Everyone edits what they say. It’s a part of growing up. But what if we applied tell-it-like-it-is honesty to grown-up issues? In Impolite Conversations, two respected thinkers and writers openly discuss five “third-rail” topics—from multi-racial identities to celebrity worship to hyper-masculinity among black boys—and open the stage for honest discussions about important and timely concerns.
Organized around five subjects—Race, Politics, Sex, Money, Religion—the dialogue between Cora Daniels and John L. Jackson Jr. may surprise, provoke, affirm, or challenge you. In alternating essays, the writers use reporting, interviews, facts, and figures to back up their arguments, always staying firmly rooted in the real world. Sometimes they agree, sometimes they don’t, but they always reach their conclusions with respect for the different backgrounds they come from and the reasons they disagree.
Whether you oppose or sympathize with these two impassioned voices, you’ll end up knowing more than you did before and appreciating the candid, savvy, and often humorous ways in which they each take a stand.
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About the Author
John L. Jackson Jr. is a cultural anthropologist, filmmaker, and writer. At the age of thirty-four, he was named the first-ever Richard Perry University Professor of Communication and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and has served as a visiting professor of law at Harvard. He is the author of four books: Harlemworld, a Publisher’s Weekly Notable Nonfiction Book; Real Black; Racial Paranoia; and Thin Description.
Read an Excerpt
Let’s pray for sexually active daughters.
“I want a freak in the morning, freak in the evening, just like me . . .”
—ADINA HOWARD, FREAK LIKE ME
A few years ago there was this Subaru commercial that was perfectly engineered to touch any parent’s heart. In the spot a father is giving his teenage daughter the keys to the car for the first time, but when he looks in the driver’s seat while giving his safety speech he is still seeing his daughter as the toddler she once was. I experience the opposite effect daily. From the moment my daughter was born I’ve been thinking about the woman she will grow up to be. Part of this future focus is that I am an obsessive planner. I surround myself with to-do lists, buy tickets months in advance, and register for things the first day possible, always. By December 1 this past year, I had already planned out my kids’ entire summer vacation, including finding and registering them for seven different weekly summer camps between the two of them. My husband thinks I’m crazy. What he doesn’t know is the constant planning I do that he can’t see. Since before my daughter could talk I have been thinking about the Talk, as in how will I talk to my daughter about sex. She’s barely started elementary school, so our sex talks have been relatively limited so far. But that hasn’t stopped me thinking. And that’s mostly not because of my obsessive planning but because I’m a woman raising a future woman.
I enjoy sex.
It is amazing to me how few women can say those three words proudly, unapologetically, void of embarrassment, or even without cushioning the admission with a little humor. Perhaps the only thing I envy about men is that it is assumed that they like to get their freak on, when for women it is still something that we are supposed to whisper. Here I am a grown woman, mother of two, still married to the boy I met in college, and writing a book dedicated to candor, and of all the personal, honest, tasteless, and impolite things I’ve written, it is those three words—I enjoy sex—that make me pause at the thought of my mom reading. And if we are keeping it real, honestly, I am not sure I would be able to write those three words so loud and proud if my father were still alive.
For the record, I think about sex, I fantasize about sex, I enjoy sex. At the playground whenever I see fellow parents sporting mommy/daddy gear and exhaustion, I think about how they have also had sex. I actually find one of the best unexpected aphrodisiacs in life is to spot a family from an ultraconservative religious sect, like Hasidic Jews or the Amish, with all their children upon children in tow. Seeing all the sex that couple is obviously having immediately shames any too-tired thoughts from my mind. In fact the only good thing that came from having to endure a presidential election race with the insufferable Mitt Romney was the bombardment of family photos of his five children and his brood of grandchildren (twenty at last count), which put my sex life into overdrive. The Romney clan is clearly doin’ it, and doin’ it, and doin’ it well.
