When I was in the Air Force and 26 or 27, I worked with a civilian named Jim. Nice guy. He was about 45, wife and two kids. He’d recently been forced off active duty due to a weird heart glitch unlikely to flare up, and he was miserable about being forced out of uniform. I, on the other hand, was a total gym rat and fashion plate with an unlimited military future. I worked out so, I had to have my uniform sleeves tailored for my sculpted, Michelle-kiss-my-heinie arms. I monitored everything that went into my body and everything that went into anybody’s body around me. I subscribed to magazines like Muscle and Fitness and would have competed in bodybuilding competitions had I not been too busy going to school at night to get ahead. Jim, with his Homer Simpson gut and comb over, got winded just using the copier. One day, he came in wincing and limping. He’d actually hurt himself stretching before one of his infrequent attempts to exercise. I laughed and laughed. Thought it was the funniest thing in the world, and only realized in retrospect that he was not sharing the joke. A callow, overconfident youth, it never occurred to me then that my reaction was cruel. And stupid. What, did I think I’d still be bench-pressing my body weight at 80?
In my late 30s, when my own mystery aches and pains began, and now nearly 50 when I never see the inside of a gym that doesn’t have -boree after it, styling in my Walmart stretch pants and feeling my gut pillowing into my lap when I’m naked, I have one burning desire—to tell Jim I’m sorry I was such a bitch. Well, two: I’d also thank him for not slapping me. He respectfully tried that day to convince me that eventually age would catch up with me, too, and I wouldn’t always be a young hottie, free to work out all evening, apply careful makeup everyday, and fuss over my complicated hairdo. What nonsense! I believe I actually went ‘talk to the hand’ on that nice man. He might as well have predicted I’d end up becoming a Buddhist monk or a lion-tamer. Never, ever would I “let myself go.” “Never would I age,” I must have thought. Never would I lose my zeal, or the time, to take care of myself first.
Well, much as I’d like to, I can’t apologize to Jim and commiserate with him over the follies of youth. That “unlikely weird heart glitch” glitched; and a former coworker called a few years after that to tell me JIm had keeled over dead at his desk.
All of that to say this to the young feminists so offended by this elder’s critique: One day, you’ll have your own Jim story to tell. One day, when you’ve lived through more of this bitch called life, but without all that youth and vigor, you’ll hear yourself saying something like, “These young women today just don’t get it. Not like we did.” When you’ve made hideous mistakes you know were because you talked the feminist talk but didn’t walk the feminist walk. When that day comes, if I haven’t keeled over at my desk, please have the grace to call me up so we can laugh together at youth’s callow overconfidence and refusal to listen with respect, if not agreement.
As my father used to say: Even a fool can give you something you can use. But you have to hear him out. I’m not a fool, so why not ask me what I meant, then sift through those insights for the nuggets you buy into? Or, just go on believing you’re impervious to either error or critique.
But wait! I started it, right? I was disrespectful first, no? Grow up, girlies. When all those random grannies on the street criticize the way I’ve dressed my kids or what I’m letting them eat, I just say “thank you” or “have a nice day” or pretend not to have heard. When my mother gets in my business, I say “yes ma’am,” then do exactly as I please. Unless she was right, then I take her advice. But however annoying my mom, however much of a busybody the old lady across the street is, I do not growl back. I do not tell them to mind their own business or point out how their generation might have won WWII but what about Jim Crow?
When I was in the military, I sought out the more senior females, took them to lunch, and listened. Same with the female partners at my firm when I was considering the law. Ditto my elders in publishing and journalism. Ninety percent of it was useless to me (or so I thought), but oh that 10 percent.
But, then, I went in assuming I didn’t know everything about being a woman in a sexist world or navigating the currents of a profession as volatile as mine. And I went in with some old-fashioned home training.
I’m not talking about reverence, I’m talking about a thirst for the kind of knowledge that will help in the battles all your responses claim to be fighting so diligently for. Here’s my final example: I take seriously the chidings of people who’ve been dead for as much as 150 years.
I can still hear Frederick Douglassand W.E.B. Du Bois and Anna Julia Cooper telling me that I’m dropping the ball. I want desperately to live up to their example and it tears me up to think blacks today, to analogize, are not living up to that legacy. That’s where my second book, The End of Blackness, came from.
I finally got around to reading all ‘those books’—the ones we’re going to read someday. For me, it was all the anti-slavery and Movement classics, like The Miseducation of the Negro, The Souls of Black Folks and Dr. King’s speeches. I came away ashamed. I went looking for condemnations of white folks and came away with the knowledge that nearly every book in the black canon is mostly intra-communal critique. So I wrote a book about ‘hearing dead people,’ basically all the long dead blacks who made me realize that my post-Movement generation has dropped the ball.
If you think its easy being a black feminist who also criticizes the civil rights bourgeoeisie, well, think again.
I’ve earned my bitchiness and I’ve earned the right to be taken seriously.
On that point, I critcized a group. If you’re going to criticize an individual—namely me—you might want to check me out. Questions like “how many abortions has she provided,” and “how many young feminists does she know”? Please. Also with the ageism; again, please. When a bunch of college kids were roomed in my complex due to dorm shortages our complaints were met with claims of age discrimination, I guess because we never complained when the senior citizens in the complex ding-dong-ditched night after night before dawn. Stop with the make-weight ‘arguments’.
Can you not see that my yelling at you comes from fear and jealousy? Yeah, I’m as jealous of your youth and unlimited future as Jim, a middle-aged white guy, was of mine. And I’m terrified that you’ll make all the usual female mistakes. I did. Your generation just seems so complacent, la la la there are no abortion providers in most of the country but I’ll just go auction off my virginity and flash my thong with pride. I’ll excel from kindergarten through Harvard Law, then mommy track myself for a man who is not my equal. Then I’ll breastfeed for eight years, not because I want to but because I’m a bad mommy if I don’t. Unfair, but from love. You don’t hear me criticizing the Jews or our missile defense policy. I care about the groups I belong (or belonged) to: the working class, blacks, women, and the military.
So, you know, have a little respect and a hell of a lot more humility. We older chicks may be critical bitches but you will be too, someday. If you’re lucky. Would you really rather we didn’t give a damn?