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Archive for the category “CULTURE”

Brown Girl Navigation: Between the Public and Private Selves

By Guest Contributor, Tafisha Edwards

My entire concept of my womanhood was rooted in the ability to conceal the true self, my true self, in something glamorous and composed and measured. And it was always up for public consumption. As a young girl, as many young girls are, I was taught appearances were to be kept (I am of Caribbean descent, so it was actually more like: “No. Slackness. Ever.”) It was never acceptable for me to be unkempt, loud, sexually forward, sexually aware, tired, upset, hungry or cranky in public as a young girl. Once my mother caught me masturbating and she simply told me “It’s not nice.” And I so dearly wanted to be a nice girl, it was all I was ever taught to be. There were obviously more appropriate things to say, such as “This is for when you are alone.” Fortunately for me I knew it felt good and didn’t take her words to heart, but the underlying shame of being caught with my hands on my own body lingered, and lingers to this day. How strange that another person is allowed to touch me, but I ought to feel ashamed of exploring what rightfully belongs to me.  I don’t mean to suggest my mother consciously meant to harm me, she was only teaching me as she herself had been taught—as many women are taught. But she and all of the various women in my life—grandmothers, aunts, friends of the family, teachers, strangers have all shaped my perception of what is acceptable in terms of my own body and the manner in which I carry myself. And some of those lessons are damaging and take a considerable effort to unravel.

I recognize as a black child, nevertheless a black woman, being anything other than ladylike is dangerous in a world where my body is sexualized without my consent. In a world where the male gaze often pins me to the “Whore” end of that wonderful “Madonna/Whore” archetype, where I must fight for my agency, for my personal space, for my right to simply BE without having to contextualize, strategize, or care what anyone besides myself wants. The appearance of what I want to be for the moment versus what I am is yawning given all of the spaces I must navigate safely.

This is not novel, this chasm between what it is and what it looks like, and its manifestations are all around us: alter-egos, public and private selves, double consciousness, personas, etc. Ever since I became aware that the world extended beyond my family and its shades of black and brown, I understood that we as a race were often obliged to adopt mannerisms to conform to the standard of whiteness that governs the world in which we live. I had seen my parents shift the rhythm of their steps in the workplace, their accents melted away if they went to the bank or made a business call. But it was only after I read Franz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” I could properly identify and articulate the ways in which language, bodies, and even psychoanalysis all involve and revolve around that standard of whiteness. And as a Caribbean woman I felt an affinity with Fanon’s words I had not experienced before. However, after reading the text I was disappointed that Fanon did not address the reality of black woman. Of the entire book, which delves into the despair, the confusion, and the anger that Fanon experienced as a man in the face of the unforgiving hand of colonialism and its disregard of his worth as a black man, black women did not receive the same amount of focus and it weighed heavily upon me, the lack of women’s voices to guide me through the many faces I must wear.

Eartha Kitt, whom I adore and identify so much with now as a woman in my early twenties, was the first black woman I had seen speak of navigating spaces with different personas. On the 1989 chat show “Wogan” Eartha Kitt, Terry Wogan asks Eartha: “…Is that why you think, perhaps, you’re an extravert? That you’re looking for attention and you’re looking for affection?” and she tells him of the disparity between the sensual and poised Eartha Kitt and the ‘urchin’ Eartha Mae. It ached to see her acknowledge one identity while she inhabited another. But I was strengthened by her awareness, by her honesty, by her acknowledgment of the self that needs to be hidden from the world, that private self where the truth lays heavy in what we were not given. A poet whom I greatly admire said I reminded her of Eartha after I performed a poem. Naturally, I assumed she meant the similarities in our accents. When I pried my way into interviews, quotes, biographies, I understood that she probably meant more than our rolling Rs. You understand what someone attempts to conceal by the manner in which they conceal it. I hide that tender self: horribly shy, needing affirmation and affection, beneath extraversion.

