All The Lives I Want

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Recently I read Difficult Women by Roxane Gay. Reading those essays took me on a tour through the lives and struggles of different types of women. Sometimes they escape, sometimes they don’t, but each scenario feels real and possible. Each woman is someone you might know or could possibly meet. It feels very close, the cuts are deep, because it could be you.

When I began reading All the Lives I Want I felt sad because it was instantly about pop culture. I am not the US Weekly, Real Housewives, Kardashians kind of woman. I think this is a function of my childhood and my young adult life, in which my access to television and magazines was fairly limited. I read the first few stories thinking “how am I going to enjoy this book when the references, for the most part, are not relatable to me?”

It was almost surprising how wrong I was. The same themes I found in books like Difficult Women and Shrill were here, just couched in different settings. Massey asks who a woman’s body really belongs to when she talks about the public’s obsession with Britney Spears. Through a discussion of Amber Rose’s fame we get both a discussion on the shame assigned to certain feminine professions (when it shouldn’t be) and the differentiation of ruling the world (typically done by men) and running the world (which Beyonce was correct in saying was done by girls). Reading further in I found Sylvia Plath, whom Massey weaves into an almost dissertation style presentation of how emotions are women’s work, but even then too much emotion gets labeled as childish instead of mature and justified reactions.

This book and Massey’s writing are brilliant. She takes pop culture and smashes it together with feminism and presents it in a language of a scholarly article that has been well researched and peer reviewed. There are so many topics explored in this book it made my head spin to move from one to the next nodding in agreement. I was guided through the connections between people entrenched in pop culture and the issues that we rail against even now, yet somehow we still do not afford these individuals in the public sphere the same courtesy or mercy we would expect for ourselves as women or perhaps simply as human beings.

This made me think of my recently read book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, about the idea of bodies being stolen and broken and about how we are all capable of it. As women we seem to be very intense right now about how our bodies belong to us and we can be whatever size we want or wear make up or not or whatever, until we pick up a magazine or have a catty conversation about some celeb’s beach body or whatever. How could she get that big? UNRECOGNIZABLE! She’s in the public eye so she has a duty to keep up her appearance. For who? For us? When does she get to be herself? Do you truly know her? And in her desire to keep her job and her fame, does she get the chance to know herself? Defend herself? Stand up for herself?

Alana Massey lends her voice to a feminist storm that is raging right now, reminding us that no woman is safe and all women, no matter their profession or publicity, deserve to be heard, protected, celebrated, and supported.

Between the World and Me

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a name that everyone should be familiar with. He is a major contributor for The Atlantic and his current work on the Black Panther comic books is absolutely amazing. His two books are absolute must-reads, his previous memoir The Beautiful Struggle (about growing up in West Baltimore) and our book for discussion today, Between the World and Me, a letter to his teenage son.

His description of histories and paths was so important. His blackness and experience was similar to, yet different than his own father’s, and he impresses upon his son that the teen’s experience will be different still, but understanding all that came before will help to light the new path that he will walk. So much of this book reminded me of the documentary 13th (on Netflix) – his son would need to always watch out for The Dream, the idea that there is one ideal, one myth, one danger; he would need to explore multiple questions and accept that there may be many answers or none yet at all.

It is a letter that drips with the need to belong: to a social group, to a dream, to a country, to a community, to a family, and the awful and beautiful things we are willing to do to ourselves and other people to emphasize and strengthen that belonging. His description of his self-realization of how he was capable of destroying the bodies of others after he had focused so long on his own body almost made me cry. When he used the words human spectrum I found words for something I had always tried to explain to myself, that as long as you are happy and not bringing harm to others, you should simply be allowed to be.

The overarching theme of this book is the idea of disembodiment and the different forms that it takes in the lives of black people. That the one common theme is that the black body is always available to be broken, and the constant slavery that exists is the idea that the shackles were never removed, that at any moment someone can decide to break a black body for any reason and there are rarely any consequences.

You need to read this book. Then make sure you own this book. Then buy extra copies and give them away and make people read them. Then make them watch 13th on Netflix. Because what even the well meaning white “allies” don’t understand is that this exists and every time anyone utters “not all white people” or “all lives matter” they are willfully ignoring and disrespecting a very real situation that has become embedded in our laws, in our behavior, in our courts, in our neighborhoods, in our schools, and in our minds. Unless you make every attempt to understand and recognize this reality that black people face every fucking day, you are complicit.

This is the perfect moment to read this book. Please go get it in whatever way is most accessible to you. It is a short read, but well worth your time.