Category Archives: Culture

Single Moms Club: Tyler Perry Still Has A Problem with (Black) Women

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Firstly: there are spoilers below. I won’t apologize for them. I’m trying to save you from seeing this film, after all, so yes, there are spoilers.

Secondly: I wish Tyler Perry would stop making movies about women.

This morning I saw Perry’s newest mark-misser, Single Moms Club, in which five single mothers from different walks of life coincidentally cross paths and become friends. You can tell that Perry thinks he put a lot of thought into the “walks of life” aspect, as the women are ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. But their lives and personalities are straight out of the one-dimensional Woman Playbook that Perry has become known for: we have the sexified Latina knockout whose cleavage is displayed prominently in every scene of the film; we have the ambitious career woman who, because she’s an ambitious career woman, is sexless and bitter; the helpless, dainty white housewife who is so innocent that she doesn’t hear innuendo when her outdoorsy male neighbor hints at “erect wood;” the sassy black woman whose husband and older sons are in jail and slaps a lot of people throughout the film; and, finally, the pure, good black woman whose only fault is being too good of a mother.

The movie is tiresome for a number of reasons, which I will discuss here. Perry claims to have made this movie to support single moms and highlight their challenges, but the majority of the film is spent punishing them and highlighting their failures. Their children hate them—sometimes inexplicably—and blame them for everything. Before all the parents (including my mom) jump up and exclaim over the reality of kids blaming everything on their parents, let me say, “Sure.” Sure, kids blame their parents for stuff. But the blame that the women in this film receive isn’t the kind of blame that kids realistically level at their parents: “I didn’t get invited to a party because you won’t buy me cooler clothes!” or “You won’t let me have a cell phone! I hate you!” No, it’s adult-level blame, which merely happens to be delivered by children. In these blamey lines, I hear the societal judgment popularly aimed at single mothers, which Perry works in clumsily not because he wants to challenge these assertions, but because he agrees with them.

For example, Wendi McLendon-Covey’s character, Jan, the successful career woman, is told by her twelve-year old daughter: “I’m never going to be like you. I’m going to grow up and marry a man and have a family so I don’t have to do everything myself like you!” The daughter then proceeds to tell her mother that she’s ruining her child’s life because she chooses to continue to dedicate a lot of her time to the publishing company where she’s worked for seventeen years. Cocoa Brown’s character, Lytia, is told by her youngest son (after he shames her for her lack of education when she doesn’t know the answers to his homework) that he “isn’t his brothers or his dad” and she has to let him grow up and be a man. He’s also twelve-ish. Amy Smart’s character, Hillary, is told by her daughter to “Stop making everyone leave us.” Esperanza, played by Zulay Henao, is still being supported financially by her ex-husband but he dictates her life, and her daughter’s lack of respect—and disdain—for her is evident throughout the film. These are some of the things Perry charges single mothers with—being overprotective/smothering, having careers, being uneducated—and it is the children in the film who communicate most of these accusations, which is both annoying and disturbing.

Another thing I noticed was the number of “I’m sorry’s” that the single moms in the film delivered. I wish I had been keeping a tally. The women are always apologizing to their children, their lovers, and their bosses. Meanwhile, no one is apologizing to them: not for harm, disrespect, insult, or anything else. Especially the children. When the kids of these moms are caught spray-painting and smoking at school—the intersection of their lives that brings all the single moms together in the principal’s office—they don’t apologize. Each of the children are petulant, dismissive, rude, and bored by their mothers’ attempts to discipline/reason with them. Perry makes a point, I would say, of illustrating that the women are shoddy disciplinarians. That’s a man’s role, I think Perry would declare, which is evident in the way that all of these women’s lives are “fixed” by the end of the film.

What’s the fix? You guessed it. Men.

Each of the women gets a man, and by the end of the film they are miraculously happier, more stable, confident, and in healthier relationships with their children. Just like that. The magic is in men, Perry seems to think, as healthy single-parent families do not exist in this film. And of course Perry just had to cast himself as the cool, calm, collected, well-dressed man with car engine expertise who appears early in the movie just in the nick of time to save Nia Long’s character from car trouble. All of the single moms have some kind of drama with the fathers of their children: drug addict, jail, nasty divorce, controlling jerk, sperm donor. But Tyler Perry’s character? He’s a single dad, but he’s normal! “We’re two good people, just not good for each other” was the gist of the line. He sees his kids every weekend. Takes them fishing. What a great guy! Perry’s insistence on painting himself as the savior in his films is distracting and irritating. But that’s taking me away from my central problem with this film, and that’s Tyler Perry’s problem with black women.

It’s been said a thousand times, but I’m going to say it again because it’s still true: Tyler Perry has a problem with black women. It’s evident in Single Moms Club, in which we have two black women, different in age, appearance, and socioeconomic status. Perry displays them as two archetypal poles of black womanhood: the good woman, and the sassy Mammy.

Nia Long’s character May is a writer. She lives in a nice house. She has one child. She is educated. She has no bad habits. She is polite and funny and her language is precise and her clothes look like she shops at Macys. In a conversation with the other single moms about sex, she reveals that she has been celibate for a long time. Unlike the other women in the movie, she has no flaws: she is kind to everyone and loves her son so much that it makes her flighty and, once, when her son runs away, angry. But only because she was being such a good mom.

Then there is Cocoa Brown’s character, Lytia. She waits tables for a living. She lives in a ratty apartment complex. She has “more children than the Harlem Globetrotters,” according to McLendon-Covey’s character. She is “sassy.” She is loud. She is inappropriate. She is often angry/annoyed/confrontational. She is gruff. The white single moms tell her how “strong” she is. (Sigh.) She slaps people and says “girl” a lot. She wears leopard print pants and other bright colors. She talks freely about sex in the conversations with the other single moms.

In these two women, Perry reveals to us his feelings about black women. There are Mays, classy, sexually pure women with no bad habits, who Tyler Perry’s character, TK, obviously wins by the end of the movie, and who exist to remind us of the virtuous woman we should all strive to be. And then there are Lytias, who Perry casts as the comical foil to May’s perfection: the brunt of all jokes, the classless train-wreck no one wants to be. In fact, much of the movie is spend mocking Lytia. And when I say much, I mean it. Barely a scene passed where some joke at Lytia’s expense wasn’t being flung into the dialogue.

