I don’t think there’s a Black American woman alive who hasn’t seen The Color Purple and doesn’t remember the scene where Sofia comes charging through a field to confront Celie who had advised Harpo to beat Sofia into submission. I don’t think a single one of us hasn’t quoted that line at some point in our lives, even if just internally, in a laugh-to-keep-from-crying sort of way, when confronted with scenarios that feel like nothing we do, even when we know we’re doing everything right, ultimately appears go in our favor.
In fact, I muttered this to myself in the original spirit of the line first thing this morning when a homegirl of mine sent me a screenshot of a woman’s post who blocked me on social media yesterday, citing that unprofessional people will be deleted and blocked. I won’t mention this sister’s name and I won’t name her organization, because I do believe that many of the women who attended the conference which I was invited a year ago to deliver the keynote address this past weekend, did benefit from the experience. But I’m writing this because my experience is a symptom of a larger problem, and the culture of silence surrounding Black women’s experiences in the U.S. helps no one. So, I’m lightweight blowing a whistle here, no doubt. But, hey. Silence is compliance. And over the past few days, it has taken everything in me that I have committed to compassion, empathy, and leaving the world in better condition than the way I found it, to not publicly go H.A.M. (which I would have been well within my rights to), over the fact that this sister did not honor our contract by paying me.
Mind you, I’m used to waiting on checks. But not getting paid at all is a first for me in twenty years of gigging. And it pains me that the first perpetrator of a violated contract isn’t The Man, but someone who’s actually supposed to be fighting alongside me in the same trench. And for the last few days, after compiling a paper trail the length of two CVS receipts where she and I discussed specifically when and how my fee would be paid, I keep asking myself: How could this have been avoided? How did it come to this? Why didn’t I see this coming? Why did I so readily give her the benefit of the doubt? Come to find out, after having privately disclosed what’s going on with a few of my trusted sisters-in-arms who’ve had encounters with her in the past, this isn’t her first rodeo with fraudulent behavior, which inevitably ended up in them being deleted and blocked too. To my knowledge, I am the only one she straight-up hasn’t fully paid according to our arrangement—she did cover my deposit, albeit several weeks late.
But one of my sistren alluded to the fact that she probably lost money on the conference which is why she couldn’t pay me, and she probably just thought I had it like that given my profession as a university professor, so why am I bothered? I mean. Apart from the fact that there’s a huge discrepancy in what people think professors make and what we actually make (which warrants its own separate blog including everything I’ve had to do, and I do mean everything short of selling drugs or my body to stay afloat as well as kick the deeply entrenched poverty consciousness I’ve cultivated as being a teaching-artist over the last twenty years), that’s not the point. The point is, A) You agreed to my fee. B) I signed your contract. C) You did not pay me.
The more sisters I’ve talked to over the past few days, the stories they’ve confided in me about their own experiences in similar circumstances have been utterly shocking about Black women turning on one another, not in Corporate America or as Real Housewives, but intentionally instigating rivalries as community organizers, arts administrators, executive directors, and change agents. I’ve heard now about everything from whisper campaigns to vicious gossip to outright blocking another Black woman’s progress in order to curry favor with the gate-keepers in far-too-few coveted positions of leadership. Hearing all that, I guess I’m lucky that this is just now only my first experience with this behavior in this context. It’s not even so much about the principle of not paying me that stings so bad, it’s that this woman purposefully benefited from using my name and reputation to boost attendance at her conference, cut communication completely off when I asked her to settle up both in person upon completion of my address (which the contract stated she would) ignored subsequent correspondence, and then immediately began painting herself as a victim.
So, why is this the case? Why is that Black women, who have been so historically marginalized and oppressed, “de mule of de world,” to cite Hurston, turn on one another? My theory is that it’s because generally speaking, wounded people wound people. And when we are talking about generational wounds where the resources and the opportunities to acquire them are too few and far-between, we go immediately into survival mode—fight or flight. Her flight triggered the impulse in me to fight. I mean. I am wired to fight anyone who stands in-between me and my own socioeconomic survival because, wait for it, all my life I had to fight.
I assume total culpability for assuming our shared experiences were something she might have understood, identified with, and valued as a so-called sister-in-arms. And that’s my mistake for assuming that the person who looks like me and struggles like me would automatically want for me what she wants for herself—peace of mind. But why would she when she stands to gain more by throwing me under the bus? I’m eerily reminded in this case of Lacan’s “Mirror Theory,” the part where a person sees you as whole, but they view themselves as fractured, so they both resent you and covet what you have. The problem isn’t that they view you as whole. The problem is that they don’t see themselves as anything but broken.
So, theoretically speaking, her actions make sense to me. I, too, am well acquainted with self—sabotage, a fear of failure or being viewed as a failure, and the impulse to block out my problems. That indicates a deeply wounded inner child who acts out because no one modeled to them that they weren’t unconditionally loved. I always say the most overtly driven people in the world aren’t running towards something, they’re running away. At a subconscious level, humans make choices out of only one of two places—love or fear. Even if you’re deemed successful, at some level you may still be running away from feeling a lack of self-worth as well as shame that you won’t live up to others’ expectations of you. It’s a childish impulse I recognize in how she handled this situation, because unfortunately, I also recognize this impulse within myself.
But all of that doesn’t erase the fact that I still haven’t gotten paid, and it doesn’t appear she has any intention to do so. When I asked a mentor of mine what he does in scenarios like this, he said, “When US cross me, I treat ‘em like a THEM.” And so, I’ve been advised to take this to small claims court where no doubt, this is going to get very expensive for both of us. Which means both of us will now have to deal with court costs, legal fees, and whatever we have to make up for coming up out of pocket to handle what should have been handled. I’m not saying every Black woman needs to hold hands and sing songs and share candy and stuff all the time, but what I am saying is that what we certainly don’t need anymore of in the world are more battle-weary WoC who are obliged to wear their armor to bed on a good day, squaring up against one another. Not when we’ve already had to fight all our lives. Because nobody wins in this situation except the system which didn’t even have to lift a finger this time since it was designed to keep us fighting among ourselves in the trenches in the first place.