Archive | June, 2011

Glowing in the Dark: Being Feminist At the Movies

12 Jun

Last night, we went to see Jumping the Broom, but this is not about that movie. I don’t have energy to waste on telling Salim Akil to do better (again); I don’t have enough energy to show the ways in which Tyler Perry and T.D. Jakes are cinematic bedfellows, conspiring in the dark to teach black women how to get and keep a man with the help of Jesus.

 I’d rather talk about what happens when six feminists walk into a movie theater or any other space that would render us silent.  We laugh. We pass popcorn. We call “bullshit” when appropriate. We notice similarities to relatives and point them out to our neighbors. We drink smuggled wine. We talk too loud. We fume. We remind ourselves and those listening that we are absent from/ offended by this film. We have side conversations about which child star has grown into his face, about which male lead may or may not have dentures. We resist. We glow in the dark.

That we managed to have fun after (maybe during) two hours of a prosperity gospel sermon with pictures is more than a miracle; it’s a daily practice of society’s despised and dispossessed. Pearl Cleage, in an essay called “Beverly’s Boots” wrote about such practice. In the aftermath of the Bush/ Quayle election, the city of Atlanta exploded with black feminist energy. Hanging out with sisterfriends, Cleage almost forgot to remember that she had just been politically dispossessed and the remembrance almost depressed her: “All of a sudden, I felt my blues coming back strong and that’s when I saw Beverly’s boots.” They were cowboy boots that “didn’t give a damn about George Bush.” For a few hours the other night, we didn’t give a damn either.

Let me be clear; we didn’t have to stay in that theater. In fact, if faced with a similar situation in the future we will probably leave. But the truth is that there are other spaces we don’t want to leave. We talked last night about the academy, about the politics of negation that play out, about the silencing that goes on and the frequent dismissals. But I don’t want to leave. I take my daughter to church to wear the dresses bought by her relatives and I wonder what tools I need to give her if decide to stay; I can’t smuggle in wine or call “bullshit” when I hear it. There are other institutions and groups that would rather I disappear and still I glow in the dark.

 I often think about what CF Ashon wrote when the news of Eddie Long’s sexual abuse surfaced. He wrote, “The ability to have pleasure in the spaces that try to make it impossible is important… We have the capacity to withhold in us a certain consent to the theological, emotional, psychical violence we are made to endure. And having the capacity to withhold, we have something in us that persists.” I hope I am not abusing his meaning when I say that in withholding consent to violent messages, we are also creating ways to find and make pleasure in the space(s) of negation, to play (with ourselves) in the dark.  

It is a lesson I have learned by living in this body that is already coded with meaning, with darkness.

Darkness is alive, creating light/ life. It is more than empty metaphor, imbued with meaning by those who have named themselves namers. We laugh in the dark. We dance in the dark. We gossip, whisper, plot and plan. We soothe each other, we build fortresses, we organize, we recycle love and expand it. We won’t be negated, silenced, erased. We withhold consent. We glow.

Ode to Dark (Skinned) Girls

9 Jun

My melanin proficiency has often led to color complex(ion) issues brought on by my country (rural) upbringing in a community (and country) fascinated (via the hegemonic influences of beauty) with my yellow-skinned sister with looooooooooooooooooooong hair and generally ambivalent with me (and my dark skin and short/er hair).  They (the adults and other children in my life) always knew my sister was beautiful but for me it took time, years, deep long looks and depth of consideration to finally determine that I was cute, ish, beautiful even for a dark-skinned girl.  I have often pondered the implications of those terms of my beauty, put on me by society, community, and sometimes my self  (I told you I had color complex, read complexion, issues that resulted from what I was taught to find attractive and desirable).

It is hard to love your black (beauty) when you know Black men who exclusively date nonblack women or who refuse to date dark-skinned Black women because they are not “beautiful.”  The Psychology Today article that accused black women of being ugly hit close to home and pushed me back to so many moments of insecurity that I thought I would explode in rage.  I had thought (read hoped) that we had made strides past the paper bag test and expanded, culturally, what constitutes beauty despite the unspoken preference for red bones.