Of course, the major flaw in my thinking is the assumption that just because you are having lots of sex doesn’t mean you are enjoying it. Most people think by enjoying it, it means the sex has to be good. I come from the school where all sex, even bad sex, at some level can offer some enjoyment if you let it. I’d rather be having bad sex than, say, go to work, ditto for cleaning my house, shuttling my kids to their endless list of playdates, soccer games, or ballet lessons. Bad sex is better than the morning commute or trying to do errands with my four-year-old in tow. Where bad sex starts to lose its appeal is when it is up against other forms of enjoyment—dinner and a movie, a girls’ night out, sleep. That’s when our minds start to wander through all the things we could be doing that would be more fun as we wait for the bad sex to end. Still, bad sex doesn’t really become bad until you’ve had great sex. In fact, that moment of great sex is the turning point. Before that moment of great sex, if given the choice—a year filled with lots of sex that’s just okay versus a year of hardly any sex, but the sex is mind-blowingly great—I’d surely have picked lots of sex. But after that great sex moment in life it is hard to go back to okay sex no matter how much you’re doin’ it.
What I have realized is that, unlike some parents, I don’t dread the day my daughter will have sex. That’s partly why dads, like the one in the Subaru commercial, constantly infantilize their daughters because they can’t bear to acknowledge their daughters’ sexuality. Instead, what I worry more about is whether my daughter will enjoy sex.
That worry doesn’t make me too popular at the playground. Much of the conversation in parenting circles is about how to prevent our kids from having sex, period. Whether the concern comes from our values and belief system or from a health and pregnancy standpoint or some combination, often the discussions focus on dangers and fears. Recently, I went to a meeting at my children’s elementary school that dealt with talking to your kids about sex, and the speaker opened the session with: “If you have children in kindergarten they are five years away from puberty.” I saw two dads bolt from the room immediately. The next forty-five minutes we were showered with various depressing statistics of the teenage pregnancy–sexual abuse–HIV/AIDS variety. Amid the fear by flurry, we learned that these days the golden rule among youth sex educators is that age ten is the new sixteen. At that I almost bolted from the room.
All those dangers and fears have merit and should not be dismissed. If you really want the lowdown on fearful statistics check out the Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveys (YRBS), which have become the most reliable youth sex data. The annual surveys actually monitor all risky health behavior among the nation’s young people, which means you will find data documenting bike helmet use next to driving while drinking next to whether or not teenagers carried a weapon on school property in the last thirty days (this is actually a survey question that the government asks) next to questions of virginity or how many young people have had sexual intercourse for the first time before age thirteen. The data is gathered nationally, by state, and in some cases at the city level in chart upon chart for comparison. The prying eyes of the government aside, I don’t want to dismiss the health risks that come when young people have sex. My problem, though, is that too often that negativity is directed at our daughters. In a recent controversial anti-teen pregnancy campaign New York’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg went as far as plastering oversized posters of crying curly headed toddlers across the city to chastise teenage (black) girls to keep their legs shut. “Honestly Mom . . . chances are he WON’T stay with you. What happens to me?” The words of one ad lashed out on the side of a bus alongside a picture of a little black baby girl as I crossed the street with my own little black girl.
Of course, as parents we need to be teaching our girls and boys respect, responsibility, and values, all of which if we teach it right should shape their decisions of when to engage in a sexual relationship. Not educating our children about protection against STDs and pregnancy is downright irresponsible, much like driving without a license.
But as mothers we should also be teaching our daughters to enjoy sex.
It took me a long time to admit that I enjoy sex. My household was strict, and my family lived by a code of silence. It meant that uncomfortable topics just didn’t get discussed. That silence ran so deep that when I got my period for the first time I didn’t tell my mother. It meant that the next month when it returned I was shocked. I am embarrassed to say that in the pre–Internet era of my youth, my sex education was so lacking I had been under the misimpression that this period thing only happened once a year instead of every month. Only then did I tell my mother, not because I thought it was something she should know, but because I didn’t want to have to pay for the overpriced box of maxi pads each month. Even without discussion, some things were just understood that good girls didn’t do, sex being at the top of the list.
