I love the Original House of Pancakes — with my parents, or us holy-ghosters after church, or some fellow-revelers after a hangover-worthy night, or my little niece and cousins who deserve a nicer breakfast than an Egg McMuffin. But … for a date?
I have a friend who had a man take her there for their first date. They are not in college. And, he took her on a Sunday afternoon after all the churches let out … now, you know.
This friend and I both survived the University of Chicago. We are both first-generation college students who became first generation graduate students to insure that generations after us would not carry such an ironically noble and conflicted award; we have both traveled the world on our own dimes; we both have mastered another language … Français pour être précis; we are both expected to mine the black holes of our psyches to write for a living; we both chose self-directed professions that mostly require discipline and determination as fuel; we both recognize “A Love Supreme” or “Satin Doll” or “Gershwin” within a couple of bars; we read philosophy; we write it; and, we definitely love pancakes with plenty of butter and syrup. But … for a first date?
We could have stayed up working all night then needed to brave the two-hour wait at IHOP on a weekend day just to refuel again. But, as grown ladies on a date?! No.
After her narrative of this waste of an afternoon was over, I recalled my unfortunate episode, once colliding with a man nearly 20 years my senior who led me to believe he was only 10 years such. He met me shortly after my 2nd novel debuted in 2008. He never bought (let alone read) that one or the first. He begged me out to eat often (ranging from sushi to Boston Market), texted me decent but fairly common poetry, paraded me around his musician friends as his “girlfriend” after a few days, gave exclamation to all my color-coordinated and accessorized outfits, talked my ear off about his music dreams and projects, sang my loathed and familiar so-called compliment of “Chooocolate” on a daily basis, and certainly made a show of circling my body whenever I wore a dress so he could admire my derriere and “them hips!” (His guy friends gave thumbs up to the hips.)
But, he never perused my bookshelf to initiate conversation on one of the nearly 2,000 books I stock. He never asked about one art piece I collected. He never asked to read anything I was writing on my computer, often as he sat nearby in impatience. If I mentioned a country I had visited, he did not request to see pictures. When I discussed my college memories, he grew mute. The irony of this was he met me in Starbucks while I was banging out an article for a classic film website. He could not say he did not know.
Soon, I learned that “full-time” musician and concert organizer meant showing up later at friends’ shows asking to play for a second, and then going to the public library to “network” on Facebook and Myspace the next day. It meant driving a few friends to their more regular gigs before they arose at 5 a.m. to stand in line for Ford factory applications. My father was a factory worker, so that was not it. It was the misrepresentation that we had a career and life experience in common. It made me wish I was a nurse. Then, he would have known better to have thought we might be a match. But, that writer and thinker thing … there really is no context for most people as to what that means. He once wanted me to take him to a poetry slam and sign up for “Open Mic” so he could see what I did. I had to politely explain I was not a good poet.
One fine day, he overstayed his welcome in my home (overnight) after yet another attempt to prematurely bed me before I could verify his age, address, income source, and origins through that process formerly known as “dating” (or “courting,” or “getting to know you,” if you will). I was determined to carry on with my day — which included cleaning my kitchen before taking a break to watch Jeopardy! As a Black historian, I had extensive knowledge of virtually any blues artist he named to me (he played the harmonica). I had a themed library in every room of my home, including my bathroom he had insisted on marking his territory with a shower within that very morning. But, he heard me answering 3 out of 5 questions correctly on Jeopardy! and he grew pale, buck-eyed, stiff, and anxious. You would have thought I had transformed from the cool, sexy, “Chocolate” chick he was trying to bed into a ghost come up from Hades. Or maybe Reagan, the sad character Linda Blair played in The Exorcist: possessed by a devil, speaking foreign tongues I should have never heard, giving information I could not have known, taunting, strange, and dangerous. I went from sexy, to well … discomforting.