I will always remember recognizing my own private battle in another black woman and the relief I felt that there was someone else who understood what I did. Seeing Eartha Kitt’s eyes dampen on that couch reminded me I didn’t have to buy into the myth that black woman possess a preternatural strength that cleaves us from our emotional selves. I’ve been told so often that my emotional battles aren’t as bad as [insert ethnicity race/here] man’s or [insert ethnicity/race here] woman’s. It is a constant fight to honor that tender side, and not to smother it with an approximation of the woman I was told I should be. It is heartening to know that this was a struggle older than I am, that perhaps my mother struggles as I do even though I wouldn’t know how to begin to ask her. That I am allowed to be on record saying ‘I am so so broken and so actualized because of it, knowing myself and how I work.’ Awareness is a form of power. Awareness is the beginning of power.


Put It Down: Outrage Over Miscasting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone

By Guest Contributor, Bea Sullivan

Hollywood is making a biopic of Nina Simone. What could go wrong?

As angry as I was about the recent casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone, I had to put it down. When I heard the news, I was stunned and confused, but that quickly became an internalized rage likened to the mechanics of an incinerator. Why, I wondered, had this upset me so deeply? What could be the reasoning behind such an erroneous decision? I was certain there were ulterior motives —like whitewashing. Fans of Nina, including her daughter, have denounced the project for the casting decision.

As I’ve reflected on the issue, I am more deeply disturbed by Hollywood’s hold on our individual and collective psyche being as intrinsic as air. Women like Nina Simone don’t come around very often; how could Hollywood be trusted to portray her adequately given that its business is in creating a fantasy for the masses?

And there you have it. The line between fantasy and reality. Zoe Saldana doesn’t resonate with me as a convincing enough actress to do Nina Simone any justice.

There are a number of Black Latinas in the world who many not be recognized by Hollywood as Black in the first place, or even who have the salt perform this kind of role. Is Hollywood giving them a chance? Or is it copping out to cast someone who not only conforms to more acceptable standards of beauty, but who has a recognizable name for the sake of ticket sales.

Even asking Mary J Blige to play Nina is tricky to me, while she identifies as a black woman. Her life and experience as an entertainer seem lacking. She has been reported as saying that upon accepting the role (before dropping it this summer to pursue another film and because of funding) that she had yet to fully research Nina’s life. Nina’s impact on the civil rights movement; the ways dark-skinned, southern black women were and are perceived in the media; Nina’s undeniable talent as a pianist and vocalist, which was turned away by institutions like Curtis; her renunciation of the United States’ political, economic and military investment in the Vietnam War and her expatriation to Europe; her battle with mental illness and how it affected her image with stakeholders in the entertainment industry in Europe and the Americas. Mary still had some reading to do.

The fact that Nina is being portrayed posthumously is an oversight by the entertainment industry in my view. Worse an oversight is Hollywood’s systemic undercurrent erasure of black women’s images and stories. In particular, the erasure of dark-skinned black women and their struggle implies that this particular experience is irrelevant. That if we band together as women or as people of color, then the problem of race will somehow solve itself.

This debate calls out the failure of people of color to converse about color in a thoughtful way that includes our differences and similarities while celebrating them. Hollywood’s glorification of light-skinned people and white people is important because we watch it, internalize it, and enact it ourselves via colorism. Nina’s legacy holds too much weight to bastardize her origins, her struggle, her embodiment of beauty through it all as a mahogany woman. The preservation of her legacy has everything to do with her experience in the body she inhabited as what she produced in the world.

While her music and accomplishments touched and moved me as it did many others, her life does not belong to me, it belonged to no one, which is what made her time on earth so special. Further, David Nathan, a close friend of Nina’s, has said, “The choices are completely beyond my comprehension. Having known Nina from my own teen years to close to her passing in 2003, I can say that aside from her obvious genius as an artist, she was a complex woman whose personality made her often misunderstood, erratic, volatile and subject to the gamut of emotions from rage to tenderness.”

I’m more concerned now with how we understand our reality through (sometimes problematic) representations of life and how that affects our behavior. Her impact was that of excavating a feeling unseen and unsaid.