When I went off to college the one thing my dad gave me was a Bible. My husband, who unlike me was actually raised going to church every Sunday, was sent off to college with a box of condoms. We met the second day of school and finished the box by the end of the week. I enjoyed every minute of it.
To be fair to my parents, my household was not the only one—this is how we raise our daughters. When my own daughter was in the second grade a teacher cornered me one day after school to talk. It was a bit startling because my little girl is the type of student teachers typically love: smart and well-behaved. So when this teacher pulled me aside and in a hushed voice wanted to “inform” me that she thought my daughter was perhaps hanging around with the “wrong kids,” I was shocked. Apparently what alarmed this teacher was that she heard my daughter utter the word “penis” during a conversation with a boy after class. The teacher had no further information for me, no idea what the conversation was about, and wanted to stress that nothing disruptive happened during class, but . . . she still “thought I should know.” The parents of the boy also involved in the penis conversation never got pulled over for a hushed-tone talk. The thing is, I am sure this teacher thought she was doing good by pulling me aside because my child is smart and well-behaved, and, let’s face it, a girl. But we aren’t talking about when I went off to college, when good girls are sent off with Bibles and good boys are loaded up with condoms. That even today the disconnect we feel that a girl is doing something wrong by, in this case, merely uttering the word “penis,” and a boy who does the same is not, illustrates how much further most of us have to go to empowering our girls when it comes to their sexual life.
I can feel the shaking heads and hear the tsk-tsks from those who think I have gone too far in my overreacting. “Your seven-year-old was caught talking about penises in school!” Here, again, my husband too thinks I’m crazy. And I must admit, my overly reflective rational self here on the page was absent that day in the schoolyard. Instead, my daughter got the stern lecture about appropriate talk and behavior in school and how I didn’t want her ever to do anything in school that would cause her mother to be pulled aside by a teacher again. I might have also uttered, not too softly and definitely not at all rationally, something to the effect of “you will not play with that boy again!”
I still regret it.
What would Dr. Laura Berman do? I am not the daytime talk show type. I don’t really have a good reason, just that I find the whole studio audience discussion on the boring side even if there are chairs being thrown. So Oprah was never one of my habits. People would drop names in Oprah’s BFF circle like Oz or Phil or Laura, and I would have no idea who these folks were or the extent of their following. And I was fine with that. But a few years ago I was home on maternity leave with my son, getting reacquainted with daytime TV, when I caught sexpert Laura Berman on Oprah. She was spouting advice about talking to kids about sex that made me freeze in my remote control surfing tracks. The moment was when Berman advised the crowd to educate their teenage daughters about vibrators. Shock and awe and “oh no she didn’t” squeals spread across the audience. Gayle King looked so mortified that I thought her body was going to meltify, like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark, right there on my screen. Berman touted a sex survey conducted by Seventeen and O magazines that found that in our discussions with our children about sex, only 35 percent of mothers talk about pleasure. She was aghast, emphasizing the only—as in only 35 percent. Judging from the audience’s reaction I was surprised to hear that it was that much.
“You’re teaching [your daughters] about their own body and pleasuring themselves and taking the reins of their own sexuality so that they don’t ever have to depend on any other teenage boy to do it for them,” says Berman as she encouraged the female audience to start exploring their own routes to sexual pleasure. I haven’t heard Berman speak again since that very brief moment I had with daytime talk, but what made her stick in my mind was this: “When you are comfortable, that’s when you can really raise a sexually empowered daughter.”1
Unfortunately most of us are not really that comfortable.
Consider that about 75 percent of all women never reach orgasm from intercourse alone and as many as 10 percent of sexually active women have never climaxed under any circumstances (alone or with their partner).2 How we are raised affects the quality of our sex lives. As parents we spend our lives teaching our children. Why, then, of all the important life lessons we try to teach, do we not do more to teach our children how to love their sexual side? After all, our children will always be our children but they won’t always be children.
