicated?” Many have asked that question. Not just because I am Christian, but because I am quite devout. I have thought the same thing, too. For the first several months of our relationship, I was racked with fear and guilt about wanting to be with him, just because, you know, dogma. I never believed I would be sent to hell; rather, I thought God would make my life hell on earth, what with being unequally yoked and all. SIN SIN SIN, see. Disapproving parents, who are supposed to be God’s representatives to me on earth, and all of that. Possible criticism, if not excommunication, at certain churches. Disapproval. Shunnings. Rebukes. Convictions. Etcetera.

No one had ever asked me if I thought my friendships with my Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, atheist, Hindu friends would be complicated. “Oh, but you know, children.” Ah  yes, children. Yerim already had a child, from his first (because he is Muslim, I have to be careful to use the word “previous”, lest the questions begin about polygamy and whether I’m SURE he doesn’t have wives hidden “in Africa”).

I, too, come from a mixed marriage. My parents are from different countries, ethnicities and cultures, even classes. Both of them were (my father, a former pastor and theologian, passed away two years ago)  Evangelical Christians, but the similarities really ended there, as they were both from very different religious traditions. No, our upbringing was not easy, for a host of reasons, but the four of us kids worked it out. If life had been any more comfortable than it was, we likely would have turned to rot, growing up in Detroit without any money. Our challenges gave us a reason to dream big and get out. I don’t think any of us have many regrets.

People have given me a number of reasons for why I shouldn’t be with Yerim. Most of these reasons have been given behind my back. All of them have revealed too much about the person doing the reasoning. Some people just have general doubts about Africans (a note: Doubts about a person based in that person’s race/ethnicity/national origin are prima facie evidence of racist bigotry, just in case anyone dares to wonder otherwise.) Others note that I have so much education–two law degrees from two of the world’s most prestigious universities. To them, Yerim is an opportunist and a striver, though they know nothing about his own background, and fail to appreciate that he sacrificed a very stable career in Dakar, and then in France, to move to the U.S. to be with me. He’d never dreamed of coming to the U.S. It’s cold here, and filled with…well, bigots. But he figured it would be easier to follow me and start up a tech firm in this promised land of opportunity, than for me to go to Dakar and go to law school yet again. I agree. This argument strikes many as rationalization, because they know that all he wants is a green card. That is what “they” all want, is it not?

Between Yerim and I, we are more than happy. We are at peace. We belong together, in that simple, natural way that a foot begins to belong to a shoe, or a head to a pillow. There is no space between us, no awkwardness. We are extremely comfortable in our roles, and perhaps most importantly, optimistic about our future together. We have deeply appreciated the genuine and sincere happiness that our friends have shared with us. In Senegal, in New York, our relationship is not out of the ordinary. It is just beautiful. Not more beautiful because of or in spite of anything, but beautiful because we are happy and in love, together.

In Detroit, my Detroit, it has been much more complicated. My Detroit is bourgeoisie, filled with airs of importance, and the will to be important. It is about image, and conservative notions of class, and class indicators. It’s about people seeing you pray and speak in tongues so that they are satisfied concerning the well-being of your soul. In my Detroit, you might not be saved and sanctified if you listen to music that doesn’t involve mass choirs from Mississippi, and oh my word, WINE? Jesus drank wine, but you must not, because Pastor told us the Bible said so. In my Detroit, you might really believe that all Africans need missionaries and donations because not much African History is taught in our schools, so why on earth, would the daughter of a missionary even THINK of bringing down her stock with someone who should be her client?

As the wedding has drawn closer and closer, people have begun to ask me “Are you excited?!” Well. I have become more and more tired. Wedding planning is actually not fun if you are not a millionaire, but it is even less fun if you feel alone and unsupported. Of course, I have become increasingly excited about spending my life with Yerim…the idea that soon, we’ll be able to live together, puts a smile on my face and a spring in my step, instantly. In recent weeks, I have also  been encouraged by the enthusiasm of the dear aunt who is throwing me a bridal shower, and as always, by the constant love and support of my best friend, who is one of my maids of honor. For all the naysayers, many, many people–friends and family alike–have been overwhelmingly overjoyed for us, and we will forever be thankful to them for their support. However, the nagging sense of suspecting that many people are unable to be happy for you is exhausting, especially when you have to counter that sense by wondering if you aren’t just being paranoid–possibly because of other insecurities you might have about your relationship. Maybe you do care, and are worried that what all those people are saying about you, behind you, is true.