The scene where Lytia’s son shames her for her lack of education was not a poignant moment meant to shed light on the plight of women who have children at sixteen, as was the case with Lytia. It was a jab, written not as a “deep moment” but as a deliberate gag. The line about “more children than the Harlem Globetrotters” was delivered by McLendon-Covey’s character. In fact, most of the racist, misogynoirist lines were: “Why did you name your child after a Jewish holiday?” McLendon-Covey asks. Lytia’s daughter’s name was Rashawna. Ha ha. Single black moms can’t help their twelve-year old sons with their homework because they had to drop out of school! Tee hee. Black single moms have a bunch of kids! Kee kee. Black single moms name their kids the darndest things! Often, it seems that Perry is hiding his own disdain of Lytia behind McLendon-Covey’s character. She delivers all of the black-mom-disparaging jokes, but I’m not fooled: those are Perry’s jokes. They’re in the film, after all—his film—so he must think they’re funny. Black single mothers are a joke to him, it seems, worthy of little respect and standing in their own way. Unless you’re a black single mom like Nia Long, Perry’s logic goes: the ideal woman. Celibate. Sweet. Sophisticated. There is little room for humanity or flaws on Perry’s scale of black womanhood.

But there’s more. The most telling scene is when Lytia is the first to arrive at Hillary’s home for a single moms meeting. Hillary, the helpless white housewife who has had a maid for as long as she’s been married, is now, after the divorce, “without help.” Help with a capital H. She is completely clueless about how to care for her own children: her infant sits crying in the highchair and her young son spins aimlessly in the kitchen—I’m not really sure what he was doing, actually. But have no fear—Lytia is here! Perry’s casting incarnation of the sassy black Mammy character reveals itself in full force as Lytia swoops in, scoops up the baby, stops its crying, and tames the other boy with a whisk of her hand. “Let me ask you something,” Hillary says to Lytia: “How do you be a single mom?”

Because what do white women know about being a single mom? She asks Lytia because as a black woman, she must be the expert, right? Hillary is a divorcee, and the other white woman in the film is single by choice with her decision to go with a sperm donor. Only black women end up as single moms that are unwed and unsupported, Perry seems to say. “You better not ask me to be your maid!” Lytia quips, and it’s supposed to be funny. But it’s not. It’s too late for her character to reject the role of Mammy with this line: Tyler Perry already prescribed it to her.

One of the most disturbing scenes is one with Lytia and Terry Crews’s character. Crews is his typical clownish self, courting Lytia at the diner where she works as a waitress. The very first words she says to him are, “I don’t like you!” And she doesn’t. Never is there flirtation in her meanness to him. She rejects and dismisses him regularly. Once, she missed the bus and was late getting her children to school, so she accepted a ride from him, but made it clear that it did not mean she was interested. Eventually, at the urging of the single moms, she allows him to accompany her to the movies in a group outing, making it clear that it’s not a date, and even flirting with another man in Crews’s presence. However, at the end of the evening, Crews forcefully kisses her. When I say forcefully, I mean he grabs her, and smashes his face into her face. She shoves him off, slamming him into his truck. She says, “I am a woman, okay!” meaning that she won’t be treated that way. Crews’s character then grabs her, slams her against his truck, and kisses her again. (And when I say “slam,” I mean slam. The violence is intended to be comical—Lytia is “so strong”—but it’s disturbing.) Crews comes up from the kiss and Lytia looks dazed, still pushing him off. He says, “And I’m a man, okay!” Meaning…what? That when a man wants to kiss a woman, he will? Even when she shoves him off? That when a man wants to kiss a woman, he will, because she doesn’t know what she wants until he shows her? Eventually Lytia gives in and kisses him back, forcefully, and they take turns slamming each other against the truck while making out. When they finish, Crews says, “When I see you tomorrow, you better be nice to me!” and Lytia says in a soft voice, “Okay baby.” In other words…she submits: Tyler Perry uses the violence of Crews’s character to “tame” Lytia. Tyler Perry’s interpretation of a woman like Lytia is that she not only doesn’t want tenderness, but isn’t capable of understanding it either. Affection and violence go hand in hand for Lytia, and in a film that is supposedly about self-growth and soul-searching, Lytia isn’t allowed to grow beyond that prescription.

Tyler Perry’s vision of black women is not only woefully narrow, but abusive. In a film he claims celebrates the single mother, I see nothing but judgment, blame, and shallow misogyny. The only way a single mom can be happy, Perry tells us, is by ceasing to be a single mom: he creates “the single mom’s club,” and by the end of the movie, destroys it. There is no single mom’s club. There is only a club, he thinks, for bitter, lonely, angry women—and occasionally the perfect princess who just hasn’t met the right man (himself) yet—and that’s not a club at all. My mother told me once “If someone keeps showing you who they are, eventually you need to just believe them.” Today I sat in a theater of black women and throughout the film, the audience was mostly silent, even as everyone filed out of the room. Mr. Perry, you keep showing us who you are. Are you surprised that we believe you?

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Why I’m So Excited For the New Annie Movie with Quvenzhané Wallis

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In the face of critics who are already writing brainless articles about why the new Annie will “probably be terrible,” I am ecstatic. In the midst of those who shout down Quvenzhané Wallis for being too spunky, too confident, too something, I am absolutely psyched for this movie and I’ll tell you why.

Because it’s about a black girl. A black girl who lives.

A blogger and thinker who I’m a big fan of, Son of Baldwin, posted the trailer to the new Annie on the Son of Baldwin Facebook page. The caption to the post: “I hope this movie makes black girls everywhere feel visible and cherished.” I could echo those sentiments a million times, and I will add to them here: I am excited about this film because it is a story about a black girl who wins.