I’m finding solace and peace in the essence of Nina’s individuality—that no one  is or could be quite like her. And shouldn’t that in itself be inspiration? Alternative avenues for funding, casting, direction, screenwriting, for instance, could be a starting point; in short we have to take control of stories that matter to us, to step in and just make something real. Outrage over absence of reality portrayed through imagined reproductions is how great pieces get made. While my anger doesn’t necessarily move the argument further, it has incited inspiration to participate in making richer representations of reality that speak to the urgency of my dreams.

Semi-Nude Michelle Obama on Spanish Magazine Cover

Repost of the Week

By Naomi Extra

Article Reposted: “Spanish Magazine Courts Controversy with Michelle Obama Cover” in Yahoo News

The Scoop:

First Lady, Michelle Obama, is topless on the cover of a Spanish magazine. Yes, you read correctly. Topless. In the Yahoo News article, Sarah Weir writes: “Michelle Obama has graced magazine covers from Time to People to Vogue looking powerful, beautiful, and downright regal, but now a Spanish magazine is picturing her bare breasted, and as a slave.”  The article provides some context for what the artist might have been thinking along with some valuable insight. But for those of us who are privy to black women’s racial and sexual history in the United States, the image may be perceived as offensive.

In the groundbreaking book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle McGuire, one of the chapters is entitled “A Black Woman’s Body Was Never Hers Alone.” The name of this chapter was taken from a painful lesson that Fannie Lou Hamer was taught by her mother and grandmother when she was a child in the Mississippi Delta. I was reminded of these haunting words when I saw this image of the first lady. Both McGuire and Weir bring to light the the lack of ownership that black women have and still encounter when it comes to their bodies. By attaching the first lady’s face to an anonymous semi-nude slave body, the artist creates a power dynamic through both the gaze and the what the slave body itself signifies. We could ask ourselves any number of questions related to this controversial work. Like, when’s the last time we saw one of our white first ladies depicted in this way? Did the artist get consent from the first lady before she attached  her face to a semi-nude body? How is Michelle Obama perceived globally? And perhaps, most importantly, what does she think of the magazine cover?

Check out the article link reposted above and let us know what you think.

Red Hook Summer: On Post-Soul Culture & Spike Lee Talkin’ Smack

By Naomi Extra

(Cross-posted in Racialicious on 08.28.12 with edits from the author)

Spike Lee’s newest film, Red Hook Summer, takes place in the projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn where Flik (Jules Brown), a teenage boy from Atlanta, goes to stay with his grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) for the summer. Flik is a teenage Afro-Punk type: vegan, middle-class, afro-hawk, suburban speak. In contrast, Bishop Enoch is a Bible-thumping preacher and active member of his community. Amidst heavier themes of class, politics, religion, and generational difference, a budding romance between Flik and Chazz (Toni Lysaith) is also threaded through the film.

What shocked me most while watching Red Hook Summer was its striking similarity to the films of Tyler Perry and T.D. Jakes whose work Lee has openly criticized. In fact, many reviewers have put the film right in line with Perry’s films by describing it as a church movie.  Red Hook Summer has been said to be preachy, messy in narrative structure and development, and sensationalist. All are valid critiques. They also seem ironic in light of the ongoing beef between Perry and Lee, which was ignited when Lee referred to the films of Perry and the like as “coonery and buffoonery.” And of course, the media loves this sort of melodrama.

The question is, could Red Hook Summer be Spike talking more smack, mocking the immensely popular church films of Tyler Perry and the like? I wouldn’t put it past him. When recently asked about the ongoing feud, Lee responded with a request: “No more Tyler Perry questions please” and later “peace and love, leave it at that.” With Red Hook Summer, Lee seems to have found a way to squash the beef and have the last word.

Lee takes Perry to task by following his formula of clean-cut messages of healing and redemption through religious faith. Then suddenly, about a third of the way through the film when its formulaic structure and less than stellar acting have bred boredom, Lee not only disrupts but mocks this message. When Enoch’s proverbial demons come out the closet the viewer is forced to rethink the preceding sixty or so minutes of flatness. If we think of Red Hook Summer as a parody of any one of Tyler Perry’s or T.D. Jake’s films then suddenly, the sensationalism, heavy-handed messages, simplistic character portrayals, low-budget look of the film, and mediocre acting begin to work in an interesting way.

