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Operation Reach B.L.A.C.K. is a Pan-African Blog with an acronym that stands for Building Leadership Awareness and Cultural Knowledge.

The goal of this blog is to become a "Blog of Black Thought" focusing on matters of social, economic and political awareness through education (re-education), self-affirmation and cultural expression. Above all, this blog will DEMAND respect and appreciation for one another as black men and women.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Book Review: Hill Harper’s “The Conversation”

The Conversation
By Hill Harper
Published by Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2009


“I am calling this book The Conversation because my hope is that these words that originate with me at my laptop will find their way to the book in your hands, pushing you and inspiring you to talk with your friends and families. I hope eventually to extend that dialogue across the barricades that men and women have erected to protect themselves from each other. We are growing jaded, cynical, tired, and world-weary before our time. We are expecting less and demanding less, and those lower expectations are making us unfulfilled and taking us farther from each other. The walls between us do not serve us.”

- Hill Harper, The Conversation (excerpt from Introduction)


The actor and scholar has come out with his third book. This time Hill Harper focuses on the state of the Black family, particularly the impact of the state of communication (or lack thereof) between black men and women on black love. I got an advanced copy and it doesn’t disappoint. This is one book to put on your reading list for the Fall.

Before getting into the purpose behind Hill Harper’s new book perhaps we should take a hint from one of his past movies. A small, seemingly insignificant, scene from a 1997 independent movie called Hav Plenty sets the table for many of the issues in Harper‘s new book.

Roughly five minutes into the film the protagonist, Lee Plenty (Christopher Scott Cherot), makes eye-contact with a beautiful black woman at a gas station. Just as she enters her car, Lee catches her attention, flashes a cheesy grin and waves at the sistah. Her response? Well, let’s just say it’s not so kind. In a brief yet heavy moment of contemplation the woman casts her glance downward only to look back at Lee in complete disgust. In one smooth yet dismissive motion her eyes roll to the back of her head. . . indeed, so far back that they cause her neck to follow suit. The message is clear: goodbye opportunity, hello could shoulder. Lee’s left with a confused look on his face as the audience hears the woman‘s car drive off in the distance. . . End scene.

This scene is symbolic of a thousands similar situations where black men and women operate from a position of distrust and low expectations of each other. Both Lee and the woman had sized each other up in a matter of seconds. Blame it on racial stereotypes. . . blame it on sexual politics . . . blame it on sheer ignorance, but for whatever reason that 10 second scene encapsulates a disturbing pattern that exists amongst parts of our community. At issue is the cultivation of distrust between black men and women. At issue is the lack of productive and healthy communication between black men and black women. And these are just a few of the issues Hill Harper tries to tackle in The Conversation.


This is a DISCUSSION, NOT a lecture:

Harper stays true to the title of the book. What he presents is an actual conversation. Harper, for the most part, stays clear of lecturing the audience. He doesn’t claim to be an expert in relationships, nor does he hold himself out as a spokesperson for all black men. No. What you see is what you get. And what you get is an honest, rather introspective look at the state of black relationships through the eyes of one man who is more than willing to admit to his fair share of mistakes and lessons learned along the way. He applies the advice and tough love he receives to challenge old habits as a new love interest comes into the picture. The evolution of Harper as he opens up to the possibilities before him serves as an example of how a healthy relationship challenges us to be better people.

And props also go out to Harper for keeping an honest discussion. This is a book where BOTH sides get their say. It’s not just a bunch of women pointing the finger at men for failed relationships or men blaming women for their own insecurities. To the contrary, Harper draws from the experiences of his male and female friends to share their thoughts on the state of black love. In fact, there are chapters where Harper simply yields the floor to his friends. The women have their chance to speak and so do the men. And, with the exception of a few predictable (if not bitter comments), both sides do an admirable job of tackling the issues from a shared space: to build WITH each other rather than tear each other down.

