“You bet not come home without a pack of cigarettes.”
I was about 14 when my auntie Ernestine uttered those words as I was leaving the family compound on the Southside of Chicago. I didn’t really understand what she meant at first (family say I got a whole bunch of book sense but not a lot of common sense). It eventually dawned on me that she was basically saying, “If you leaving this house to spend time with a man (boy at the time), then you better not come home empty handed.”
Wait, what? I know she didn’t mean that I should ask a guy to do something for me or give me money just because I spent time with him. That’s tricking. Right?
About the same time I was getting unorthodox dating advice from my auntie, Joan Morgan was writing about her own mother’s dating principles in her 1999 book, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. Her mother’s instructions were clear:
•No accepting gifts of monetary value.
•If he pays [for a date] first, you pay second and try to go Dutch as often as possible.
•Never, ever, ever leave home without your feisty (Jamaican for “rude”) money—enough change for a phone call, and if not taxi fare then at least two [bus/subway] tokens (204).
When pressed to elaborate, Morgan’s mother simply replied “God bless the child that’s got her own.” Now my auntie would agree wholeheartedly with keeping your feisty coin at all times. We knew the rules. Always have coins to call home (cell phones were still pay by minute and we wasn’t balling). Always have bus/cab fare. And always wear clean underwear in case you get hit by a car. Can’t have the paramedics thinking you nasty. Because clearly, no injury was worse than being caught with dirty underwear in an ambulance. But that other stuff? No accepting gifts or letting a man pay for dates? My auntie wasn’t having it. My momma neither, but y’all know momma is a whole ‘nother story altogether.
Some folks might think my auntie was just reinforcing strict gender roles. On the surface, maybe she was. But we’re at the intersection. Nothing stops at surface level. My auntie wasn’t talking about tricking— she was dropping lessons on reciprocity, a concept and practice Black girls and women have long been denied. Black girls and women have internalized the idea that we must always act altruistically because that’s what Superwoman does. It’s disrespectful at best and in worse case scenarios— fatal.
So who’s right, my auntie or Morgan’s mom? Both. The issue with the differing schools of thought arises when we only apply them monetarily. See, my auntie was right but a more nuanced approach might have been, “You bet not repeatedly expend your energy for others without the expectation that those who benefit will also pour into you and your well-being.” Morgan’s mother was right but her approach runs the risk of being conflated with the notion that a woman should never expect or accept anything from others —that the receipt of all gifts becomes tied to notions of debt and control to the point where even non-tangible offerings like respect, reciprocity, and emotional support are declined.
At least five days a week, my auntie got up, got dressed, went to work and performed the duties of her job. In return, she received a paycheck. She brought that paycheck home and, along with my uncle, kept the lights on and food in the fridge for ma and my cousins. In return, we were expected to complete household chores and respect our elders. My auntie understood that her employer should compensate her for time spent doing her job and we understood that we should show appreciation for her support by doing chores. Everybody gave. Everyone got. So I really shouldn’t have been surprised that my auntie applied the same theory of reciprocity to male companionship, platonic and professional interactions.
Relationships involve an exchange of some sort. The exchange of goods is not always material. In a healthy situation, the exchange includes non-tangible compensation in the form of respect, reciprocity, and emotional support. But what happens when we teach Black girls to give without the expectation of benefit? What happens is that others internalize the notion that lives of Black girls and women don’t matter (more on that later).
While Morgan was writing about Jamaican momma proverbs, and I was hearing Southside auntie adages, Lauryn Hill was exploring mutually beneficial relationships in her iconic 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Singing of a partner who returned her love with hurt, Hill sang, “Tell me who I have to be, to get some reciprocity.”
Black women are still singing of reciprocity and it seems at least some of them subscribe to my auntie’s school of thought. Nicki Minaj often raps about her expectations that her energy be reciprocated in some fashion. She is considerably more direct than my auntie. Take “Anaconda” for example:
Boy toy named Troy used to live in Detroit
Big dope dealer money he was getting some coins
Was in shootouts with the law but he live in a palace
Bought me Alexander McQueen,
He was keeping me stylish
[…] I let him hit it ‘cause he slang cocaine
And when we done I make him buy me Balmain
[…]And he telling me it’s real, that he love my sex appeal
Say he don’t like ‘em boney,
He want something he can grab.
Nicki won’t be coming home without a pack of cigarettes. Men who benefit from her presence or energy are expected to reciprocate. Sometimes the service rendered is simply gaze. That’s right—an invoice just for looking at a sista. Throughout the “Anaconda” track, “look at her butt” is mentioned repeatedly. In this way she flips the script of the original Sir Mix-a-Lot track, “Baby Got Back.” While Mix-a-Lot subjects the women of his song and video to his gaze with no regard for his benefiting without reciprocating, Nicki makes it clear that merely consuming her visually will cost you.
The lesson I learned from my auntie is this—I have a right to demand reciprocity from anyone who benefits from my efforts or energy. So like many of my peers, I’m wondering how it came to be that Black women are continuously expected to give without benefit of receiving anything in return.
We know better. So we got to do better. From demanding our coin from folks who think we should always offer our talents at discount prices to limiting investments into friends and family members who insist we give and give without any expectation of reciprocity. We deserve to have our energy returned. To be poured into in the same way we pour into others. As my auntie said…
You bet not come home without a pack of cigarettes.