Layered upon Lee’s satirical rendering of Perry’s filmic themes and aesthetic is a strong engagement with the post-soul aesthetic which we see throughout the body of his work. By post-soul, I mean Lee’s creation of a distinct tradition within the tradition that addresses the intersections of class, religious, and racial identification in post-Civil Rights black America. In Red Hook Summer, Lee maintains his post-soul agenda while taking a dig at some of the most popular aesthetic values of the moment. While Perry places similar concerns on the agenda, Lee’s beef seems to be with his reaching back into the shaming and muddied waters of minstrelsy, reviving the black mammy, jezebel, and preacher types in various ways.

Red Hook Summer’s insistence on the tradition and how it is used in the black community could be interpreted as direct commentary on what Lee and others have found offensive about Perry’s films. As a symbol of post-soul culture, the star of Red Hook Summer, Flik, is openly atheist and disconnected from the tradition of the black church. He sees the world not through religion but through the lens of technology, his iPad serves as his means to record and interact with his environment. Enoch, however, uses the tradition of the black church as a veil to hide behind. What Flik and Enoch do have in common is a desired sense of freedom. In order to achieve this, both characters must learn to navigate the circumstances of their past and present. By the end of the film, Lee makes it abundantly clear that for those seeking redemption, the church is not the answer.

For better or worse, both directors have managed to make a name for themselves in an industry largely invested in what sells. With so few black filmmakers out there, combined with the politics of respectability within the African American community, and a media that thrives on conflict in the black community, it’s not hard to imagine how this rivalry not only manifested but also thrived.

In the end, with Red Hook Summer, Lee achieves more than just trash talking. He leaves us with food for thought on the ways tradition and faith are employed within the African American community. The film begs the question of where black folks turn when traditional spaces for achieving personal and spiritual freedom fail or cease to exist. Writer, Gayle Jones, perhaps put the message best. In her post-soul novel, The Healing, she writes: “Some people think that freedom is to manage everybody but theyself. Learn to manage yourself. That is the key to freedom.” An excellent bit of wisdom, not only for those watching films but also those making them.

Lifting the Veil of Minstrelsy: The Carolina Chocolate Drops

By Mary Annaïse Heglar

One of my favorite music groups of today, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is anything but contemporary. Instead, they are an old-time string band with roots in rural North Carolina. The four members—natives of Brooklyn, Arizona, and North Carolina—are talented on the cello, fiddle, kazoo, harmonica, bones, jug, and many different types of banjo.  Some people call it folk. Some people call it country. Some people call it the blues.

The Chocolate Drops gracefully blend old-time instruments with beatboxing and modern song. They have a masterful adaptation of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit Em Up Style.” In addition to traditional American songs, they perform music from Haiti, South Africa,and Scotland as well as their own original compositions.

But it’s also the sound of minstrelsy.

The Chocolate Drops are reclaiming the shuck and the jive. Music that black people in America have been shamed out of enjoying or even claiming. It’s good music. It makes you want to slap your knee and stomp your feet. But beneath that pretty surface, there lies an ugly history full of blackened faces, mockery, Birth of a Nation, and, of course, slavery. So as enjoyable as it is, it is painful for Black Americans. It’s hard to get images like this or this or this out of your mind.

Minstrel shows were one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the country for more than 80 years. The Carolina Chocolate Drops not only acknowledge this history, they confront it head-on. In an April 2012 interview, The Drops’ Reynadine said, “You can pussyfoot around it for a little bit, but it’s really important to acknowledge that the stuff was horrible, but that’s not a reason to confine a whole 80-year stretch of music to the dustbin. That’s part of our history.”

They delve even further into the history to uncover traces of shared histories between blacks and whites in the South. They talk about the collision of string instruments–the origins of the banjo (in Africa) and the fiddle (in Ireland). You heard that right: They travel through the painful spectacle of minstrelsy to find a trend of racial harmony. Mind=blown.