When I was in junior high school, I was comfortable with and actually honored to make peoples’ day in “Around the Way Girl” ways. I flashed my smile often, showed I could snake with the best of them, threw on my FUBU outfit for the basketball games, and rapped along to Kid-n-Play or Will Smith on Video Soul. But I turned down my Mozart when friends knocked. I did not invite the Pep Club to my piano recitals. I kept my obsession with the Sophocles’ tetralogies to my closet intellectual self. I closed our front door when the family studied the Bible. For my peace of mind, I thought it best to fit the “norm”; popularity balanced my nerdier pursuits. But adulthood becomes a self-selecting world. I have discovered that it is still difficult to select a world around me where “Smart Black Woman” is just as celebrated and comforting as “Strong Black Woman.”
My Black female friends and I are anything but “typical.” For all of us, education has been a fundamental core value. The term “Domestic Goddess” is a natural descriptor that anyone who tastes our food or enters our home experiences. The world is our oyster, and we travel it often. A conversation with any one of us is as significant a pleasure as winning (or losing) at Trivial Pursuit. We want Tupac Shakur to come back to life. We love Meryl Streep as much as we love Nia Long. We are not racist. We remain steadfast and committed to our families and communities. And, most essentially, we are kind and diplomatic women who give others freedom to express themselves, exhibit genuine interests in others’ interests, and fit in very well to environments beyond our owns.
Yet, we remain ensconced by and encased within a world that is more likely to view us as that banshee-yelling-at paternity-tests and referees on daytime talk shows, or as that helpless dysfunctional problem to be solved (or saved) within impoverished and violent environments, or that half-talented songstress whining catchy hooks for the booty-shaking crowd, or that distressed foreign woman in dire circumstances of need, or that “angry” and “mad” thing … These gentlemen I have discussed here are a part of this world — and they were Black and educated themselves. When we have dated men of other races who relate to our minds, we suffered dirty looks in our own communities.
Bad dates are not unique to Black women. All women experience this fact of life. But for other women, the “bad dates” occur at sophisticated venues where the grievances hover more in the realms of personality incompatibility, or crudeness on the part of the male, or the poor guy’s awful choice of tie. For Black women, another dimension to this fact of life usually contributes to our unique tales: we are stricken with the heavy task of overturning stereotypes that demean the experiences we ought to have in this world.
My observations are not original. That is the problem. They have been discussed, ad nauseam, by writers and cultural critics the world over. Most people would fail this quiz:
- Did you see a Black woman wearing glasses or reading a book on TV this week?
- Did you actually see a Black woman at work — in her office, at a meeting, negotiating a contract, or delivering a monologue — on any one of the sitcoms that claim to portray Black people in a more positive and progressive light?
- Did you see a film where a Black man, or any man for that matter, chased a Black woman down for her love — betwixt winning conversations and memorable lines?
- Have you watched a Black female commentator or expert, outside of discussions on violence or community ills or politics, win an intellectual spar this week?
For those of us who flow into our own recipes, we exist in a state of arrested development that silences us outside of a very narrow group of people. It is troubling to see shock on wait staffs’ faces or amusement on grocery clerks’ faces when we pronounce “foie gras” or inquire where the tahini sauce is. I once had to ask a White man at a party to move away from me; he was visibly shocked that I not only knew who National Book Award winner Joan Didion was, but that I was actually reading her latest book. I went from relaxing to thinking: How could a woman assembled at a gathering of writers, professors, teachers, and artists not know who Joan Didion is? Oh, I am Black.
To some extent, the heart of this matter is that my girlfriends and I have crossed paths with close-minded individuals. But at this stage of our lives, what filtration process must occur before we can guard our steps against even tip-toeing near such paths? Will we sell out if we flee off to the suburbs or Europe? Are we that needed here, in urban Americas, to explain ourselves to no avail? For no one ever wishes to be a role model. It usually happens naturally by way of striving for a model — and we have had great ones. So, what is a smart Black woman to do when she arrives there — but she better pour syrup like Aunt Jemima on first dates or lose her voice when Jeopardy! is on?