But this is not a critique of societal hate of black girls (though it could and perhaps should be) but rather a prelude to a preview.  The documentary Dark Girls is directed by Bill Duke and will premiere in October at the International Black Film Festival (check out the trailer below).

When I saw the preview (I wish the title was different, by the way, Dark-Skinned Girls perhaps, but Dark Girls implies something sinister that makes me sad) I sat with my tears and remembered my own sadness and memories of growing up a dark (skinned) girl in a space that prefers something/anything else.  The stories were so resonant with my own memories that I was reminded about how important it is to tell and hear your story in a chorus of others.  I felt validated by the confessions and emotions brought forth by the women included in the showing, many of them unable to recall their feelings of inadequacy and shame without tears.  As I watched and listened I realized that my struggle(s) are not over and that despite my best intentions and awareness, there is still the little dark skinned black girl in me who wishes to be different.  Acceptable. Lovable. Beautiful (as quoted in the introduction to the film).  For so much of my life no one seemed to notice that/if I was beautiful at all.

I have the kind of beauty that moves slowly and sneaks up on you—in those few seconds when you are still trying to decide what you think of my face you realize that the thing that made you unsure was not my features, but my skin.  I know it, I see it, I recognize it in the eyes of women and men 30 seconds before they speak (or don’t speak, depending on the situation).  But I have grown into my beautiful.  After years of looking past my own pretty, I finally found it was there all along.  It is a subtle, disarming, vulnerable, newly-confident beautiful that I inherited from my mama’s cinnamon skin (which she got from my grandmother’s Native American/light as White legacies) and my father’s sepia-shade sprung forth from his light skinned, heavy-tongued mother and pecan skinned and dark eyed father (all of their children were the color of Hennessy).  I used to find solace in knowing that I coulda been light-skinned, and that perhaps I really was on the inside, under the curious layers of dark brown skin that showed on the outside.  As a dark (skinned) girl I spent hours in the mirror imagining how different I would look with light skin (I wonder if light skinned sisters have that same wondering).

This documentary is important because it seems to speak to the silenced (and hurtful) experiences of a group of women who fail to consistently hear their worth (Psychology Today anyone?)  It is time that someone starts telling dark (skinned) girls they are beautiful, because of, not in spite of their skin color.  It has taken me years to combat the colorism in my own life but I think it is time for a shift in the narrative so that little dark (skinned) girls don’t have to wait ‘til they are grown to get self esteem– and so that as they are growing up and dealing with the prejudices of being dark-skinned they do not suffer in silence or isolation.  I wish someone would have been there to tell me it would be all right.  To remind me/show me/tell me I was beautiful.

I am not sure how the documentary ends but I look forward to seeing it.  I imagine (read hope) that it finds a way to affirm and re-imagine beauty for dark (skinned) Black women so they (we) can see themselves (ourselves) as beautiful.

But just in case the documentary fails to affirm dark-skinned girls (it is not clear if it is merely a collection of narratives or a larger commentary on how to re-frame our gaze), I wrote a short poem to celebrate dark skin.  I call it,

Ode to Dark (Skinned) Girls

she waited

patiently

and in silence

never admitting

out loud

that she secretly wanted to be

light

skinned

brown but in a lighter shade

she would say it out loud

but in whispered tones

“make me white-like

damn near transparent

so that these people can see through me

instead of just past me…

make me

beautiful!”

like the color of the earth  I already was

but

this skin,

this house to my soul

is only almost pretty

they say

and if I weren’t so dark

I might be worth

lovingwantingfuckingstayingbeing

but instead I am just

tolerated

in the dark or in secret

or worn on your shoulder

like

an unnecessary accessory

creating your celebrity

because

i

am

dark

er

than

you

teach me how to love

myself

brilliantlyBrownBlackMahoganyEbonyqueen-like

BronzedCocoaButterDreamChild

the color of fire

in the middle of its escape

skin and eyes round

and regal at once

You are beautiful

I am beautiful

the color of coffee with no cream

dark like the bittersweet chocolate of my dreams

caramel-coated coquette

honey dipped and full of vigor

full lipped and full bodied

full

dark-skinned and exquisite

majestic even

with your brown-black self!