In an interview with NPR in March 2012, they said, “That’s kind of one of the first bump-ups of black and white cultures, musically speaking. And so it’s a really important part of history, and it is in the underpinnings of our current entertainment.”

The Drops make it a point to discuss this history at their shows—no matter who is in the audience. At their New York City summerstage premiere this past Saturday, they performed a song from 1855, but quickly added, “We’re only interested in going back to 1855 musically. Not in any other way.” The mostly white audience laughed nervously, but Reynadine, one of the founding members, looked seriously out into the crowd. “It needs to be said.”

Lights, Camera, Omission

By Camille Wanliss Ortiz

It’s been more than a century since the advent of the motion picture industry yet Hollywood still fails to accurately address the greatest atrocity to ever take place on American soil – slavery.

The latest example is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, director Timur Bekmambetov’s big-screen adaptation of the Seth-Grahame novel. Not only does it reconstruct the life of America’s 16th president but also the oppressive system he abolished. In this sci-fi rendering, slaves are less an economic commodity than they are vampire food. And it appears that the end-game of the Civil War was not to abolish the bondage of black folks but instead to stop the undead from enslaving all mankind (that’s code for “white people too”).Though no one should look to a vampire film for accuracy when it comes to slavery’s role in the Civil War, it is no less symbolic of the lengths this nation has gone to in order to spin its own revisionist history.

Just last year the Sons of the Confederacy Veterans kicked off a four-year celebration of the war’s sesquicentennial with nary a mention of slavery. Instead they stuck to their script; maintaining that the eleven states of the Confederacy were only fighting for their right to secede from the Union. What they conveniently left out, however, was that the reason they wanted to secede was so they would not be forced to end slave labor, which their ancestors benefited from economically. After losing the war, the Confederacy decided the best way to lick their wounds would be to continue spewing the “states’ rights” myth. The mindset behind this led to a romanticization of the antebellum era as the glory days of white Southern pride; a time before the North infringed on their rights and ruined everything (that’s code for “when blacks were in their rightful place”).

Hollywood soon latched on and in 1915 produced Birth of a Nation, the Confederate-sympathizing, KKK propaganda film. Then in 1939, Hollywood released Gone with the Wind, the “American classic” in which slaves are sassy and inept but never unhappy. Never searing at their core for freedom. Never rapt with fear of being raped, beaten or sold. Prissy “don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies?” Puh-lease. Not only would she have birthed a few for Massa herself but nursed and raised the babies of her mistress too.

The film industry has done a great service to the revisionists. Search IMDB for Hollywood films set during the antebellum era and read the plot summaries. Most tend to be any of the following: sweeping sagas revolving around the lives of white plantation owners; war epics on white Confederate soldiers; war epics on white friends who find themselves on opposite sides of the war; and romantic tales about white lovers torn apart by the war. It’s amazing how many stories can told about the antebellum South or the Civil War without so much as a hint to the ills of slavery. Can you imagine sweeping love stories and epics set during the Holocaust from the Nazi point of view? Yeah, me neither.

Over the past twenty-odd years, Hollywood released only three major motion pictures that dealt with slavery, though somewhat peripherally. Glory (1989) revolved around a regiment of black Union soldiers during the Civil War and Beloved (1998), based on the Toni Morrison novel, was more of a post traumatic slave tale set during Reconstruction. The one to come closest was Steven Speilberg’s Amistad (1997), about an uprising aboard a slave ship. It told the unflinching true story about the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its aftermath.

But there may be hope for Hollywood yet. Though Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter only adds to the canon of revisionist movies, it at least does what no film has done before it – depicts metaphorically what the Confederacy was to blacks in reality – life sucking vampires.

There are also a few films on the horizon that may add a new dimension to the oeuvre of slave narratives. This Christmas, Quentin Tarantino’s slave revenge flick Django Unchained will be released. And in 2013, director Steve McQueen will get his turn with Twelve Years a Slave, a star-studded film featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor and based on the true story of a free man of color who fights for his liberty after being kidnapped and sold into slavery.

With so many holes in the stories of this nation’s history, it’s about time Hollywood fill in the blanks.

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