Last fall, I went to Boston to participate in a think-tank conference designed to brainstorm creative solutions to the education gap. By the end of the week, each team was to make a final presentation to various stakeholders in the community. For the presentation, I was assigned to a sub-group that was tasked with creating a narrative arc. My sub-group leader was full of passion, but short on comprehension and ideas. I talked him through what it means to create a narrative and sketched out what I had been envisioning for the presentation while he took copious notes. When we reconvened as a full group, he recited my comments verbatim and they were met with praise from the rest of the cohort. It was decided that he would be one of the presenters because as my group leader stated, “No one could express those thoughts better” than he did. I half-heartedly waited for a clarifying statement along the lines of, “Actually, no. These are Andrea’s thoughts. She should do it,” but it never came. With an eye roll and a shrug of the shoulders, I let it go. That opportunity to speak clearly meant something to him, so he should do it.
But there was a nagging voice inside that wouldn’t let it end there. I kept imagining how I would have responded had the decision been another woman’s to make. I would have been disgusted that she had let patriarchy win again. There was a principle at stake and she should have advocated for herself solely on that principle. We, as women, have to be vigilant against men taking advantage of us. But that moment wasn’t about sexism or not allowing myself to be disrespected by a man. He was just a person who was really excited about a public speaking opportunity and since I didn’t share his excitement in the least, I was willing to dismiss the slight and let him proceed with my ideas. Championing my principles in that moment would have come at the cost of his dignity or—at the very least—his happiness and to me, it was too high a price to pay.
That was a new experience for me. I haven’t really had to compromise for a man because my world is almost wholly devoid of men. I am not particularly close to any male relative and I only have four male friends. When I started tallying the men in my life for the purposes of this article, I was surprised to discover that I was still counting after one.
I love these men. They have been a source of comfort and strength many a day, but even with them, I have often pondered how the beauty of those relationships is only possible because of the platonic nature of them all. A sexual relationship would tarnish the respect they have for me and I would lose myself in pursuit of their affection.
Compromise as it relates to men leaves a bitter residue in my mouth. I hear my mother in my head saying, “What you compromise to keep, you will surely lose.” I’m not going to lose myself for some guy, so I keep them at a distance while only engaging them in an adversarial context. Nothing brought me greater pleasure in law school than destroying some guy’s argument. Beyond the intellectual pistol-whipping, I had no time for men. In my mind, they come to do nothing but steal, kill, and destroy like the Good Book says.
I’ve been conditioned to believe that full, complete women don’t exist in the presence of men. To quote Carmen from the Hip-Hopera, “I have dreams and with a man, what would become of them? There’s not a kid out here who can make me believe, I should postpone my goals, he got tricks up sleeve. Whole bar full of cuffs and you ain’t locking me down.” I have watched too many radiant beings diminish in the presence of a male significant other. It breaks my heart and I refuse to be that girl. I love myself too much to let her suffer such a fate.
But this militant perspective has put a chip on my shoulder and a sty in my eye. I code all heterosexual relationships as oppressive. I cannot stand to see my sisters going weak for a man and I usually manage to avoid such sightings. Most of my friends are either perpetually single, in long-distance relationships, or are in long-term relationships that have settled into something that doesn’t make me cringe with disgust.
Friends looking for someone to nurse them through a broken heart know not to seek me out. My silent stare, posture, and controlled breathing all scream, “What did you expect, fool?! Get from ‘round me with this nonsense!”
I’ve been reflecting on the girl I was when I moved to Boston in 2006 for college. My perspective on life was so rigid and narrow. I had very strict ideas about a gamut of issues ranging from what it meant to be black to what it meant to be a Christian and any concept that didn’t fit neatly into my categories was immediately expelled without due process. My world was black and white; you were either wrong or right. After eight years in a liberal environment, quite antithetical to my conservative upbringing, my worldview drastically changed. My lenses now tint the world in gray and dark gray. “Yes” and “no” have been replaced by “I don’t know, it depends.” My current rhetoric is less definitive, but more honest and inclusive of the world around it. I’m starting to believe that it is about time my feminist principles undergo the same transformation.
I think about Audre Lorde, my favorite feminist, and I wonder if too much of my adoration is predicated on her abstention from sexual relationships with men. Since she was a lesbian, we never saw her crying over some man or compromising for a man, which makes her arguments feel firm, stronger, more secure. It’s difficult to separate the arguments from their owner and when we see chinks in the armor of the orator, the arguments quickly fall from grace.
Living a life that directly contradicted the patriarchal structure enabled her to grow and develop her mind and her being in ways that many women don’t have the opportunity to do. I question where that leaves straight women. Are we doomed to be in relationships in which we immediately assume the inferior status?
Subconsciously, I answered that question in the positive, so I abstain from men. I don’t date. And for most of my life, I found great strength in my single status. I felt that I was growing and developing as my own person and not as an extension of some man. I was strong in my solitude. But Audre Lorde speaks to this pseudo-strength in her article, “The Uses of the Erotic as Power” where she derides the belief that true power resides in maintaining an emotional fortress around oneself.
“…[N]othing is farther from the truth. For the ascetic position is one of the highest fear, the gravest immobility. The severe abstinence of the ascetic becomes the ruling obsession. And it is one not of self-discipline but of self-abnegation.”
In one of my favorite Eric Jerome Dickey books, one of the main characters says, “I have always wanted to be intoxicated with the feeling of love. I just never thought about the hangover.” I have only ever thought about the hangover. And what has that fearful self-abnegation cost me? Not just the pleasure of romance, but also wisdom from other women who are learning to love through the trial by error method. I hated watching them struggle because it looked messy. It was hard to tell whether they were showing love or just exhibiting a high level of low self-esteem.
The line between being loving and being a doormat is not clear and that frustrates me. I want the way forward to be easily marked. I am that type-A student who is shown how to arrive at the correct answer and does it. It’s hard to not apply that philosophy to all aspects of my life, but lately that method has not been working for me as evidenced by the fact that I graduated from law school then ran off to Guatemala without a concrete five-year plan. Despite the uncertainty of my future, I am happy and this happiness has me thinking that there is hidden treasure in the gray, messy aspects of life.
After a lifetime of singlehood, I think I’m ready to come down from my lofty pillar and engage my principles with the world around me. Much introspection and analysis has to occur during this time of transition, but I am excited for the journey and look forward to all the lessons that will be learned along the way.