For those of you who are asking why we need to focus on the concept of black girls winning, I will cite an earlier blog of mine here. Yes, it’s needed. Positive portrayals of black girls and women in mainstream media are far and in between, especially in the context of coming of age stories. A coming of age story is one that focuses on the psychosocial development of a youth or a group of youths and it usually involves great conflict and transformation. So often these stories focus on boyhood: formative experiences like those in Stand By Me. Google it. Google “coming of age movies” and you will find that the stories our culture says define coming of age are those like The Sandlot or Superbad. For boys of color there are far fewer, but some: Cooley High. Boyz in the Hood. School Daze. Try Googling “coming of age movies for girls” and you’ll find a lot less. The Breakfast Club, which is about young men and women, all of them white, is one that appears. In fact, almost all of the coming of age stories focusing on girls feature all-white casts. Mean Girls. An edgier film about sex and orgasms called Coming Soon. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Clueless are two that appear a lot, both of which cast girls of color but the vast majority of the narrative focuses on the experiences of white girls.

So what about black girls? Their absence is troubling. As a society we give a lot of thought about the formation of women, especially in recent decades: we are interested in their stories. We are curious about their worlds and rituals, especially in the context of a patriarchal society. The telling of stories about women has become more prevalent, although we still lack action heroines that aren’t decked out in cleavage-exposing spandex. But what about black girls, specifically? Black filmmakers fight to get black films into Hollywood. Black folks in general are underrepresented in mainstream media, and when they are present, are more often than not distorted by harmful stereotypes. Especially—as I mentioned above, but I’m going to mention it again—especially when it comes to black girls.

In other cases, black and brown girls are cast less stereotypically in their character but are isolated in a sea of white faces: see Dion in Clueless. Or, just as often, black and brown girls are cast as a sort of tragic foil to white protagonists. See Kerry Washington’s character in Save the Last Dance, who knows what it’s like to be poor and a single mom. Or the Latina character in Secret Life of the American Teenager, Adrian, who is slutty and miserable and alone. We were all psyched to see Rue be cast as black in The Hunger Games…until we remembered that Rue dies in the book. Tragic black girls. Even in Beasts of the Southern Wild, where Wallace first stole our hearts, Hushpuppy survives…but she’s not quite whole at the end of it all. Her coming of age is painful and harsh. Violent. She loses her father and, rather than merely gaining her transformation, she loses her childhood. The black girl lives, but she bleeds. There are exceptions to all this, of course. Akeelah and the Bee was fantastic, but far too rare.

So forgive me if I am excited for Annie. The new Annie, in which Quvenzhané Wallis is beaming and jubilant and visible. She goes through tough times—that’s what a coming of age story is all about—but we all know how Annie ends. Annie wins. I’m not into musicals, but please believe I will be dancing in my theater seat come December. As Son of Baldwin said so well, I am here for a film in which black girls are “visible and cherished.” Loved. Present. Winning.

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An Elegy for Fairness: Jordan Davis, Defiance, and White Entitlement

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This may not even be an essay. Already it feels more like an elegy—not just for Jordan Davis, or Trayvon Martin, or their parents, whose black sons’ lives have so little value in the eyes of the American justice system. This feels like an elegy for fairness: a lament read at the funeral of “right” and “good” and “humane.”

Because these things must be dead. I struggle to find proof that they’re living. George Zimmerman invades our daily consciousness, his arrogance taking up more and more space as the likes of CNN, who apparently know no shame, offer him an interview to tell “his side of the story.” I know what story he’ll tell: it’s the same story that Michael Dunn has been telling. The one where an adult man can claim to have been afraid of a 17-year old kid and everyone will nod sagely and understand because that kid was black. We know that the reverse of this would be seen as silly. What if an adult black man had shot and killed a 17-year old white boy for playing his rock music too loud, claiming it made him afraid? Everyone would smirk. Black men are tough, the racist narrative goes. Tough. “Thugs.” What does a black man have to be afraid of?

Everything, I would say. Everything. Just read the headlines.

A black man need not only fear a car accident, like any other human being, but he must also fear being shot while asking for help, as we saw with Jonathan Ferrell. The same goes for black women—the family of Renisha McBride will tell you.

Elegies have been written for these families, their lost children. But I am writing an elegy for fairness, for what their deaths mean, because they mean more than funerals. They mean more than black veils and sad songs. Their deaths mean our death, a collective slow withering of the soul. We are a country where a man can be convicted of the lives he attempted to take, but not the one he did take. We are a country where a man can shoot ten rounds into a car of teenagers, then go home, order pizza, take a nap—and face no justice. And in this we are dying. In this our humanity crumbles. We made these laws. We enforce these laws.

And with these laws, we tell black children that white men can murder them for any reason at all. The mythical laws of respectability do not apply. A black child can have one parent or two. A black child can wear a hoodie or a blouse. A black child can have trouble with the law or no history of arrest. Living in this country, I have learned the equation, seen the common denominator: blackness, and only that, is what links these victims together. It is not the music, or the hat, or the pants, or the name. It is the skin, and the emotions it incites.

I say “emotions” instead of “fear” intentionally, for it was not fear that caused Michael Dunn to get out of his car and fire his gun ten times. It was anger.

“You’re not going to talk to me that way!” Dunn yelled at Jordan Davis and his friends, according to witness testimony. And with those words, America’s racism rears up in my vision: a white man demanding that black youths respect and obey him. When they would not—for they were under no obligation to do so—he tried to kill them. He did kill one. “You’re not going to talk to me that way” reminds me acutely of America’s not so distant past, in which black Americans were warned to never “sass” a white person. “Don’t talk back,” as if every white man everywhere is an authority figure based on the sheer fact of his whiteness. Mr. Dunn can talk all he wants about imaginary guns he thought he saw that never appeared, but the fact of the matter is this: Michael Dunn was angry, and in his anger—his anger at being defied—he took a life.

Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman, aside from being murderers, have something else in common: a terrifying sense of entitlement that tells them black boys like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis are interlopers. Strangers. Outsiders. Others. The Michael Dunns of the world believe that black boys’ music, their clothes, their language, their skin, do not belong, and are subject to white dictation at any time. It’s their inherited white supremacy that tells them black boys “are not going to talk to [them] that way.” It’s been often said, and I will say it again: this mentality is distinctly similar to Jim Crow and apartheid laws, where free black people were still expected to comply with and obey white expectations at any given time. Noncompliance meant death. Means death. Now. For noncompliance meant the death of both Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.

