Archive | May, 2011

Nene vs. Star: Black Women & The Vulnerability of Anger

9 May

The first season of The Apprentice brought with it an impressive black woman (Omarosa Manigault) who deconstructed her brilliance to pacify an audience that seeks (if not requires) black women to fit a particular prototype on television.  Omarosa embodied what Patricia Hill Collins would designate the black lady, a black woman whose intellect and success make her difficult to like and love.  I find it fascinating that no matter what a black woman does and who she is (smart, beautiful, independent, etc.) —she is ultimately made to feel undesirable and unwanted–even and sometimes especially from people (who look) like her.

I was seduced to this season of The Celebrity Apprentice (though I loathe Donald Trump for various reasons, which I will not detail here) because of my intellectual and personal interest (read curiosity) of black women’s representations on reality television.  The unprecedented inclusion of four black women on a reality television show on network television lured me in, especially because I was interested to see how they would be depicted, how they would interact (having such vastly different backgrounds and demeanors) and what roles they would play with each other.  The season started with Dionne Warwick, LaToya Jackson, Star Jones, and Nene Leakes.  As weeks went on I was repeatedly surprised that the black women were surviving because reality competition shows, like horror movies, may start with black bodies but they are generally the first to go.  Nine weeks in, three of the four black women remained in the competition.  Perhaps it was their charm or ability to play the game, or more realistically their entertainment value and lure of black audiences, but the black women held it down, on the same team (until they were ultimately separated, first LaToya who came back to work with the men’s team, and later Nene being switched with a male player following an altercation between her and Star), week after week.  The complications, however, began immediately.  These women were angry and/or vulnerable characters. 

Dionne Warwick was often portrayed as bossy and overbearing, giving out attitude but not allowing rebuttal because of her age. Star Jones, the consummate professional, masked her anger and deception behind articulate interviews and rolled eyes.  Nene Leakes…well, she is famous for being the aggressive, angry black woman on RHOA, which is undoubtedly why she was cast on the show.  Her anger, however, has seemed to be so much a part of her personality that she can turn it on and off like a faucet, cursing you out one minute and hugging you the next.  LaToya Jackson, soft-spoken but determined (having persuaded Donald Trump to re-hire her on the other team after being fired), did not represented the angry black woman but rather the victim.  She never seemed able to fully defend herself, speak (up) for herself, or take a leadership position (it was heartening when she returned this week, ever so briefly, to do just that).  LaToya’s emotions were mostly reactionary and non-threatening.  It is difficult to categorize her as “angry” in comparison to representations that are so utterly distinctive and destructive, but her representation was problematic nonetheless.

While Dionne and LaToya were both targets (Dionne because of her age, and LaToya because of her perceived lack of skill), the last several episodes focused on the animosity between Nene and Star.  Nene and Star were perhaps the most popular and controversial characters on the show given their well publicized beefs with other women, Nene on RHOA and Star from her abrupt departure from The View.

Still, interestingly, while continually battling each other verbally, the women also came to each other’s defense occasionally.  Their on-again, off-again black woman friendship reminded me of Audre Lorde’s essay Eye to Eye, which discusses the problematic relationship black women often have with each other, resenting and needing one another equally.

It is ironic that at the end of Sunday night’s episode, both Nene and Star (and LaToya) were absent.  Nene quit, a exaggerated response to hurt feelings (because Star did not want to be her friend), while LaToya and Star were both fired.  Somehow, in one felt swoop and three hour episode, all of the black women were gone!

I find it interesting that the only one of the three that left the show with dignity and integrity was LaToya.  She negotiated her way back for a chance at redemption, and while her team did not win, she did not play herself while playing the game.  With Nene and Star, however, they both fell into stereotypical scripts on their way out of the door, reinforcing, it seems, the inability for black women to “just get along.”   

