This Monday, Tayari Jones gave a reading at the Howard County Library in Ellicott City, Maryland, in support of her acclaimed third novel, Silver Sparrow, and its paperback release. By now, I’m sure many Clutchettes have read the book or are, at least, familiar with its premise. But just in case, here’s the super-short version: It’s the story of a bigamist’s two daughters and their complicated relationships with their father and each other.
In discussing the novel’s premise, Jones said she understood the complexities of sharing a dad. Her own father has daughters from previous relationships — and their experiences with and perceptions of their dad significantly differ. As a result, she talked about discovering her own privilege, as the daughter who got to spend every day with their father. Her sisters only saw him intermittently. When Jones’ nephew heard her describe his mother as her “half-sister” at one of her readings, he took issue with the term, calling it an “ugly word” and stating that there are “no half-people.” (For more of her account of that experience, visit her publisher, Algonquin Books, blog.)
Jones didn’t immediately understand the term half-sister as a pejorative. To her mind, the term accurately described the connection between her and her father’s other daughters. But it occurred to her that the meaning shifts and has different emotional implications, depending on the person using it. She went on to say, “You’re not responsible for the privilege you inherit, but once you’re aware of it, how you use it defines your character.” Needless to say, she started referring to her sisters as “my sister(s) with whom I share a father.”
It was interesting to listen to Tayari Jones discuss privilege, a concept we mostly hear bandied about in regard to the white, the male, and the wealthy. To be sure, it isn’t a term that springs immediately to mind in conversations about black women in this country. Between earning inequities, media misrepresentations, the “mule of the world” meme, and everything in between, we aren’t exactly the poster children for entitlement.
And yet there are several circumstances that can potentially place us at higher stations in life than those around us. Certainly, some of those circumstances are familial and relational. Wives are often in positions of privilege, as it relates to their husband’s other children. Children who have “full custody” of their fathers are privileged over their siblings who don’t. Maternal grandmothers may spend far more time with their grandchildren than paternal grandmothers. The possibilities along those lines are immense.
But there are plenty of other instances where black women may experience privilege. Some of those are cultural. Consider the hiring bias against applicants with “ethnic-sounding” names. In a hiring pool, Sharon Jones may have the unwitting upper hand over Shaquanita Jackson. Similarly, there are situations in which American-born black women find themselves at a distinct advantage over other women of the diaspora.
There’s economic, educational, and professional privilege. And then there’s the kind of inadvertent “leverage” black men will occasionally suggest we have.
Last semester, one of my freshmen insisted the young women in our predominantly black course were “better off” than the young men because they were “females.” “It’s easier for y’all to get jobs, y’all got lower car insurance, y’all can get assistance if you need it, and y’all don’t get profiled by the police like we do,” he asserted. While the girls argued his points, he wouldn’t be dissuaded. And, because I’ve had and heard the same exchange — with much older folks, over many years — enough to feel exhausted by it, I didn’t join in with the chorus.
Because of its connotations, privilege isn’t always something we want to own. The idea suggests an unearned superiority and the power to oppress. And who wants to be associated with that? But what Jones said in her reading was key: It isn’t the privilege or how we obtain it that matters as much as what we choose to do with it. If we use it to lord our better lot over those less fortunate, we abuse it and squander its ability to heal, reconcile, and improve.
Have you inherited the kind of familial privilege Jones discusses? How about economic or cultural privilege? Have you ever been roped into a debate over which oppressed group has it better: black women or black men, black Americans or black emigrants to America?