While I was living in Dakar last year, I decided to stop using Turbo Tax for my taxes, and hire a professional accountant. One came highly recommended, ironically, by that same aunt. My mom was now using him, and I decided to retain his services, too. I thought nothing of it when he remarked to my mother that my emails were uncommonly articulate. I thought slightly more of it, but still not much, when I met him in person months after he’d completed my tax return, and I’d returned to the States, and realized that he was incredibly conservative. The idea of a conservative tax guy did not make me uncomfortable.

Though he’d taken a little too long to finish my tax return, there was no doubt in my mind that I would use his services again this year. I got all of my documents together, and put together another uncommonly articulate email for him, with attachments, weeks ago. He agreed to file my return for me. I thought we were all good.

Weeks have passed, and I have received nothing by probing personal questions, accusations that I might be trying to commit tax fraud, and much delay. I attributed my suspicious as to tone to the impossibility of email communication when you cannot justify using emoticons or disarmers such as “LOL”. But I knew better deep down. Finally, yesterday, I let my mother know that I really just felt an overwhelming sense that he was simply disapproving of me and Yerim. And so I started trying to overcompensate in my emails. I began groveling, and closing out with “God bless you”, in order to prove my Christian credentials, before that, too, became tiring.  His condescension was easy enough to analyze–he clearly does not know what to do with a young black woman who has her stuff together. My mother was able to call that one out for me. But the hostility?

And then.

“Yeah, when I went to see him, he mentioned something like that,” said my mom. “He said ‘She’s not marrying a Muslim, is she?’”

It doesn’t matter that I pay him for his services, promptly. It doesn’t matter that it’s none of his business. It doesn’t matter that I am a grown woman. In fact, perhaps if I were male, he would not dare. It does not matter that the customer is always right. It doesn’t matter that Yerim and I have to consent, NOT HIM.  He thinks Yerim is wrong for existing, that I am wrong for being complicit in his existence, and he is taking liberties, because he can.

I congratulate him on his privilege. If my taxes are not completed by the end of next week, I will be firing him. If they are completed by the end of next week, I will be firing him. Basically, he is fired.

And there is more.

There is nothing that he, or anyone can do, to make me less of an autonomous individual. Holding up my taxes will not make me want to get a divorce, or call off the wedding. It will simply piss me off, and cost him business. The same goes for the beloved people in our lives. The backchat, the whispers, the disapproval has nothing to do with us, and neither will anyone who can’t get over their own STUFF and accept us for what we are–together. That is not a threat. It’s just that Yerim and I are actively in the business of living, and allowing folks to try to put us in a heaven or a hell would be a sort of conflict.

I have been okay with just sucking up the issues that people have dumped on us for the last three years, and I think that I possibly just can’t deal with someone messing around with my money because he thinks he disapproves of my fallen lifestyle. (Do not EVER mess with my money, boo.) I realize that he won’t understand this either, but I do actually work VERY hard for it, while I’m in the business of trying to protect the civil and human rights he would deny to everyone else who doesn’t look or think like him. I probably also can’t deal because the right to marry is a very real issue in this country, right now, in the federal courthouse where I work. While the laws of the land have certainly played their part in making life very difficult for various groups of people of whom my accountant would disapprove, it’s the softer, more subtle attacks and jabs that break down a human spirit, or if possible, a relationship.

Yerim and I are not interested in fighting illegitimate battles for what is ours. We’re good. We have not yet been struck by lightning. There are still no co-wives, no forced conversions, and no terrorist plots. I have been to Yerim’s mosque in Harlem for events, and surprisingly enough, there were people inside behaving like normal human beings…praying, talking, eating, and enjoying each other’s company…and treating me like I was some kind of special honored guest because, ahem, hospitality. During the torturous two months he was in Detroit, Yerim actually came to church with me and my mom every week. His son still does. There is no problem.

We are not the issue. Our union will not make anyone poor, or ill. It will not weaken the nation (What does that even mean?). It will not undermine the community. Yerim’s son will not be harmed. Us being together will not tear our families apart. If our happiness offends you, then remember that you are the one offended. And if you are offended, we are sorry. And please don’t take that as an apology.