I believe that Nene’s façade of being the “big bad bitch” is simply a front.  She seems to use her bullying and aggression to hide her insecurities.  Many of her rants, which were odd given her behavior, seemed to be about her desire for friendship (with Star, with Dionne, with LaToya) and forgiveness with/from black women.  Nene seemed sincerely disappointed and hurt that Star was not willing to forgive and forget the reprehensible and threatening things she had said and done to her previously.  She was also clearly emotionally distraught when Dionne Warwick confronted her and she seemed to genuinely embrace LaToya, the most impressionable of the group, luring her into a faux friendship after saying deeply hurtful things to and about her.

I believe Star’s façade of being the “professional black lady” is also a disguise.  While her credentials are impressive, she oftentimes used her intellect to manipulate others and limit their potential.  Her unwillingness to lose shaped her character as one that was vindictive, uncaring, and unemotional.  She relished, however, in the praise and accolades of other contestants.  Perhaps she has become so invested in what other people think about her, and being the most impressive black woman in the room, that she can’t help but sabotage or resent another black woman’s potential.

Nene and Star’s characters remind me of so many black girls and women I have known in my lifetime.  Those who used the angry black woman façade to keep people at arm’s length.  Those who refuse to acknowledge another black woman’s (beauty/strength/potential) worth in fear that it will outshine her own.  Women who use anger and disdain to cover their need for friendship, love, acceptance.

Nene and Star’s departure, I believe, represents a much larger issue that feels just below the surface of the episodes that have featured their dysfunctional relationship.  Their anger (and ability to anger each other) led to their downfall.  Anger, while it may feel enabling in the moment, is really disempowering.  Their anger made them vulnerable.  And perhaps the anger was never about their issues with each other, but about their issues with themselves.  Perhaps what they saw in each other reminded them of their own flaws and faults.  Perhaps Nene saw her own lost potential in Star’s success.  Perhaps Star saw the potential to be cast stereotypically in Nene’s behavior.  They were afraid of each other because of what the other represented—another black woman–or simply themselves.

I wonder how many times black women misunderstand each other.  How many times we miscommunicate or miss communication with each other.  It is impossible to be guarded and open at once, but we are essentially and undeniably sometimes vulnerable and angry at the same time.


We Need Each Other to Survive: On Recovery and Reclamation

5 May

Last Wednesday, I literally felt like I raced time leaving the city of Tuscaloosa, AL about 45 minutes before the deadly tornado that ripped my neighborhood to shreds, destroying lives, and schools, and property along the way. I was on my way to the Birmingham airport to catch a flight out to the Black Women’s Intellectual History Conference at Columbia, an event I had been anticipating for more than 6 months. The conference gave me life and renewed my sense of purpose and community profoundly, as I knew it would. I needed to be there. And I am so glad to have been in that room with sisters whose work and presence made me make sense to myself.

But I had the profound sense, as I sat in a hotel room in Harlem, convened with smart sister intellectual-poet-activists in a room at Faculty House at Columbia, and broke bread in various locales in Morningside Heights, that in just a few days I would confront the kind of destruction that simply defies the senses. I thought about how it would feel to come back to a place where the physical landscape and the lives of people had been so violently altered, so very quickly.  I thought of my students and friends. And I dreaded seeing what my neighborhood would look like.

Even anticipating all this, I left Columbia on a kind of high. The high that comes from being among a people who understand what it means to be in that kind of space together, having been brought there by a context of struggle and pain, and joy and triumph. For Black women celebrating and thinking about the lives of other Black women who have come and gone certainly have their share of struggle and pain and triumph and joy to thank for bringing us together.

I returned home to find that my apartment escaped unscathed, my broader community another story. After only two days back in T-Town, two days of  repeatedly seeing massive scenes of destruction in areas so close to my own, I dreamt that the bottom of my right foot was missing. No doubt my mind’s way of trying to reconcile my own feelings that the ground upon which I stand  is less sure. Seeing the utter vulnerability of buildings that appeared to be rock solid can mess with even the most self-assured person’s sense of confidence and safety.

The evening that I returned, I was in a fitful slumber, the result of my unsuccessful attempt to cope with all the destruction I’d seen on my drive home by sleeping.  I was awakened by a text from a friend in NY that said simply, “Osama dead.” Quickly I scrambled to get my bearings and turned to CNN. I watched crowds erupting in the streets of D.C. and New York, and wondered to myself and to my FaceBook family about “Where all the flags came from so quickly!”