Of course Berman is not the first to bring up masturbation. Back in 1994 Dr. Jocelyn Elders made the mistake of saying what was on her mind. As the first black U.S. surgeon general, what was on her mind was children dying. So on the eve of the United Nations AIDS conference she argued that schoolchildren should be taught to masturbate to ward off STDs. The minute she uttered the m of masturbate she was a goner. Barely out of my parents’ house of silence, in an age before reality TV when private lives were truly private, I still remember the lightning bolt of shock from hearing a person in the public eye utter the word. Obviously I wasn’t alone. Elders was discarded by the Clinton administration so swiftly, it became a stunning example of just how fast government can actually move. Since then Elders still says the word “masturbate” a lot but doesn’t utter the word “AIDS” so much as an excuse to do it. Protection from STDs is still one of her reasons for advocating masturbation, but pleasure is also enough. More important, she hasn’t budged on the important role masturbation should play in the sexual education of our young people.
“Back then, everybody was acting like this was a word they’d never heard,” Elders told The Root in 2011—the word being, of course, masturbation. “Everybody does it, but nobody admits to it. If everybody in Congress who’d ever masturbated in their life would turn green, then we would have a green Congress. That’s true for the whole country, and other countries, too.”3
Some fifteen years after Elders made her masturbation remark in passing (it was in response to a question), the British government started dishing out her masturbation advice to teenagers. In a sexual health pamphlet created by the National Health Service in the UK titled “Pleasure,” teenagers are encouraged to exercise their right to “an orgasm a day.” The “Pleasure” pamphlet was embraced by a city in northern England and circulated by local officials to teens, parents, and youth advocates. In its words: “Health promotion experts advocate five portions of fruit and veg a day and 30 minutes’ physical activity three times a week. What about sex or masturbation twice a week?”
What does that say about the rest of us when a sharecropper’s daughter in her seventies (Elders) and the UK (an entire nation known across the globe for being sexually uptight) are more comfortable with the sexuality of our children than many of us responsible for raising them?
Perhaps the hang-ups about sex that we pass on to our girls are because we, as a nation, are too romantic. I admit I have been accused of not being the romantic type. True, my husband often chides me because I’m the one who forgets our anniversary. Also my favorite genre of movies is horror, and I think sitting through a romantic comedy is worse than torture in a foreign dictator’s prison. I also have a great dislike for Valentine’s Day. The idea that there is a single day where everyone is supposed to get all lovey and mushy seems preposterous to me. Shouldn’t a relationship filled with passion have many days like this? And if we are sentenced to only one day of passion, why would every relationship have the same day? Romance itself, at least in our modern heterosexual practice of it, seems to be a one-sided type of love. One person is actively wooing the other, often with gifts and trinkets, rather than having both sides actively engaged together to do something special for the couple as a unit. For heterosexual couples, sex becomes the most romantic gift that women can give, and thus the expectation of pleasure is given away to their partner, too. Because of the one-sidedness, our practice of romance often includes a heavy dose of fantasy. Fantasy is expected. That is what the flowers and the candles and the whirlwind are all about: “the feeling” people get that makes them know someone is “the one.” It is very easy to love a fantasy—it is much harder to love the reality.
As a woman I find this all condescending because, let’s face it, Valentine’s Day has made a business of romanticizing women. The celebration of the holiday in the United States was, in fact, the creation of the greeting card industry, inspired by Esther Howland, who is still hailed a hero by Hallmark. Esther came across a handmade card that was part of a new British celebration of exchanging love notes on February 14. She convinced her father, who owned a stationery store in Worcester, Massachusetts, to start mass marketing Valentine’s Day cards, thus introducing the fledgling holiday on a wide scale in the States. Valentine’s Day and Esther’s cards became such a hit here in the United States that when she sold her business, The New England Valentine Company, it was making $100,000 a year. The year was 1881. The mother of Valentine’s Day, as Esther came to be known, never married.4
As a black woman I don’t like V-day because it is the time of year when all the single-women-are-doomed stories hit the media. (Pssst, did you hear? It is easier to be hit by a truck, win the lottery, or fly to the North Pole than it is to find a husband.) In February single women are treated like a disease that needs to be cured. What’s worse is that this singlehood is something that they are bringing on themselves. So the coverage is always what can be done to catch a man (the media is only interested in heterosexual love) and thus spare yourself the sentence of singlehood. When it comes to black women the scenario is even worse. (Pssst, did you hear? It is easier to be hit by a meteor, win on Jeopardy, or fly to the moon than it is for a single black woman to find a husband.) I am purposely not going to recycle all the stats about how hard it is for black women to marry. Instead, keep in mind that stats about SBWs should never be taken in a vacuum. Americans, as a whole, have become the nonmarrying kind, with marriage rates falling to an all-time low of 51 percent. Singlehood is the times. Against that backdrop, it should be noted that rates for black men who are not married are about the same as they are for black women, even if they don’t get constant grief from moms, aunties, and the media about when they will jump the broom.
