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Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
pumping in my living room.
I’ve said before that there are real dangers in reading, especially in reading poetry, which is perhaps one of the only places where I see the possibility of true freedom for black people who live in America. Literature is also this very dangerous place where black people—women especially—are allowed a certain freedom that they can’t quite experience anywhere else. Toni Morrison’s Sula, Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie, Alice Walker’s Nettie; yes, their stories are complicated but they all managed, at some point or another, to escape a certain criminalizing of carefree black womanhood. Witnessing such harrowing escapes get the imagination going, and it’s probably dangerous to imagine a place where black girls and women get to be some version of their authentic selves—selves who do not always pledge allegiance, or selves who wear American flag swimsuits on Twitter, or selves who have the audacity to attend music festivals, or selves who desire to protect themselves against the American police state. It’s probably not safe for me to get my hopes up about a world where the term “carefree black girls” is no longer even necessary, because black girlhood and womanhood won’t be so closely associated with struggle and sacrifice. I’ve never even used the term publicly myself, until today when I realized that it’s a concept that scares people so much, they’ll go to great lengths to cut it down.
Today, Leslie Jones is trending on Twitter for the same reason she quit Twitter not too long ago—she is under attack. I believe she is under attack because she has continuously broken the rules about how you’re supposed to publicly be black and woman in 2016. What I’m learning this year is that people like a calm black woman and a gracious black woman. I’ve written about how an image of a black woman standing in front of the Baton Rouge police went viral in part because we champion those black women who—against all odds—maintain their composure. Not a hair out of place, even in the midst of men licensed to kill. We love a Coretta Scott King, we love a Michelle Obama, we love black women praying in Church. Of course that “love” is completely contradicted by the society and politics we embrace, where black women praying are no safer than black women twerking in Beyoncé videos, black girls watching their fathers murdered in real time, or black women comedians covering the 2016 Olympics. But there’s certainly a difference in who we proclaim “innocent” when the time comes to defend black women against attacks.
When Leslie Jones was invited to Rio to cover the Olympics, I rejoiced not so much as a fan of her work on Saturday Night Live, but as a fan of that greater image I know she represents, whether she asked to represent it or not. Jones is one of a handful of dark-skinned black women (important to note, because colorism is very much a thing), who is also not a size 0-4, making waves in Hollywood. She is, in so many ways, everything many black women are taught from a very young age is not okay—she’s loud, she’s both bodacious and self-deprecating and she’s unapologetic about the space she takes up.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
Seeing her very spirit broken down by racist Twitter users after the release of Ghostbusters was nothing short of infuriating. We only have so many publicly carefree black girls—and so few who look like Jones—the criminalizing of her very existence was, I suppose, inevitable.
What I mean is that, Jones, like other women celebrities and black women in the public eye, receives a particular kind of treatment we’d usually only find acceptable for people who have done something wrong—people who we view as criminals, in some shape or form. But in America, there are certain groups of people who don’t have to do anything, besides exist, to infuriate the masses, to incite the energy of a lynch mob. Yes, all women in the public eye fall under this category to a degree—which is how and why we have a world where Gamer Gate occurs, and where the term “online harassment” simply isn’t adequate to describe these attacks. It’s how we have a time and place where Olympic athletes aren’t spared either, where gold medals do not negate your blackness or your femaleness.
So when will we be able to see a tweet—or a barrage of tweets—as an act of violence? When will we see the leaking of personal photos (a tried and true attack which has claimed everyone from Marcia Clark, to Rihanna, to the Duchess of Cambridge) as a form of sexual assault?
When will we stop shrugging away the effects vicious online behavior has on women like Leslie Jones, Gabby Douglas and Serena Williams? And when will we decide that free speech cannot be some vague concept that only seems to empower the Milo Yiannopoulos’ of the world—and make no mistake, these men are not outliers. There are many of them, and they are protected by those who support them and especially those who claim not to support them, but do support their right to exist. Those same people won’t admit it, but they would sooner see a world filled with Yiannopouli, Trumps and Piers Morgans, than a world of carefree Leslie Jones’. And I know this for a fact, because this is the world we live in—a world that remains safe for men, especially white men, but many men of color as well—and a world that seeks to build bars around those women—especially black women—who dare insist that they are free.
In times like these, I’m so grateful for poetry—imaginary worlds created by Maya Angelous and Nikki Giovannis (I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal/I cannot be comprehended except by my permission) and Harryette Mullens, where I can escape and remember that there is such a thing as publicly carefree black women who can exist without attack (or at least, in spite of the world around them, and on their own terms—as in a great poem like “Still I Rise”). But all of us witnessing the reality of this world—the reality for Jones, for Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and so many others—have to take it upon ourselves to demand the safety and protection (virtual and otherwise) of the black women we champion as entertainers. Poetry is everything—but until the poets are running this country and reorganizing this very American, very racist and sexist society we call home—it’s not nearly enough.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.