Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sister Souljah and No Disrespect

One day, fairly early in my job at Empoder, I was leafing through the autobiographies section in the library and picked out No Disrespect by Sister Souljah. I wasn't familiar with the author but the title grabbed me. I read it half of it that night, captivated by her. Sister Souljah shares some background of her childhood, college experience, and life after graduation. As she enters college the focus of the book becomes her romantic relationships but throughout themes of race and racial injustice stand out.

Her strong persona intrigued me and more so, her perceptions on race and racial dynamics made me think a lot. My first reaction was defensive; "She comes off as someone who hates all white people. How can she mark off a people because of their color? Isn’t she doing what white racists do?" This came as a reaction to Souljah’s strong views on whites. In the entire book she didn’t share one positive experience with a white person. White teachers (as well as Jewish teachers) didn't encourage her intellect and she had to fight for every scholarship she received. Later, in college, the one white woman who stands up to her opinions on whites, talking about those who wanting to work together with minorities towards equality, is highlighted in a scene that further brings out Souljah’s disdain for white people.

As a sidenote, I didn’t grow up in the US. I studied US history in respect to racial relations, from slavery to segregation laws to civil rights movement but learned much more after moving here. Souljah’s book threw the volatility of racial relations in my face. Her writing came across as accusatory and holding nothing back. While I was able to understand her anger, what really shook me was how vehemently Souljah seemed to feel about whites, those in power and those not, seemingly clumping them all together. As a case manager who worked with dedication with people of all backgrounds this was hard for me as well.

I thought out loud to a friend about how I didn’t understand why Souljah's view on white people were so sweepingly negative. I don't remember her answer but I remember it made me snap out of it. I was taking Sister Souljah's message personally -- as a personal attack. I was reacting to it emotionally. What Souljah was sharing was a feeling of deep injustice. Maybe I wasn't able to fully understand it, having not come from a similar background, maybe even after understanding it I didn't agree with her on everything she wrote, but it wasn't about me. It was about her growing up in a tough life, fighting for everything she had, and feeling angry she had to fight so hard for it. It was about the system of inequality, in the US and globally. And presenting her views without holding back, without gently probing the topic or tip toeing around it.

Though at times she came across as arrogant she wasn't afraid to share deeply personal experiences concerning her relationships with other men and family and her writing was engaging. Following this book I would go on to read other books and essays about poverty, inequality, and so on but I appreciate I read a take no prisoners book early on. It's good to read books that remind me that it's not about me and as good to read something that is going to be challenging.

5/2/2011 To clarify: Sister Souljah (who I've seen in interviews and read beyond No Disrespect) has indeed shared views I disagree with. My point was to readers who may have had an initial reaction like myself, to encourage them to look beyond Souljah's statements that are wholly negative (i.e. her expressions that generalize white people) and not get distracted by them, but instead to focus on examining the actual system that Souljah is criticizing.

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