We are a nation that kills black boys. We are a nation where being black—and nothing more; your blackness alone—is an act of defiance. What if Jordan Davis had turned his music down and said “Yes, sir” the way the Michael Dunns of the world fantasize? Would it have changed his fate? Perhaps. But it also would have contributed to the belief of a man that his whiteness means authority; that his whiteness means obey; that his whiteness means be silent, don’t speak, you are an Other. Jordan Davis is dead because he would not comply. His parents weep because he would not comply. And the worst part is, he didn’t have to. Jordan Davis, a black youth, did not have to comply with the wishes of a white man. The jury would not convict Dunn on the count of murder because somewhere in their minds they believed that Davis violated the unspoken rule of white supremacy and black inferiority.

Other black children will die as long as white supremacy reigns, as it surely does, but what are the alternatives? How do parents of black children protect their babies? By telling them to be silent before white people? Don’t talk back to white people? Keep your music low. Keep your head down.

Surely not. To do so would mean stepping backward into Jim Crow. It would mean further sending the message of second-class citizenship, in which white children can live free from the burden of racism while black children grow up stunted and afraid. It’s not fair. And that’s why this is an elegy. Because fairness is dead.

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These are the words of Jessica Estelle Huggins, independent filmmaker in Chicago:

“Ultimately, my intention is to provide a platform for youth to creatively express themselves in regards to the youth violence in Chicago. If I was ever to have a child(ren), I would want them to look like me: brown skin, kinky hair. And to constantly watch images of brown and black skin youth in stories of violence in the news has always been heartbreaking for me. For almost a year, I have been able to build a very strong team that believes in similar ideas of progression in the African-American community as I do. Personally, I believe that everything starts with the children. We need to go back to the basics: Love, support and patience. Change starts within ourselves. As a filmmaker, my way of expression is through visuals. I want Chi~Voices to serve not only as art therapy for those affected by violence, but to also serve at an action component, a way for people to want to actively become involved in changing our communities for the better.”

Some of you may remember last summer, when Huggins gathered a couple of Chicago’s incredibly talented spoken word artists and created Chi~Voices: A Poetic Film Series. The film series is focused on spoken word artists creatively exploring youth violence occurring in Chicago. Since then, Chi~Voices sponsor, The BRIJ Fund, L3C created the collaboration of Chi~Voices with the Institute For Positive Living (IPL) in Bronzeville to host a six-week comprehensive workshop for the youth at IPL. During these workshops, a few of the Chi~Voices poets came in and helped increase the literacy skill sets of these youth. You can check out their beautiful work here: http://chivoices.wordpress.com/2014/01/12/chivoices-workshop-5-1102014/

Currently, the team is weaving the youth at IPL’s pieces into the current story with the original poets. Now, Chi~Voices is launching their Kickstarter campaign to raise the last $2,000 for production costs. Once the team raises the funds, they will begin to prep to begin production in April. The film premiere is slated to happen during Fall 2014.

The purpose of this blog has always been to talk about issues I feel strongly about. This is one of those issues. It’s only February, and already there have been 31 murders in Chicago in 2014. If we want to change the lives of youth in this city, then we have to start with initiatives like this. Share this campaign. Donate if you can.

Chi-Voices Seeks to End Chicago Youth Violence

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10 Reasons You Shouldn’t Watch the George Zimmerman Boxing Match

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I write this on February 5th, Trayvon Martin’s birthday, and despite all the things I would like to say to that young man, I’m going to say this one thing to you: don’t you dare watch the George Zimmerman “celebrity” boxing match.

The word “celebrity” comes from the word “celebrate.” When we celebrate people’s accomplishments we call them celebrities. Ask yourself right now: Do I celebrate what George Zimmerman has done? If the answer is no—and it damn well better be—then you should already know that watching this match violates the memory of a 17-year old boy whose life was taken violently and unjustly. But in case you need a few reasons why, I’ll provide you with some here.

  1. Watching this spectacle financially supports a man who gained notoriety by murdering a black boy. Let me phrase that another way: the man who got away with murdering a 17-year old will get your money if you watch him on TV. You will be financially supporting George Zimmerman, the man who murdered Trayvon Martin.
  2. Watching this spectacle will ensure we continue to see Zimmerman’s face until the end of time. Do you think the media will rest at one match? No. As long as there is green in the udder of the cash cow, they will milk it. One boxing match becomes another boxing match becomes more television exposure becomes a reality show. You know how it is. Do you want to see George Zimmerman on TV for the rest of your life? No? Then do not watch this match.
  3. You will be financially supporting George Zimmerman, the man who murdered Trayvon Martin.
  4. The match is being promoted by Damon Feldman, a guy who was charged with fixing celebrity boxing matches and promoting without a license. Do you really want to watch George Zimmerman win with a loaded deck? Again?
  5. You will be financially supporting George Zimmerman, the man who murdered Trayvon Martin.
  6. You are going to make yourself crazy. Every time I see Zimmerman’s face on TV or on the internet, I feel a little piece of my sanity start to burn. He is alive. Trayvon is dead. Zimmerman loses in the ring. Trayvon will still be dead, and Zimmerman will be even richer than he already is after all those donations from what I can only assume are members of Stormfront. The boxing match will change nothing. Not even for us, who would watch hoping for some twisted version of justice. We will not get it.
  7. You will be financially supporting George Zimmerman, the man who murdered Trayvon Martin.
  8. By turning on something called a “celebrity boxing match” that features George Zimmerman, you are implicitly agreeing with the media’s soulless categorization of Zimmerman as a celebrity. Your own soul will suffer.
  9. You will be financially supporting George Zimmerman, the man who murdered Trayvon Martin.
  10. And ten. This is the most important point. By watching this boxing match, by giving in to the notion that George Zimmerman is indeed a celebrity, you are accepting the subtle message that what Zimmerman did does deserve to be celebrated. By resting your eyes on the program for one moment, you are accepting that black boys who are murdered before their 18th birthdays don’t deserve justice at all, that their murderers should be allowed to profit from their crimes. By allowing George Zimmerman onto your television screen, you are contributing to a world in which the death of a black boy is one soulless scene in a shiny reality show; one meaningless event on a path to fame and fortune.