What happens in the process is quite telling. In a society where black men and women often speak past each other, the interviews in Harper’s book actually reveal how black men and women are on the same wavelength when it comes to evaluating the obstacles to black love. Both black women AND men express a lack of appreciation from the opposite sex. Both black women AND men cite friendship as a must in any strong relationship. And both black women AND black men reference their grandparents and past generations as providing a strong example for healthy relationships.

However the points where black men and women differ are also quite significant. Harper goes through great lengths to convey what black men and women are looking for in a relationship. The answers vary, but two requests, in particular, were quite poignant:

1. Black men have a desire to feel NEEDED; and
2. Black women have a desire to be TAKEN SERIOUSLY

And before the cynics attack such requests as being unearned - hold it right there! Harper does an excellent job of focusing the spotlight on successful black relationships . . . relationships that are built by men and women who don’t fit the stereotype . . . relationships that take time and cooperation to build. Harper makes it clear that these men and women are the norm, NOT the exception, and that, as such, they deserve the respect they seek.

"We can chart a completely new course simply by choosing to speak to and about each other in new ways. Let’s commit to dragging [stereotypical comments] into the trash and pressing PERMANENT DELETE. Let’s eliminate the poison and residual negativity that such comments yield. . . Let’s commit to publicly ‘checking,’ or stopping, someone from engaging in that kind of speech." (Harper, 40)


The levels of commitment and trust necessary to build each other up rather than tear each other down are reocurring themes throughout the book. Commitment, communication and trust (as generic as they may sound) are powerful messages when conveyed in the context of black couples who are giving their all to preserve the vows they made to each other.

Indeed, Harper’s book is predicated upon the belief that black men and women can chart a NEW path. It is a challenge to us as a black community to do away with the temptation to cave to the very worst of stereotypical beliefs about ourselves and our partners. It’s a call to check the baggage at the door and be open to the possibility that a strong and healthy black relationship has to offer.


Things to consider for future conversations:

Harper’s book is a thought-provoking read that challenges it’s audience to rise above the petty back-and-forth that has stigmatized black love for generations. However, Harper admits that this book is just the beginning. The book presents a long list of topics and the author is limited in how much he can discuss in 270 pages.

Harper also makes an excellent argument to challenge the superficial assumptions of black men and women that place a priority on status over potential. He makes a persuasive argument that focusing on concerns such as earning capacity (as a standard to judge black men) and physical beauty (as a standard to judge black women) are foolish because both are not guaranteed to last forever. As such, Harper warns that a person whose status says one thing, could meet an entirely different fate tomorrow. One could lose his or her job (especially, might I add, in this economy) and/or gain 30-40 pounds only to be deemed less worthy as a mate by such superficial standards.

However, the book might have been better served if Harper spent even more time attacking many of these stereotypical assumptions head on. There are a lot of statistics that are frequently used to demean black men and women as being poor marriage material. This might be particularly relevant in Harper's discussion regarding interracial dating and the assumption that there are no good black men. Harper’s conversation would benefit from a more developed contextualization of such statistics to hammer the point home for black men and women: It’s about character, not the superficial.

Another area that could have used more discussion is Harper’s conversation about safe sex and STD prevention. Harper cites some pretty startling statistics (e.g., 1 in 4 African-Americans are believed to have genital herpes) that would greatly benefit from further elaboration and analysis. Left as is, such statistics can do more to discourage an unenlightened audience about the prospects of dating black men and women than help. Such serious matters (including Harpers brief discussion of domestic violence) could serve as launching points for a new conversation altogether.

It should also be noted that there are different types of relationships that aren't necessarily covered in the book. Gay and Lesbian relationships are another area that could use some attention in future conversations.

Finally, it would have been nice to have seen Harper allow a female acquaintance (perhaps one of the women with whom he conducted his research) give a “tough love” speech to black women as he did with black men. Harper dedicates an entire chapter to encouraging black men to “Man Up” when it comes to their responsibilities to family and the women in their lives. However, the importance of this message goes only as far as both black men and women understand that they are empowered to better their own circumstances. The choices we make have consequences that are not dismissed by way of gender. We must be as serious in confronting the poor decisions of some women as we are in confronting the poor actions of some black men. Both are essential in breaking the vicious cycle attacking black relationships.