Black is beautiful

You are beautiful

I am beautiful

We are beautiful

On Kreayshawn and the Utility of Black Women

6 Jun

Image of Kreayshawn in the passenger seat of a car next to a black man smoking weed.

“De nigger woman is de mule uh de world…”- Zora Neale Hurston

I grew up in a white suburban/rural community where I was one of a few black kids and the only one in my classes and social circle. In high school, we had this habit of waxing nostalgic for our not so distant youth in a way that made us feel older than we were so at a parties we’d often play songs from our childhood. Well once, Baby Got Back came on and I was rapping along as were a white boy and white girl. A crowd formed around them and folks were cheering them on for knowing most of the words while my flawless performance went unacknowledged. Looking back, I see clearly the messy contradictions of racism (and my own internalization of it) as white folks celebrated their proficiency in repeating a black man’s words of purported celebration of my curves that in general, made me invisible. My blackness rendered my rendition null and void as it was presumed I should be able to reproduce that lyrical dexterity on the spot. It was exceptional when they did it but par for the course for me.

And this is partly why Kreayshawn makes me mad. The White Girl Mob media darling blowing up the interwebs whose potential deal with Sony is making waves makes me angry in a way I haven’t been in a long time. Her appropriative swag is yet another reminder (not that we needed any more this month) of how little black women are valued in our society, even in genres we co-create. In a moment where cool is synonymous with swag, a particular manifestation of black masculinity, Kreayshawn’s dismissiveness and denigration of black women animate her success.

“It’s like tumblr made a video,” said one tumblrite, speaking of the white Cali hipster aesthetics of Kreyashawn’s Gucci Gucci. Replete with Indian medallion, black girl hair cut and color, black men flank her on all sides, lending their cool and legitimacy as she talks stealing bitches, smoking blunts, and realness. Catchy with no substance and ample “I’m so different from them other black girls,” Kreyashawn is the perfect accoutrement to the tortured misogyny of her friends and co-signers Odd Future. For her, calling women bitches and hoes is funny, a category she is somehow exempt from via her whiteness and sometimes queerness. She’s got swag because she fucks bitches too, though she’s quick to point out she’s “not a raging lesbian.”

I think “Hoes on My Dick” perhaps best captures my problems with Kreayshawn and those who dig her.  About a year ago, comedian Andy Milonakis (Who you might remember from his brief MTV fame) and Rapper Lil’ B decided to parody rap music and made the satirical “Hoes on My Dick” which features the choice language “Hoes on my dick cuz I look like Madonna” or “Hoes on my dick cuz I look like grandma.” Anyway, we were supposed to laugh. Ha ha! Isn’t funny/ironic when they say misogynist things when they know it’s wrong? Kreayshawn took their track and made it her own adding her own lyrics, “rapped” (if you could call it that) with all due seriousness and folks love it!

As Crunktastic has already pointed out on this blog, the derogatory slang words used for women imply race. “Hoes” are black and the proverbial punchline (pun intended) for the LA hispster/hip hop mash up sound that music critics are lauding. The supposed *wink wink nudge nudge* associated with their misogynoir is what makes them so edgy and so real. The objectification of black women as a lyrical trope is what makes Kreayshawn interesting. Look at this white girl who talks like a black man! Isn’t she awesome?

And not that black women haven’t tried to appropriate  a type of black masculine cool through a similar practice of denigrating other black women and expressing their allegiance to black men but they have not been as successful. Syd Tha Kid, DJ and beat maker for Odd Future is currently following this path and her queer black masculinity doesn’t seem all that queer when she speaks of women in the same derogatory fashion as her band mates.

Kreayshawn claims Nicole Wray, Missy and Aaliyah as women who inspired and influenced her sound but black women are rarely seen in her circle or videos. I’ve clocked two black women in Kreayshawn’s videos, one a silent love interest, and the other a silent hair stylist. In so far as black women are useful, they exist, though they never get to voice their own reality. It’s incredibly frustrating that the more things change the more things stay the same, that Zora Neal Hurston’s words still ring true today.

