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Tayari's Blog: Jelani Cobb on Rio

Posted by TayariJones on September 1, 2006 07:11 AMFiled under Current Events

I have been in touch with Jelani Cobb about a Q&A for this siteregarding this trip to Rio, which he wrote about in Essence. Hisrevealations about African-American men and the sex trade in Brazilhave caused quite a bit a controversy. He has received so muchfeedback, postitive and negative, that he has prepared a sort of FAQabout his trip. The questions range from "Why did you write this aticlein the first place" to "What can women do". Interesting stuff.

1. Why did you write this article"

The short answer is because I'm a writer and this is a story. Thelonger answer is because it is an issue that really needed to bediscussed and one of my goals as a writer is to start importantconversations. There's an old saying that the only problem that someblack had with slavery was the fact that we were the slaves. It wasprofound to me that the hard-fought gains of the past half centuryhave empowered a certain set of black men to travel to South Americaand behave in ways once associated with white men alone. To me theissue raised a question of what we were and are struggling for. Was itsolely to get a foot in the door so that we could replicate the worstbehaviors of American society ourselves" Are we so wrapped up in ourown issues with America that we are incapable of seeing the severeproblems that confront other people of color in other parts of world"

2. Your article has made the problems between black men and women worse

James Baldwin said that not everything that can be faced can besolved, but nothing can be solved until it is faced. I found thisparticular critique fascinating -- as if a problem would not exist ifwe didn't speak about it. I am of the belief that truth is anantiseptic. It stings; it burns, but in the end it makes us better. Itwas in that hope that I wrote the article.

3. Where can I go in Brazil to experience the things you wrote aboutin the article"

Yes, I actually did get this question. My heartfelt honest response:Get real. You have to be kidding me. Please tell me you are not sodesperate that you're sending email to a writer whom you've never metasking him where you can go to get some.

4. What can black women in America do to keep their men from going toBrazil/How can we compete with these women in South America"

Yes, I got that question too. And the short answer is nothing. As Istated in the article, this is not entirely about sex. I'm not evenconvinced it's mainly about sex. This is about affirmation anddeference that men get and choose not to examine for what it is: goodcustomer relations, no more, no less. I'm not a relationship expert,but I don't think it's realistic for people in actual relationships toattempt to compete with something that is essentially a made-to-orderfantasy. Moreover, do you really want to be with someone who requiresyou to compete with prostitutes for their attention"

5. You let black men off the hook in terms of challenging the waysthat they negatively describe black women

This was interesting also. Lots of women (my mother included) feltthat I should have explicitly condemned the men who were speaking illof the sisters back home. Let me go on the record and say that I wasgenerally disturbed by what I saw and heard in Rio. There were dozensof black men explaining that they travel to the city and seek outwomen there because they are so poorly treated by black women inAmerica. I had a hard time hearing this because on of my primaryconcerns in life is the well-being of the black community, however itis that we define that term. I also found it difficult to believe thatall these men were having a hard time meeting black women at home andsuspected that it was a self-serving justification for their behavior.At the same time I had to balance the fact that I was writing afeature, not an editorial or a column, which is why I take a definitestand but attempted to express it somewhat subtly within the piece. Atthe very end, I talk explicitly about the ways in which brothers fromthe states in Rio are being complicit in a system that feeds on theexploitation of women in the third world.

6. You came down too hard on black men considering all they have todeal with in this society

See answer #1. Also, I find it impossible to believe that after twocenturies of struggle our only recourse is to fly ten hours to aforeign country and pay a woman for sex. I know as well as anyone elsewhat we confront in this society. I also know that black people inBrazil are struggling against even greater obstacles than we are here.Our own condition in America does not justify turning a blind eye tothat reality.

7. You sold out by letting women in on what was going on/You must be gay.

Um... okay. But is that really where you want to draw your line interms of allegiance" The last two articles I wrote for Essence dealtwith the disproportionate incarceration of black youth for offensesthat white youth are frequently given probation for and the murder oftwo young brothers I knew (age 22 and 25.) I am willing to bet thatyou did not send any outraged emails to your local representatives,state senators, congressional representative or the White Houseregarding this catastrophic situation. Yet a piece that talks aboutthe biggest open secret in black America has you up in arms. As forthe illogical assumption that the article somehow indicates that thewriter is gay -- are you equating heterosexuality with having to payfor it" That may be the case for you (and if so, you have mycondolences) but I don't have that particular problem.

8. You make it seem as if all Brazilian women are prostitutes and onlyblack American men are guilty of sex tourism there

The article was about sex tourism in Brazil -- not Brazil at large.There are tons of things to discuss about that beautiful and historiccountry; unfortunately culture and history are not the reasons that somany black men have started going to Rio in the past 3-5 years. If Iwrote an article about carjackers in Atlanta one would not assume thatit meant that all Atlantans are carjackers. The women i wrote about inthe article were part of the sex trade; but nowhere do I argue orimply that they are the majority of the women in the city. Also, Imade reference early in the article to the fact that black men are farfrom the only men involved in this activity. The angle of the articleis that there has been an explosion in terms of the numbers of blackmen and that change is worthy of investigation.

If you still have questions or comments, feel free to email me. Ican't however guarantee that I'll get the time to reply, but I'll giveit my best shot.

Jelani C.

(WJC has given me permisson to post here, although it is also posted on his website. Also, there will be a public forum on the subject at Spelman College on September 14.)


There are 1 comments on "Jelani Cobb on Rio". If you'd like to leave a comment, click here to jump down to the comments entry form.

Comment #1, by upandcomming1 [TypeKey Profile Page]

I listen to your NPR radio broadcast, and I must say I disagreedwith alot of what you had to say. I have been to Brazil, and yes I wasapproached by many women, in which I told them no to their request tohave sex with me. I saw the country for what it was a poor anddisadvantage country, then it hit me that most of the beautiful womenwho are approaching these men, have kids and family that they aretrying to support, so they are doing what they feel they need to do tosurvive. I can't judge them for trying to survive, just like I can'tjudge the black men for going.

America is a materialistic country where people are judge on theirlooks or how successful they are, so I can't blame a brother who getoverlooked in America, but praised in Brazil.

September 7, 2006 10:34 AM

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