Still . . . this doesn’t mean that when it comes to marriage and black women we don’t have issues. One of the major differences in the single black woman pool, compared to other women, is the role of the church. And that doesn’t get talked about enough.
I was interviewing Sophia Nelson about a manifesto she wrote, Black Woman Redefined, when she started preaching.
“Jesus ain’t your man, he’s your savior,” says Nelson.
Her words shook me through the phone. A couple years later I still can’t shake that moment, when I was hit with the truth and left dumbstruck. Nelson blames the rise of singlehood of highly educated black women and the lack of fulfillment many are finding in their love lives to a cycle of overdependence on the church for companionship. During our discussions it was one of the points she was most impassioned about. For me, often the only married woman in a circle of black single friends, it was affirmation for things I had been rolling over in my head. She was preaching to the choir because I too blamed the church for helping to create the single black woman class. And when I say, respectfully, that the church contributes to the single black woman class, it is not a sign that I have little faith, it is an honest look at reality.
If you start digging through our nation’s declining marriage stats you will find that marriage has become a custom for the rich. It is the well-educated, well-off couples who are still marrying amid the nation’s crashing marriage rates. One of the key reasons couples are delaying marriage or never marrying at all is not because of a lack of love, or companionship, or desire—it is because of economics. They don’t feel they can afford to get married. (Of course, they are actually mixing up not being able to afford a wedding with not being able to afford to get married.) One of the side effects of the recent financial crisis is that college grads are starting to delay marriage because of school loan debts.5 When you see marriage through an economic prism the lower marriage rates for black and Hispanic couples begin to make more sense. The crisis is not a crisis of values, as it is often portrayed—it is a crisis of economics. The desires to get married have remained the same across races for decades. That is why Nelson’s look at professional single black women is significant because this is the class of women that are truly going against the trend. And that is why for black women—who go to church regularly more often than any other women or group of people period6—the role of the church cannot be overlooked when talking about relationships.
Nelson sees the issue as one of companionship. That is why her “Jesus ain’t your man” comment is hard to shake. She argues for more balance for our faith-filled lives, warning against being more concerned with what we think He wants that we no longer live the life that we want. Nelson blames the rise in singlehood of highly educated black women and the lack of fulfillment that many are finding in their love lives to a cycle of an overdependence on church for companionship. In Redefined’s survey of black men, 51 percent believed that professional black women’s devotion to religion can interfere with a relationship’s intimacy. Black professional women surveyed discussed “having to choose between their commitment to God and their standards for men,” implying that one would have to be compromised in a relationship. A majority of professional black women (66 percent) reported that they would rather be alone than enter into a relationship with someone who is below their standards for the sake of companionship. “We need a healthy intersection of faith and humanity and sexuality,” insists Nelson.