While Trayvon Martin is in his grave, George Zimmerman will be smiling for the camera. My greatest wish is that he will find himself there alone: the cameras unmanned, the opposing corner empty, the audience nonexistent: just roaches crawling in the stands waiting for popcorn that will never fall. My greatest wish is that, while Trayvon Martin is in his grave but wrapped in the love of all who preserve his memory, George Zimmerman will be alone in this world…wrapped in nothing.

Do not wrap him. Not even in your hate. Do not give his pockets a single penny. Turn your back on this spectacle, and turn your back on George Zimmerman. It’s all that he deserves.

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Richard Sherman, Thugs, and Black Humanity

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Today I’m wondering what it takes for a black man to be regarded as human in America.

Today Richard Sherman is being lambasted for his animated post-game interview in which he dared to express emotion outside of the cubic centimeter men of color are allotted. A cornerback in one of the most physically demanding sports in the country—after a game in which bodies were injured and crushed; after a game that required players to be helped off the field—wins a critical game and has a microphone stuck in his face. He says what he says, and suddenly the nation is clutching its pearls, tutting and making pretend-concerned remarks about sportsmanship and graciousness. Today, Tom Brady criticizes Richard Sherman for his lack of “graciousness.” Today, Richard Sherman is being called a thug, and I’m wondering what that word really means.

Does it mean foul-mouthed? After all, Tom Brady was never called a thug. Not when he got in the ref’s face when losing to the Panthers and dropped the F-bomb on national television just two months ago. What about Richie Incognito, when he called Jonathan Martin the n-word on his voicemail? That’s a foul word, isn’t it? I didn’t hear Incognito referred to as a thug either. Or does “thug” mean violent? I’m not sure. Because, despite his animation, Sherman didn’t use a single curse word. He didn’t threaten anyone’s safety or injure anyone.

The truth is, I only ever hear “thug” applied to black people. And not just adult men. A black toddler made news recently when Omaha police posted a video on their website of the child cursing and holding up his middle finger. The child was described as a thug by Omaha police, who insisted they only shared the video to show “the cycle of thuggery.” The video was posted without the knowledge or consent of the child’s mother.

Another example comes to mind. A teenager walking home from the store after buying Skittles and tea, who was then stalked and murdered by a wannabe cop. A murderer whose main line of defense was that the victim “looked like a thug.” A seventeen-year old boy with his hood up—it was raining—looked like a “thug,” and so his life was ended.

So I’m wondering what “thug” really means.

White supremacist culture dictates who and who does not get to be human. In order for people of color to receive a Human Card, they must assimilate: they must not use slang. They must be quiet. They must not wear hoodies. They must not curse. They must be gracious at all times. They must enunciate. They must not talk about racism. They must not listen to rap music. They must not sag. They must not brag. They must not laugh in public. They must not take up more than one seat on the bus. They must not ever ask for more. In short, you must be perfect. Robotic. Even if you are a professional athlete who performs for millions of Americans, playing a game in which aggression, testosterone, and energy are rewarded (demanded)…you must be quiet, gracious, calm, unassuming. Unscary. To be black and also be regarded as human, you must never make a mistake in your entire life, ever—ever—or you are a thug. Ghetto. Other. Your Human Card is denied.

Richard Sherman was Salutatorian: second in his class in high school. Richard Sherman went to Stanford. Richard Sherman launched a charity organization called Blanket Coverage to help children in need receive school supplies and clothing. Richard Sherman makes more money than anyone I know. But with all the reaction, both on Twitter and on television, to Richard Sherman’s interview, I’m forced to call upon Kanye West’s famous lyric:

Even if you in a Benz, you still a n*gga in a coupe.

I think that’s what the word “thug” really means. The n-word, arguably the most dehumanizing word in history, has been decried. It is considered inappropriate to speak it in public, and while that doesn’t stop everyone, hate will find a way. “Thug” is that way. Lately, it is a word used when we want to revoke humanity. Trayvon Martin, murdered only a few blocks from his home, was called a thug during his murderer’s trial. The jury needed to be convinced that this boy’s humanity could not possibly exist if he was “a thug.” Police put a toddler’s “thuggery” on display as if to say, “This is why we police them.” And now Richard Sherman, an athlete wealthier than most of us can possibly imagine, dares to step outside the box that a racist culture demands he live inside…and he’s a thug too.

Despite the power of whiteness, as we live in a culture that still very much worships it, whiteness is fragile. In order for white supremacy to function, it requires people of color to adopt the characteristics mentioned above. Silence. Subservience. Graciousness. So when Richard Sherman’s “graciousness” is criticized, it’s more than his status as an athlete that’s being attacked: it’s his blackness. When the media (or the typical spineless, anonymous Twitter-user) calls him a “thug,” they are denying him his humanity. You can look like Richard Sherman and be in the public eye, this logic goes, as long as you stay within the lines white supremacy has drawn for you.

Today I’m wondering what it takes for a black man to be regarded as human. I still don’t know. By these rules, to be black in America and also be seen as human, you must be a robot. Emotionless. Expressionless. In order to be black and be regarded as human in America, you must shed all the things that make you human to begin with. Personality. Flaws. History. Anger. To be black and human in America you must be nothing. And that’s where I stop wondering and start to get angry.

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On Women, Friendship, and Ass-Kicking in Fiction

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Do you remember my piece about isolationism in American media? In it, I wrote about the way Hollywood takes characters of color and isolates them on screen and in the imagining of their character, effectively tokenizing them and driving home the message of solitary existence. Those characters are cut off from other characters of color, making them more easily dominated by the white characters onscreen. We know the same thing is happening with female characters. I wrote about the Bechdel test in that same post and the way women in Hollywood rarely interact with one another onscreen, making female bonding impossible.

Well, the same thing is being done in popular fiction, and I’m sick of it.

