“You bet not come home without a pack of cigarettes.”
I was about 14 when my aunt uttered those words as I left the family compound on the Southside of Chicago. Admittedly, I didn’t give much thought to what she said at that moment. It later dawned on me that she was essentially saying, “If you’re leaving this house to spend time with a man (boy), 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 hung out with him. That’s tricking. That’s prostitution! Right?!
Around the same time I was receiving unorthodox advice from my aunt, Joan Morgan was writing about her own mother’s instructions regarding the same in her 1999 book, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. Morgan’s mother’s instructions are 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 for an explanation, Morgan’s mother simply replied “God bless the child that’s got her own.” Now my aunt would agree wholeheartedly with number 3. As a matter of safety, we were taught to always have money to make a phone call and get home but as for 1 and 2—she wasn’t having it.
One might understand my aunt’s comment as a reinforcement of strict gender roles, the notion that a man should always pay for dates etc. On the surface, perhaps they were. What I have come to understand is that my aunt’s admonishments were in fact early 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 well, that is what Superwoman does. This practice is disrespectful at best and in worse case scenarios, it is fatal.
Who’s right, my aunt or Morgan’s mom? Both. The issue with the two philosophies arises when we only apply them monetarily. See, my aunt was right but a more comprehensive approach may 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 runs the risk of being conflated with the notion that a woman should never expect or accept anything from others. The receipt of all gifts becomes tied to notions of debt and control such that even non-tangible offerings like respect, reciprocity, and emotional support are declined.
At least five days a week, my aunt 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 my cousins and me. In return, we were expected to complete household chores and respect our elders. My aunt 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. Everyone gave. Everyone benefited. To that end, I shouldn’t have been surprised that my aunt applied the same theory of reciprocity to male companionship— equally applicable to platonic and professional interactions.
Relationships involve an exchange of some sort. Someone gives, someone benefits. The exchange of goods is not always material. In a best-case scenario, the exchange of goods 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 Black female lives don’t matter (more on that later).
Around the same time that 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 aunt’s school of thought. Nicki Minaj raps about her expectations that her energy be reciprocated in some fashion. She is considerably more direct than my aunt.
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 that can be learned from my aunt is this—as a Black woman, 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 anything in return.
The names of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Walter Scott are ingrained in our minds and many can readily identify the circumstances of their deaths. The same cannot be said for Rekia Boyd, Renishia McBride, Latandra Ellington, Eleanor Bumpers, Shelly Frey and Sheneque Proctor, to name just a few. Although the #BlackLivesMatter movement was started by Black women (Alicia Garza, and Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi) with an intersectional lens of state violence, for many the movement has come to symbolize resistance to violence against Black men. T-shirts, websites and social media posts list the names of Black male victims of state violence and very often disregard the many Black women who have also died at the hands of police officers.
A similar conversation plays out with the My Brother’s Keeper initiative. Mention of the inclusion of Black girls is met with accusations of attempting to deflect from the plight of Black men, oppression Olympics or zero sum game rebuttals.
Through all of this, Black women are still expected to stand on the front lines in many capacities (strategy, action, dialogue etc.). And we do. Without any expectation of the same energy being poured back into us.
I’m going to suggest that Black women take the advice my aunt gave me many years ago. You bet not come home without a pack of cigarettes.