Reclaiming a sense of self . . . Reclaiming a sense of commitment:

Harper does an excellent job in addressing just how we’ve failed to communicate as husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, friends and lovers. The Conversation will hopefully encourage readers to be more self-reflective and less accusatory. The common sense approach throughout most of the book; the reocurring question, "Would you date yourself?"; and the challenge to look at oneself in the mirror before making demands of your partner. . .

All of this works to shift the focus from a constant battle where black men and women anticipate and expect confrontation to a constructive environment where we can come together and rebuild our commitment to one another.

Even more, this goes beyond romantic relationships. The respect and admiration one shows towards his or her spouse might be a building block from which we can improve our relationships with our children; where we can serve as positive role models for younger generations; and where we can sustain (if not recapture) a sense of community that had been passed down from generations before us.


Where Do We Go From Here?:

In the end, it’s the little things that count. And much like our example from Hav Plenty, we need to check our presumptions at the door and be humble enough to realize that we don't have the right to prejudge our brothas and sistahs based on past relationships or common stereotypes.

In the case of black male/female relationships those “little things” are often used as a substitute for the hard work of gaining an appreciation and understanding of the opposite sex. After all, the hassles of engaging in meaningful conversation; the art of respecting your partner’s vulnerabilities; the challenge of measured response; and the gift that is building a strong foundation . . . .all of these things are so 20th Century, aren‘t they?

At least, that's what we're lead to believe. Let’s face it. In the time it takes to read this review you could create a profile on one of a thousand different Internet dating sites. There’s no need to think. No need to challenge or have someone else challenge your views of the world. Indeed, there’s no need to grow as an individual. No, the challenges of past relationships are handled from the comfort of one’s own computer. We can tailor our love interests based upon our subjective and quite superficial ideas (however mistaken they may be) of a “successful” relationship. Age? Height? Weight? Education? These are all no more than mere clicks on a website.

And as for those rare occasions when we’re forced to engage the opposite sex without a safety net? No need to fear. We’ve got blogs, vlogs, magazine articles and tell-all books designed with the purpose of spoon feeding us exactly what we want to hear about the opposite sex. . .

Things like:

“Don’t worry, girl, we all know n*ggas ain’t sh*t anyway . . .”

Or . . .

“Man, you know you can’t trust these gold diggin’ black women with their nasty attitudes.”

Ever take a walk on the dark side of YouTube? Ever get lost in the endless sea of negativity that is the blogosphere? Indeed we’ve created a culture where negativity is the standard. We’ve created an environment that feeds off of despair and even profits from this sick game where black men and women take turns in seeing who can one-up the other in a contest of outright disrespect, lies and distortions about the other.

Cultivated by real life disappointments . . . emboldened by an undercurrent of victim-politics our community has played host to industries built on name-calling, finger-pointing and an indoctrination to do whatever is in our capacity to HURT each other as black men and women.

What’s left is a complete breakdown in communication between black men and black women.

Some say it’s just calling ‘em how they see ‘em. Others feign a disingenuous cover of empowerment politics. But the results are still the same. Black men and women go to their respective corners. They let the anger and frustration fester amongst themselves. And both sides construct a reality wherein the opposite sex has no value nor place of respect amongst those who talk the loudest.

But where is the CONVERSATION? Where is the back and forth that doesn’t devolve into personal rants of failed relationships, cheating spouses, “no-good men” and “baby-mama drama”?

Well, Hill Harper is having that conversation. And THE CONVERSATION is long overdue. Harper’s book demonstrates just how much black men and women can accomplish when they work as a TEAM instead of enemies.

"It's a courageous, smile-filled realization that we create our own reality. It's a conscious awareness that every time someone says, 'There are no good_____ out there,' we respond with an energized, openhearted smile and say, 'That's not true. There are plenty of really great_____ out there for me!' Believe it! Know it! Create it! Claim it!" (Harper, 259)



Let The Conversation begin . . .

1 comments:

  • Oliver says:
    September 9, 2009 at 7:20 AM

    I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


    Wilson

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