For one, I’m sick of the focus of relationship-building in books like The Hunger Games being on romance over friendship. At this point, the genre of Young Adult Fiction should just be called Young Adult Romance. Sure, Katniss kicks ass. But where are her bonds with female characters? Yes, there are her sister and Rue (briefly) but the majority of the series focuses on the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. And don’t even get me started on Twilight. Bella Swan kicks far less ass (far, far less ass) than Katniss, and the relationship between Bella and Edward’s sparkly behind is weird and unhealthy. Even in Harry Potter—which I hate to slander—the brilliant Hermione Granger doesn’t have any real girlfriends. Harry and Ron are it, and one of them is a love interest. And what about adult books? 50 Shades of Grey? Don’t even get me started.

What’s happening to female friendship in fiction? It scares me that it’s going the way of the dodo in the face of popular romantic plotlines, in which the only important relationships are the ones in which sex is involved. Hermione Granger was smart and no-nonsense, but she was alone. It is not enough to simply have one dynamic female character. There must be many. They must talk to each other. Otherwise, we are teaching young readers (and adult readers) that strong women exist alone, in competition and at odds with other women. “You can kick ass,” we tell them. “You can take on the world. But you’re gonna be kicking ass by yourself.” The books that have resonated with me throughout my life—and, indeed, the ones that have shaped the person I am—aren’t like that. They’re books like Sula, The Color Purple, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Bell Jar: books in which the relationships between women are strong and deep and complicated. The books in which women are not alone, even as we come apart and put ourselves back together again. Characters that, even as they set out on long journeys to discover themselves, do so with a tribe of women to support them along the way. I’m not seeing these relationships in mainstream books: I’ve been missing a book that explores the connections between women, the bonding we do that is separate from men and sex and romance.

So I wrote one.

I’m telling you this because there are over 2,000 of you that are subscribed to this blog, and if you’re still here by now, something tells me you might be missing this book too. So far you’ve only read my nonfiction: my ranting about #WhiteGirlsRock, my disgust for Miley Cyrus. Now I feel it’s time to share my fiction with you, with the hope that it might give you something you’ve been looking for.

I’m self-publishing it because….well, mainstream publishers want a love interest that takes up half the plot-line. They don’t believe in the power of a book that exists to highlight the bonds of women, especially in the context of the apocalypse, which is what my book takes place within. But I do. I do believe in it, and if you’re still here, you do too. In Panther in the Hive, as this book is titled, Tasha Lockett is a biracial former fashion-addict who fights for survival in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, all the while learning that it may not be only a blade that saves her life, but the friendship of other women as well.

I’ve started a campaign for the book here. I urge you to contribute. $3 from each of you could put this campaign at goal. And if you share this campaign? Who knows what will happen. Maybe we’ll finally have a mainstream book that tells the lives of women as whole human beings.

ps. Want a sneak peek into Chapter 1? You know you do. Peep it here.

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On the Oft-Repeated Lie That Racism on Social Media Isn’t “Real” Racism

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No one questions the power of social media when it’s used to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research and other causes. No one questions the power of social media when no-name YouTubers become famous overnight, borne along by the mighty Like button. No one questioned the power of social media when it was used to discuss Mitt Romney and his binders full of women, or to help elect President Obama. In general, it’s understood that social media is a powerful part of our lives today. We spend all day on social media: checking our Facebook, scrolling through our Twitter feeds, taking ridiculous-ass selfies on Instagram, sharing sappy inspirational videos. So why, when it comes to racism on social channels, does social media become “just social media”?

It’s a phenomenon I started checking for in late 2013 when I slowly realized that when I discussed the disgusting displays of privilege and racism that I witness daily on platforms like Facebook and Twitter with (white) people offline, there was a marked lack of interest and an air of dismissal. “Well, that’s just the Internet,” I have been told about a thousand times since I began noticing this. “Trolls love doing that stuff. They live for it.”

Ahh trolls. The bullies of the Internet. The Internet, while so often a joyous source of cat pictures and blogs so brilliant that they make your brain explode, is also a Petri dish of trolls and unchecked adolescent attitude. The dreaded Comment Section, where geniuses and bottom-feeders collide, is a no-man’s-land of insight and insult battling for control. In short, it’s terrifying. The Internet is terrifying and wonderful, but it’s also something else.

It’s real.

When are trolls not trolls? When do the people who pop up in my favorite follows’ mentions and demand to be walked through Racism 101 (and then disagree with every provided example) stop being dismissed as trolls and start being seen for what they truly are: real people who have racist and sexist opinions and are choosing to share them on social media. Because there’s a difference. There is. Trolls thrive on stirring up drama. They are generally anonymous or using a fake name, are sometimes paid, and spend their time spewing inflammatory, extreme garbage (whether they personally agree with it or not) in a deliberate attempt to piss the world off while delighting in the havoc they wreak. But what about the people who use their real names? People who tweet about football and politics and books they’re reading…and also derail critical discussions on racism with cluelessness, self-centeredness, deliberate obliviousness, and bigotry. What about them? I’ve got a name for them: regulars. Because the stuff they do on social media—the derailing; the pretend-curiosity where they ask people of color basic questions about racism that could’ve been answered with their own research and then dismiss all points made; the “but I don’t see race: I can’t be racist” stuff; the “but my boyfriend is black: I can’t be racist” stuff—is just that: regular. It’s the stuff so many white people do in the real world, on the regular. Not trolls. People. In real life.

@BeccaRum, for example, was not a troll. I say “was” because, after she dropped some truly classic white privilege nonsense onto Twitter bemoaning the restraints of her whiteness and how the reverse racism of Black Twitter kept her from being “included,” she deleted her Twitter account. Becca was not a troll. Becca, however misguided and ridiculous, was just a young woman with a severe case of white privilege and a deep lack of education on racism and intersectionality. When she tweeted about how unfair it was that Black Twitter excluded her from their conversations, she wasn’t stirring the pot and waiting gleefully for outraged replies to fill her mentions. She was just tweeting the regular stuff that I’ve heard many white people who are uneducated about racism and privilege say: “I have something I want to say about the way I think racism works, but because I’m white, black people don’t listen to me! It’s not fair. That’s reverse racism.” Never mind the fact that much discussion, research and writing has already taken place on the topic. Becca wanted to be heard, and her unchecked white privilege couldn’t handle not being heard. So…regular.