Special thanks to Alexsarah and CF’s Sheri & Whitney for talking through this with me!

Apparently Kreayshawn was on the brain today. Check out Clutch Magazine’s take.

Man Down: On Rihanna, Rape, and Violence

2 Jun

Earlier this week, Rihanna released the video for her song “Man Down” in which her character struggles with the choice to kill her rapist. In Hip Hop and pop culture where rape is glorified and celebrated, this is a welcome intervention. The video reinforces a very basic point: the choice to be sexual and sensual on the dance floor should not be read in any way as consent for future sexual activity. For once, the critique of rape is unambiguous. It is wrong; it is not the woman’s fault; and it should be punished. 

Hat/tip to Rihanna for offering a complicated portrait of womanhood. On Twitter, in response to the video, she said in part, “Young girls/women all over the world…we are a lot of things! We’re strong innocent fun flirtatious vulnerable, and sometimes our innocence can cause us to be naïve! We always think it could NEVER be us, but in reality, it can happen to ANY of us! So ladies be careful and #listentoyomama! I love you and I care!”

That is good, accessible advice for young women who are bombarded with mixed messages about the value of their bodies and lives.

Yet, controversy has ensued, with a range of parent-led media watchdog groups including Mothers Against Violence and the Parents Television Council calling the video violent and asking for it to be banned. These critics say that Rihanna perpetuates violence rather than urging young women to get help. The most ignorant and illegitimate of these critics argued that ‘If Chris Brown shot a woman in his new video, the world would stop. Rihanna should not get a pass. The video is far from broadcast worthy.’ That statement is what one would call “an exercise in missing the point.” Porter needs to Go.Sit.Down and rethink his position. Period. There is no need to dignify such inanity with a further response.

As a child survivor of domestic violence, I believe in non-violence as a way of life. In American culture more generally and in Black communities in particular, we have to commit to non-violent ways of loving, disciplining our children, and addressing conflict. At the same time, this video shows a young Black female rape victim, vulnerable and hurt, struggling with how to make sense of the act of violence perpetrated on her. She makes a choice that many would and have made, and rather than banning this video, we need access to grapple with its moral and political implications as a community.

Somehow, I do not believe the outrage would be comparable if this were a white woman, although this rampant rape culture shows its white victims no love either. Yes, Rihanna may simply be a good celebrity target, but it is utterly disturbing the manner in which any portraits that offer complicated, three dimensional representations of Black women are now unceremoniously banned from the air. These days, Black women and our experiences of rape and sexual violence are forced into invisibility when they don’t fit mainstream, pristine narratives of how to cope. Whether it be Rihanna’s teenaged fans, immigrants working as hotel maids all over this country, eleven year old Latina girls in Texas, or the Black girl next door to you,  women of color are deemed deviant even for voicing our narratives of rape and sexual assault, especially when our stories insinuate that we are morally complex human beings. That is unfortunate, dangerous, and frankly infuriating.

Rihanna is apparently considering re-shooting the offending scenes: namely the rape and the shooting. That’s unfortunate, because it makes more sense to me that we would be interested as a society in pursuing actual alternative endings for young women that don’t involve rape and brutalization in the first place, rather than creating “nicer,” “more palatable” endings in video land.

Please share your thoughts about the video with us. Does this video open up the space in Hip Hop and (Black) popular culture to have a conversation about rape and consent?  Is retaliatory violence a legitimate and effective response to rape? Since Rihanna is considering re-shooting the most violent scenes in the video, can you offer some alternate endings? We’d love to hear from you.

A Cause You Can Support:

If you are interested in helping to equip young women to deal with the realities of sexual violence, please consider supporting the Girl/Friends Summer Leadership Institute sponsored by A Long Walk Home, Inc. and “sponsor a girl”for the program. Your contribution will help support our girls as they become leaders in the movement to end sexual and dating violence against girls and women and become role models to their peers. 

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