But I also watched people gather in the place where I had just been, brought there by a context of struggle and pain and joy and triumph.

I feel ambivalent as I watch folks convene in the physical spaces of their loss to celebrate the slaying of Osama Bin Laden, a slaying confirmed for us by the showing of bloody images of the compound where he was killed. And I find the macabre debates about whether to show the images of his bloodied body to be literal overkill; Black folks moreso than most ought to know that plenty of our own ancestors lie buried beneath the surface of the waters, as assuredly dead as if we had seen them go with our own two eyes.

But perhaps the celebrations are like the family reunions that happen after funerals. In the midst of great loss, there is a renewing of connection, a reminder of mortality, a clarity about just how much we need each other to survive.

That is perhaps the most profound lesson of which I was reminded during my weekend of intellectual bliss with the sister scholars. We cannot do this work, of recovering, reclaiming, and reconstructing our intellectual history alone.

We need each other to survive.

This is not only one of my favorite gospel songs. It is also the most important truth which I carry with me in this newly reconfigured homeplace, this local context of struggle and pain, joy and triumph. As we recover ourselves, reclaim what was lost, and reconstruct what has been destroyed, we need each other to survive.

To help recovery and relief efforts, visit:

Dancing in the Streets

2 May

As I type this post, thousands of Americans have taken to the streets to celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden.  Folks are singing, dancing, waving flags, and generally applauding what they see as American badassery.

 All across Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and various other forms of social media, folks are weighing on the recent events. While some had measured responses, several of my Facebook friends, for example, were all about “Boo-yah!” “Take that, you terrorists!” “You can’t stop our freedom!” and so on. 

 I have to admit, though, that I’m definitely feeling some kind of way about all this celebrating.

 Let’s not get it twisted: I’m not pro-Bin Laden or pro-al-Qaeda. I think Bin Laden was an asshole and I rebuke terrorism of all kinds. I’m pro-peace, pro-love, and, perhaps above all, pro-sense.  Frankly, I’m more concerned with the thousands of folks who died on 9/11 and the tens of thousands of folks who have died since then, and continue to die, in the name of the War on Terror than in celebrating right now, especially since I’m not hearing a whole lot about honoring victims in these celebrations.

 I know for some of the folks in front of the White House, at Ground Zero, and in other places, these celebrations are about healing wounds, crying it out, and reconciling their pain with the inevitable schadenfreude this situation incites. While I have loved ones in the military (one of whom participated in rescue missions at the Pentagon on 9/11), I did not lose anyone that day and I’m not here to cast aspersions to those who have and will spend a lifetime dealing with that pain.

But, I suspect for some others these celebrations are not about anything like that. For these folks, the public carrying on at the White House, on Facebook, and elsewhere is about applauding American imperialism, feeling vindicated in our invincibility, and generally acting a racist fool (cue the inevitable anti-Arab sentiment).  And I just can’t cosign on folks wanting to engage in some collective jingoistic masturbation. I just can’t.

A few days ago, President Obama had to show his papers to prove he was legit, and now he’s pulled what some might call the ultimate H.N.I.C. card on Birthers, Tea Partiers, and haters in general.  (Yeah, I saw his “see you in 2012, busters!” strut as he left the podium after his speech).

But the fact remains is that President Obama felt he had to show his papers to get some respect. So, one day he’s showing his papers and the next day he’s the best commander-in-chief ever? (Side eye). Excuse me if I don’t think our post-racial, post-feminist, post-sensical society has morphed that much overnight.

I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade, ’cause I’m all about parades. I say all this to say that while we’re dancing in the street, we can’t forget that despite what has just happened, the world in some ways has not changed all that much between April 30th and May 1st.  Dancing in the street or showing out online does not change a damn thing when our education system is laughable, our healthcare system is pitiful, our criminal justice system is deplorable, and our service men and women are deployed routinely for dubious ends. Need I go on? Suffice it to say, we need to keep our eyes on the prize instead of applauding Pyrrhic victories, no matter how tempting they may seem.

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