Or what about @GreenLiberation? Last week she took to Twitter to tell everyone that she was teaching the kindergartners she’s responsible for to believe that they are “beyond their race,” and that one simply has to claim to be “green” or “blue,” or whatever color they choose in order to transcend their race. Every notion of “colorblindness” that has been established as privileged and damaging, she employed. When she was criticized, she proceeded to tweet for days (in fact, she was still tweeting about it last time I looked) about how the people asking her to check her privilege were “a lynch mob.” (Really.) By claiming not to “identify with” white people, she says she therefore does not benefit from white privilege. [Insert guffaw.] She is not a troll in the way that “troll” is generally defined. She wasn’t actively trying to make anyone mad: she was just doing what a lot of regular, oblivious white people do. She has almost 10,000 followers, not a shady 51-follower profile with an egg avatar. She’s a real person.

I write a lot about white privilege, race, and racism, and I—like everyone else who writes about these issues—get a lot of hate mail, although certainly less than writers of color who write about the same topics. Daily I receive ignorant tweet after ignorant tweet, book-length emails telling me what an idiot I am, comments on my blog calling me a race traitor (yawn) and an ugly bitch (sigh), and messages to my fan page on Facebook calling me names that would make a pirate blush. It used to bother me. It doesn’t anymore. My block hand is strong (pow!) and my “Report As Spam” reflex is cat-like. But something else does bother me, and it’s that vast number of people who dismiss this online racist behavior with slightly exasperated statements such as “It’s the Internet,” or (the most common, given my favorite social platform), “It’s just Twitter.”

No, it’s not. This is the world.

When we say racist behavior on the Internet is “just the Internet”—“that’s the way it is”—we are not only justifying that behavior, but we are erasing the experiences of those who are on the receiving end of it. Why should racism be treated with any less seriousness because it’s in the form of a 140-character microaggression as opposed to an epithet hurled from a car window? Is racism not racism, no matter what form it takes? When this question is posed, the answer is inevitably: “Well…why can’t people just ignore it? Again, it’s just the Internet.”

Oh? How often do you have your Twitter feed flooded with people who think they aren’t racist but demand to be educated on the proof of racism’s existence, meanwhile becoming more and more irate and emotionally abusive with every tweet they send? I’m not even talking about my own lived experience, although I’ve experienced some of this. I’m talking about the stuff I see tweeters of color (ToC) experience regularly, experiences that are regarded with neutrality from offline observers and even the perpetrators: “I’m just asking questions! I’m asking you to educate me, what’s the big deal! How am I being racist when I’m just telling you that I disagree with everything you believe and don’t think your lived experiences are valid? That’s what the Internet is for! Discussion!” The anxiety (and annoyance) this kind of microaggression is as real online as it is in reality, so why the reluctance to relate these modes?

By dismissing online racism as “the way it is” on the Internet, by sweeping racist social media behavior under the rug, we are saying that ToC have to accept what they get on Twitter. ToC must be ready to accept abuse, this logic says, if they want to be part of the Internet that white Twitter users enjoy racism-free. We are allowing the “regulars” of the Internet to proceed unchecked in behavior that is demonstrably harmful and offensive to ToC, meanwhile mythologizing their hurt and normalizing racism.

You know who else I call “regulars” though? The people who do this dismissing. Because Internet or not, this is the same kind of excuse-making behavior I see in the “real world” when white people who are unaffected by racism and choose to remain unaware of white privilege are confronted with conversations about harmful behavior of white people. Dismissal. Excuse-making. Blame-shifting. The unwillingness to drop the r-word. The reluctance to hold other white people accountable. But racism on social media isn’t less real because it takes place on social media. Racist words aren’t any less racist because they are shared in the form of a tweet. What’s unreal about the Internet anyway? We use it to reconnect with old friends and new ones; get in touch with college professors; share our life announcements such as engagements and pregnancies; ask for help; look for jobs. I’m using it to fund my novel. Many of my friends use it to meet dates. It’s real. Our lives are wrapped up in it. We can’t acknowledge the successes that occur because of it while dismissing the failures—especially the harm that those failures cause.

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Hollywood and the Shaping of Perceptions of Racism

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It is a known fact that the media we consume shapes our perception of the world: after all, media has economic, political, social and aesthetic purposes. Martin Gilens wrote a book some time ago, for example: Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty, which explores the role of media in the shaping of myth and misconception of welfare policy. And what about the shaping of misconception of racism? We all know Fox News has a nice handle on that, as far as “news” media goes. But what about pop culture? Hollywood? How do the films we flock to theaters to see shape our world? I can think of more than a few examples, as I’m sure any thinking person can. But one in particular comes to mind: films about slavery and the way they shape perceptions of racism in white audiences. Namely the idea that racism is a thing of the past and only existed on Southern plantations a long, long time ago.

Since the release of 12 Years a Slave I’ve had many conversations about films that are about slavery. The conversations that stand out to me the most are the ones where the consensus is, “Why do all the films in Hollywood that feature black people have to be about slavery?” and my own undying question about the underrepresentation of black people in Hollywood, “Why does a film need to be about the subjugation of black people in order for it to have more than a one solitary black character?” And also, “Why did so many more white people go to see 12 Years than Best Man Holiday?”

While films like 12 Years a Slave are extremely important in understanding the past and the effect it has on the present, they have an interesting effect on white audiences whose ideas of racism are of the “post-racial” or “colorblind” variety: the effect is almost one of relief. When I left the theater of 12 Years a Slave, the kind of words I heard from the lips of the other white people leaving were things like, “God, it was just so bad back then.” And even things like, “Those people were horrible. Fuck those slave owners.” So, in a sense, relief. “It was so bad back then” translates as “Things are so much better now,” and “Those people were horrible” translates as “We don’t do that anymore.”

And they’re right. Things are better now. White people don’t own slaves in the United States. But this cousin of relief presents, to me, a sort of cognitive dissonance about the reality of racism in America. When white audiences see movies like The Help and The Butler and 12 Years a Slave—and indeed, when the vast majority of mainstream films featuring black people are movies like The Help and The Butler and 12 Years a Slave—and not films like Best Man Holiday, their perception of racism (and even blackness) is shaped in a way that lacks a wider context and an awareness of present-day racism. This is what racism looks like, white audiences come to believe: chains and lynchings and the American South. And while they’re not wrong, that understanding is stunted.