For me I don’t see it as an issue of companionship but more of an issue of romance. Celibacy is a romanticized notion of Faith. There is an increasing amount of scholarship that is looking at how modern society has a much more conservative view of sex than the Bible intended. In her recent book Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire, Jennifer Wright Knust, an ordained Baptist minister and a professor of religion at Boston University, argues that the Bible’s teachings on sex are not as absolute as Americans often suggest. “When it comes to sex the Bible is often divided against itself,” writes Knust.7 With that she argues that some exceptions can be found on its teachings against premarital sex. It is just one of the things in the Bible that can be both forbidden and allowed. The key is if we accept that the Bible is a complicated text with multiple layers and insights, then we should also embrace the notion that there could never be an absolute view of its teachings. That would be too simplistic and instead we need to respect the Bible’s shades of gray. Writers like Knust argue that sex in the Bible is easy to find if you have the training to look. My concern with celibacy is it is only possible if the pleasure of sex becomes removed. But even if you believe that the primary purpose of sexual intercourse is to procreate then shouldn’t creating life, making a baby, be enjoyable?
Sophia Nelson, a church-going woman who comes from a family of preachers, tells me: “You can have a healthy sex life and be a godly woman.”
And that is the point.
Black women have allowed the church to shape their sex lives. It hasn’t stopped us from having sex (so on some level we must accept the Bible’s shades of gray) but instead it creates a foundation of sexual contradiction, guilt, and dishonesty that can be suffocating. This matters because our hang-ups about sex are related to our singlehood. That doesn’t mean that black women are causing their singlehood. It is not something we are bringing on ourselves and it is not something that is up to only us to resolve. But, it is hard to build a strong partnership with someone if you don’t understand yourself. Sexual desires are part of that. There is nothing wrong with that. It is time that we realize that sexual intercourse is not only a gift for our partners but a gift for ourselves. And that is a lesson that every woman, regardless of race, should embrace.
I was off the market by the time the hook-up culture was embraced by young women. At first glance I was excited to hear that young women were aggressively acknowledging and indulging their desires. But about the same time that this supposed sexual revolution was taking hold I started getting “the question” from young women. The how-did-I-find-a-mate question. Sometimes it was cloaked in the form of career chitchat. When I’d talk to journalism students, the women would ask me if the field was family friendly. That would then often spill into a discussion of snide comments about the lack of relationships on campus and the fear that families would never come. I once had a student of mine thank me at the end of the semester for being an “inspiration.” I wish it had something to do with my journalism, but her next breath explained it was because I was married with two young kids. In circles off campus when I would meet young women the questioning would be more direct. Once at a book club dominated by young black women I got more questions about how I found a black husband than I did about the book I was there to talk about. After the constant questions from those younger women about mate catching, all I could think was that despite all this hooking up, women were still not having great sex.
As I write these musings my daughter is only seven. Can I imagine the day when I will be talking to her about specific sex toys? Probably not. But I am hoping for the day when I talk to my daughter about how there is no right or wrong way to enjoy sex. Everyone has different turn-ons and things that make them feel good. She should never feel pressure to try something with her partner that she does not want to but she should also not feel embarrassed or ashamed by the things that she wants to explore and do, either. A sexual relationship is the most intimate connection you can have with a partner and that should be cherished. Great sex stimulates your mind, body, and soul, right down to your curling toes. You can’t get there without respect, respect for yourself and respect for each other. And yes, dear, you are supposed to enjoy it.
In the meantime, forget white dresses, I will be praying my daughter has enjoyed an orgasm before her wedding night.
Table of Contents
The Intro 1
Cora: let's pray for sexually active daughters 9
John: There's a conspiracy to hypermasculinize black boys 22
Cora: We're not movin' on up 39
John: Watching TV is better than listening to jazz 57
John: Is Twitter the new religion? 73
Cora: Can a nation still have faith if it has lost its hope? 83
John: Are black people still overchurched? 99
John: I could be a Republican 111
Cora: It's time to rethink the American Dream 120
John: Obama makes whites whiter 137
Cora: I don't care about first black presidents 147
Cora: It actually is Mama's fault 156
John: We're all haters 175
Cora: One box rules 193
Cora: Color Wars! 206
John: All my best friends are light-skinned women 225
Cora: F*ck the N-word-bring back the word "nigger" 235
John: Nigger, please! 244
John: Is half as good better than nothing? 255
Cora: Mediocrity Nation? 271
John: No more Sojourners 279
The Conclusion 287