Wolves in Sheeps’ Clothing

What happens when the wolf cries “wolf”?

I ask in particular because of the recent interest in comedian Aamer Rahman’s extremely valuable intervention apropos  so-called reverse racism. Over the course of the last week, the under-3 minute segment has gone absolutely viral, even though the piece is several months old. That the popularity of the piece coincides with the announcement of a verdict in the Michael Dunn trial is not, I think, completely accidental.

So, what happens when the wolf cries “wolf”? Are you prepared to properly respond to deceptive claims of post-racialism and reverse racism, which threaten to confuse and frustrate us into befuddled silence as we contemplate how anyone could possibly claim that things are better–and that we are whining–when racist killings and explicit Jim Crow-style discrimination against LGBT Americans enjoy the protection of American law?

As always, and as one of my college professors used to say, you have to read and pay attention. In the words of Juror #8 (who herself seems to have been completely sideswiped and snookered by the idea that colorblindness  in the United States is possible, despite the extremely derogatory attention she is getting because of her appearance), “Knowledge yourself about the law.” Get familiar with your history, and the history of your neighbors. Learn to recognize the wolves.  Pay attention to symbols and don’t be afraid to swap them out when they are hijacked or compromised. (This is why I am such an ardent advocate for the substitution of human rights paradigms for civil rights paradigms and symbols.) (More on that here.)

And know what to do when they start crying about how hard life is for them in a country of sheep.

I and I

Today, after 30 minutes of agonizing internal negotiations at work, I resolved to end the debate over whether or not I would, in some form or fashion, take his name upon marriage.

The fact that I have to think about the issue at all is an insult to my humanity, my autonomy, my full personhood.

Even acknowledging the debate is participation in a system that is intentionally stacked against me, invested in my oppression.

The debate itself is what’s wrong with the world. Why is it a continued reality, in the United States of America, that marriage, for over 80% of women, necessarily entails the sacrifice of one man’s identity for another? How arrogant we are to point the finger at this and that country’s treatment of women when most American women expect that they will take their husband’s names, believe that they should take their husband’s names, and then have the effrontery to proclaim that they believe that they are equal to men while making a whole bunch of excuses for why it makes sense that they become Mrs. Hislastname after jumping the broom?

Seriously, get the **** out of here.

It makes me so sad that I questioned my love and respect for Mr. S today because of my unwillingness to become Mrs. S. It makes me even sadder that I wrote out Marissa Jackson S a few times on paper, just to see how it looked. It makes me sadder still that I had to take into consideration that if I took his last name, I might fare better in the international human rights world–where African Americans and their black American sounding names (my last name is actually Jamaican, but no one would know) are woefully underrepresented, and not accidentally. It makes me angry that I’ve been justifying to Mr. S that I don’t want to take his name because women who change their names are less successful at work. It frustrates me that while he respects my views and knows that women in his native country typically do not take their husband’s names, something in him wishes I would adopt his surname, so that I would be his.

I am not transferable property. The word “submission” is something I only associate with appellate briefs. He will be the man of the house, it’s true…whatever that means (apparently, there are people out there who think that penises are not made out of gold bouillon, and that masculinity is some sort of accomplishment.). But I will be the woman. A grown woman. A full-fledged human being since birth. An absolute equal, lest we forget.

I told someone, the other day, that I was planning to keep my own name. She frowned, and told me to pray on the matter.

I will pray for safety on the roads, for my mom, my siblings, for Baby B. I will pray for world peace, for wisdom, for patience, for perceptiveness and foresight at work, for good judgment. I will pray for my friends, for my grandpa. I will pray for Mr. S.

I will not pray for the serenity to become his slave. Bye bye, now!

I will joyfully take his name the day he takes mine.

Maybe.

Oral Rendition

My father passed away two years ago today, on Bob Marley’s birthday. He told us many, many stories about growing up in Jamaica over the years, and one of the most interesting tidbits he disclosed was that as a teenager, he–my father, the theologian and pastor–was once in a reggae band! But these were stories, of a coming of age in a pre- and then post-colonial Jamaica and so as Daddy told these stories, I had to let my imagination, history books, and family pictures make them real.  My dad had a rich, baritone singing voice that I still hear often, especially when hymns play in my head, and that is, in some way, what Jamaica is to me…memory, music, and my father.