In a way, films like 12 Years a Slave, even with its horror and brutality, serve as a comfort to white people seeking to feel a distance between the monster that is racism and the life they lead in 2013. “Progress!” we congratulate ourselves, proud that America has overcome its brutishly violent history. “We used to be horrible people that owned other human beings and now we don’t! We’re a post-racial society now! Go America!” But if we’re talking about reality, the reality of racism in 2013, a reality that generally doesn’t make it to the silver screen, we have to talk about things like environmental racism and structural racism in our systems of education, employment, criminal justice, and more. We have to talk about Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander and we have to talk about Oscar Grant and Renisha McBride. We have to talk about what racism looks like now and not let ourselves off the hook with the tired mantra of “But we’ve come so far!”

12 Years a Slave was an incredible film. I think everyone should see it. But I encourage people with skin like mine to not watch it with the idea that the work is done. The fact that white people no longer legally own, rape, and murder black bodies is not a sign of progress we should congratulate ourselves on: our standards should be higher. Widen your scope. Racism looks like this. And this. And this. And this. Don’t allow Hollywood’s narrow line of vision to trick you into believing that violent racism is just something that happened in the 1800’s and looks like the horrific lava of lashes on a black human being’s back while everyone stands around wearing corsets and smoking pipes. It looks like Charlotte police shooting Jonathan Ferrell to death after he was in a car accident and asked for help. It looks like Riley Incognito calling Warring Sapp the N-word. It looks like Trayon Christian being arrested for buying a belt at Barney’s because the NYPD didn’t think he could afford it on his own. It looks like celebrities and well-known magazines showcasing blackface in 2013 and every year before that.

In a nation where so many white people have their “one black friend” and little personal contact with people who don’t look like them—yes, segregation is still “a thing:” New York City had the same level of racial segregation in 2012 as it did in 1910.—it is easy for these audiences to consume movies like The Help and 12 Years (especially given the fact that there are so few alternatives when it comes to mainstream movies featuring black people and their lives) and think “This was racism. I don’t know any black people here in 2013, but I do know that slavery isn’t around anymore. So that’s that!” And—slam—close the book. But that’s not all. That’s not the end, fellow white folks. Why did you watch The Help but not Do the Right Thing? Why 12 Years a Slave and not Boyz in the Hood? Is it because one talks about racism in the past where you’re comfortable with it, and the other talks about issues affecting black people right here and right now? Spoiler alert: they’re the same thing. The racism you see in 12 Years has mutated and transformed and grown tentacles and developed camouflage, but it’s right here with us. Right here with you. We’d be foolish to ignore it; foolish to watch the story of Solomon Northup and think that his suffering was not inherited, that the ugliness of the system that enslaved him doesn’t still linger.

I wonder if white America as a whole will ever be able to empathize with present-day struggle. Looking back with sympathy and indignation is easier than looking around, isn’t it? I just wonder what are we looking toward.

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5 Bloggers Who Are Blogging Better Than You (And Me)

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This morning I’m getting on a plane for New York, where tonight I will join Beverly Bond, Jamilah Lemieux, and other incredibly talented and powerful women for a panel hosted by Black Girls Rock!, The Black Girls Rock! Think Tank: Checkin’ Our Fresh. I’m excited to sit amongst such inspiring company, where we will discuss media representations of black women, why some white people feel fear and discomfort about programs like BGR, and other topics. In honor of tonight—and in honor of every day—I wanted to hip you to five amazing women whose blogs you should be reading right now.

Michonne Micheaux: Anti-Oppression. Pro-Storytelling

@LexiScorsese

I knew Michonne as @LexiScorsese before anything else—one of the most hilarious and on-point Twitter accounts I follow to this day—but when I discovered her blog I was in love. Her tagline—Anti-Oppression. Pro-Storytelling.—says it all. She describes herself as “a film nerd who talks too much for microblogging & who loves humanity more than hegemony.” Can we say love at first read?

One of my favorite posts by Michonne Micheaux: The Myth of  “Fast Black Girls”

Trudy of Gradient Lair

@thetrudz

I first came upon Trudy on Twitter. She is brilliant, bold, and no-nonsense, writing about art, media, society, politics, and more. Trudy will blow your mind, every time. Womanism, black feminism, intersectional feminism…she covers it all.

One of my favorite posts by Trudy: General Misogyny vs. Anti-Black Misogyny (Misogynoir), Specifically

Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous

@BlackGirlDanger

Mia appeared on my radar via Facebook. Everyone was sharing her posts left and right, and I soon learned why. She is an incredibly insightful writer, leading Black Girl Dangerous with posts about race, racism, and the experiences of queer and trans people of color, while also amplifying the voices of other amazingly talented writers.

One of my favorite posts by Mia McKenzie: Easy Out There For A (White) Bitch: A Few Words On Lily Allen and the Continued Use of Black Women’s Bodies As Props

Asha French of MODERN MOM

@AFrenchWriter

Asha was actually a mentor of mine (and still is) when I was a young, dumb writer of 15. She’s a columnist at Ebony now for a column called MODERN MOM, where she writes about the wide world of parenting and family while also discussing race, queerness, and more. She’s also writing a book that I can’t wait to read, so stay tuned for that.

One of my favorite posts by Asha French: Dear Beautiful Daughters Who Happen to Be Light

Feminista Jones at FeministaJones.com

@FeministaJones

Here’s another woman that I regularly thank the Twitter gods for. Feminista is fearless, fun, and fierce. She writes about everything from racism to fitness, sex to domestic violence. She’s also HA-LARIOUS. She’s serious about research—trust me, this woman knows her stuff. In my head I call her the Queen of Stats, but really she is the queen of many things.

One of my favorite posts by Feminista Jones: Rape Culture 2.0

If you want to improve the contents of your brain, read these women. If you want to improve the brains of the people around you, share their blogs. And don’t stop there. If you read my blog and you like it…just wait until you read these bloggers who rock. They make me look like an amateur.

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