I’m standing at the Goddess Walk (anti street harassment rally) next to its creator, Sweet Lorraine. There were several Black female bodies on the street. Actually, we were standing in a park at first. An eight year old boy walked up and read the sign she was holding. “I try to tell my Dad not to say those things to women. You have to be a gentleman. I told him if he keeps doing it, I’m writing him off my list!” Moments later, his father walked up without knowing we had that conversation with his son. He was bemoaning the plight of men “like him” who only say polite things as compliments to women on the street. He refused to hear what the women at the walk were saying (as women who deal with it). He cut us off and he wasn't listening. Finally, I said, “You know what? You’re a pretty man, I’d like to put you in a dress and wig and have you walk once around the block like that.” He stormed off, arms in the air, exasperated that I’d even suggest such a thing. “Come on, brother! I’m just giving you a compliment. Look at your face, it’s precious!” He came back later and said with a serious face, “You turned the tables on me. It hit like a boomerang. I didn't like that.” Yeah? Well, neither do we. Point went to team woman.
Unfortunately, this was one of the few points earned. On most days, I’m just trying to get to all of my appointments on time. I’m really good at being over scheduled so it’s not personal if I don’t stop to engage everyone that makes a comment to me on the street. Oh, and by the way, I don’t owe you any engagement. This summer has been off the charts with street harassment. Honestly, I feel a bit lucky, as if I have a remote control on street harassment. For me, when I dress down, I don’t get harassed much. However, I hear many women say that this makes no difference. I am around two such women very often. I’ve heard stories from these two women that are beyond anything that I have ever had to personally encounter on the streets. Then just last week I bore witness to a similar such horrible incident of harassment.
Sweet Lorraine is another burlesque performer and also one of my closest friends. She tends to dress up often. I tend to dress down when not on stage. It’s safe to say that I've watched many a human loose it in her presence. I've watched people struggle to keep their eyes off her breasts as they speak to her. I've also experienced walking with her when she is dressed down. Clearly we don’t have the same remote control. The comments and reactions from people on the street can be non-stop. In fact, I believe she was dressed down on the day that her being harassed on the street ending with her being pushed by the cat callers. These and experiences like these led her to create The Goddess Walk.
After watching her video promo for the walk, I had to admit to myself that dressing down is mostly about my being comfortable. However, a big part of my dressing down is also to take a break from crazy comments like, “I’d bend that over and be all up in it,” while I’m trying to get where I’m going. The walk has already happened but the conversation continues.
Toy!!! is my laptop buddy. A fellow entrepreneur and primarily a vocalist, she uses her voice for many of her life’s passions. She is one of the most passionate people I know. In addition to using her voice for work and creative expression, she also does a great deal of charity work for the homeless and children. She’s also a voluptuous red head. When I say red head, I mean Crayola crayon, currently cut into a fly faux hawk, red. When I walk down the street with her, I often hear people compliment her for how funky her whole style is. If I hadn't actually had conversations with her, I’d never know about all the insults and street harassment that also come with that same packaging. From a very young age, she’s had to deal with extra attention because of having full breasts. For example, she’s long been given unsolicited advice as to what she should and should not wear. She’s been coached strongly around how she should and should not act. Often, it can be a challenge to grow into who we authentically are when others have taught us to believe how they think we should be.
She recently made her voice very heard in this Ladies Remix of the Robin Thicke & Pharell's Blurred Lines.
Just last week, I was headed back to Brooklyn with Perle Noire, who had just performed in a benefit show honoring the memory of burlesque legend, Dixie Evans. We decided to grab a slice before getting into a cab home. Many people in the pizza shop stopped her to compliment her performance. There was a drunken white couple who stopped her as she passed their table. The woman hugged Perle while she sang the praises of her performance. The woman then decided to take a nibble of Perle’s nipple. I was shocked and disgusted. Perle handled it with way more grace than I could have mustered. Clearly upset by it when she came back to where we were sitting she said, “I don’t know what it is. My whole life, people just feel like they can just touch my breasts.” I imagine that one reaction to this would be to try to hide her breasts at all costs. However, just the inverse, she has won awards like Most Dazzling Dancer at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend Miss Exotic World Festival. For many performers, the pasties are a reveal at the very end of an act. Not for the Black Perle of Burlesque. See her here performing a piece that is a tribute to the Nigerian Goddess of sensuality, intelligence and abundance - Oshun.
Soon after witnessing that incident with Perle Noire, I read When Your Brown Body is A White Wonderland by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Please read it. The three women I mention are beautiful by anyone's standards, so that element of the article didn't resonate. It was the lack of reverence and value of her body that did. It (and the comments of those who are trying to invalidate her particular experience) made me think about the ways in which women’s bodies are often removed from their humanity as a whole. No, this is not limited to Black bodies but these are the bodies that I am speaking about in this post. I, myself, have dealt with people in dressing rooms of strip clubs and burlesque shows grabbing at my behind. It’s usually followed by a giggle and an “I just can’t help it…” These are, however, women that I have a working relationship with (a working relationship that involves us being nude or near nude in dressing rooms together while enjoying the break from societies demands on how we should use our own bodies), not strangers on the street.
I am grateful that I have not experienced strangers on the street feeling at liberty to touch me. So many people are asking why a white woman can’t do a particular dance. Beyond the historical African roots of our dances being ignored by many, it isn't just about that. Google mapouka, soukous, soca and reggae dances. As a proud stripper, I’m here to tell you that no strippers or New Orleans didn't invent the moves. What's really troublesome is that "Miley Gate’s" message is that my brown body is OK to be smacked and used as a prop devoid of full human value, yet again, for the sake of pop culture's gain and amusement. Miley Gate be damned... Goddess bless the fool that now thinks they can grab my ass as if it's their own.
It just is not OK, period.