So sure, it’s routine to balk at and be outraged by AMPAS’s nominations and eventual awardees. But the strategic snubbing of Selma in acting and directorial categories seems too pointed to not put the syllabus building aside to think about. There is much irony in the film getting two nods, for the Best Picture and Best Song categories. We know it will win for the latter; of course, Common and John Legend will win Best Song for “Glory,” because lets face it, them negroes sure can make music! But it has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the former. Have you seen the line-up? What chance does a film like Selma have in a field that is as obsessed with whiteness and manliness as this one is? Then again when is it not obsessed with these things? The irony here is in the fact that though there is much honor in being nominated, the distribution of the nominations reflects the Academy’s tokenism in its purest form. The two things the film was nominated for, moreover, amplifies my unease at the snubbing of DuVernay herself. DuVernay was passed over for the Best Director field, because again looking at that list, it is clear little missy, that it’s the mens who does the directing. Moreover, the absence of nominations for acting, directing, or writing makes it clear that Selma is only on the Best Picture list as a token nod, the obligatory recognition of this years Civil Rights film. It’s too bad the inferior Dear White People isn’t a historical film, and so couldn’t play this role, because Selma is too brilliant a film to be so obviously tokenized and set aside.
Before I tell you why I think Selma is brilliant in a field that includes films like The Help, The Butler, Twelve Years A Slave, and Django Unchained, let me lay out a quick history of how the Academy rewards black creators. If you haven’t seen Selma yet, this rundown will give you a reason to stick with me for a little bit longer before I start dropping the spoilers. Don’t worry, I’ll warn you when they’re coming so you can stop reading and go watch the movie. Mek sure you come back afta though. But back to the history. The first Academy Awards Ceremony was in 1929 and honored films made in 1927 and 1928. In 1938 Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar for her supporting role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. Mammy. Now, don’t get me wrong, this distinction in its moment was nothing to scoff at, and in no way should the recognition of McDaniels’ work be under-played. But it nonetheless cast and set a mold for how the Academy would reward the work of African Americans in the film industry for decades to come.
Since then, Sydney Poitier has won Best Male Actor in a leading role (1958) for Lilies of the Field, in which he plays a magical negro; Denzel Washington for Training Day (1999), in which he plays a thug; Jamie Fox for Ray (2004), in which he plays a musician; and Forrest Whitaker (2006) for playing a violent megalomaniacal African dictator in The Last King of Scotland (2007). Are you beginning to see what I mean about the mold here? One would think there is more variety in the kinds of characters played by black men in the field of best actor nominees – and there is, Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela or Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina – but perhaps these did not play close enough to the stereotypical molds to actually seal the deal.
Moreover, that very first win by Hattie McDaniel establishes the field of Best Supporting Actress as the one where performers of color are acknowledged. Whoopi Goldberg won for Ghost in 2000. She plays a black woman pretending to be magical but who turns out to actually be magical when it means helping the dead white guy and his grieving partner find, well, whatever they need to find. Jennifer Hudson overshadowed Beyonce as the real star of Dreamgirls (2006) by winning for her supporting role as a damn good singer. And then Mo’Nique won for her role as a horrifically abusive mother in Precious (2009); Octavia Spenser won for her role as a maid in The Help (2011); and Lupita Nyong’o for her role as slave who gets the crap beaten out of her in 12 Years a Slave (2013). My point in laying out this trajectory is to show the narrow ways race continues to be configured not only in the roles people of color play in films, but also in the Academy’s capacity to recognize and reward actual achievement in acting and filmmaking.
And now we move to Selma which gets everything about its portrayal of MLK, the Civil Rights Movement, and black filmmaking right in ways its heavily rewarded predecessors like The Help or 12 Years A Slave get wrong. This is the point where you should stop reading if you haven’t watched the movie yet, because I am about to ruin some of the things I think would make the movie most powerful for you. You gone? Good. Now just those of us who have seen it. DuVernay’s talent as a director comes through in a single early scene – the 1963 bombing of the Alabama church that killed four young black girls and marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. In the movie, the scene is shot in a circular stairway. When you see the children, mostly girls descending the stairs, if you know your civil rights history – and who doesn’t – you know what’s about to happen. The scene feels long, in a way that delays what the viewers know is coming and thus heightens its tension. When the lone boy in the line of children steps out of the stairwell and goes another way, we know for sure what’s coming. The blast happens as one of the girls remains on screen, talking about how Coretta Scott-King does her hair. We think she’s going to follow her friends off camera, but DuVernay has the genius to let her remain in the scene as the explosion happens. By that point, though I knew it was coming, the artfully structured scene had manufactured enough tension, making me wait for it, that even though I knew it was coming, I still gasped audibly and instantly burst into tears at the horror. I teared up as I wrote this. I teared up as I edited this. One powerful scene. Even if she did not win, DuVernay deserved to have been nominated in the director’s category for this one scene alone.
But there are other worthwhile and beautifully done things about Selma’s composition that we can attribute to DuVernay’s directorial skill: the inclusion of the text from FBI surveillance of King and other members of the SCLC that offers an alternate narrative structure for the film, for instance, or its insistence that the decision to demonstrate for a Civil Rights cause is also a decision to allow one’s body to be harmed in a process aimed at revealing pernicious cruelty. In one scene an argument between SNCC and SCLC members makes the point that previous demonstrations in Albany were unsuccessful because the sheriff there was not willing to go to the abusive lengths of violence against black bodies that would have provided the spectacle that the movement needed. When Common said “Selma is now” in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes this past Sunday, this sentiment relates directly to the ways the spectacle of bodies demonstrating against institutionalized injustice remains poignant today, because of the ongoing specter of police brutality. There may no longer be baseball bats wound with barbed wire, but there are guns and tear gas and riot gear. Selma is as emotionally affecting as it is because its scenes are heavily saturated with images that are familiar to us not as scenes from history, but as reflections of the devaluation of black lives that we have been watching in real time since the first weekend of August, 2014. The resonances of Ferguson in the scene in which the police and state troopers await the marchers at the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge are disturbing in their familiarity. DuVernay deserved that Best Director nomination for her film’s capacity to show clearly the material ways the past continues to dwell with us tangibly, in our civil institutions like the police.
(I don’t have time to talk here about the fact that Chris Rock was also passed over for his work directing Top Five—a movie that will be the subject of a future homily—but this article also makes that point.)
But perhaps the most poignant thing, for me at least, that Selma gets correct is the disruption of the narratives of martyrdom that in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement circulate around larger than life dead men like King and Malcom X. The problem with this kind of martyrdom is not that it becomes an individual iconicity for an entire movement, but rather that the focus on individual men in life and in sacrificial death distracts from the actual work that goes into changing laws. What is at stake in political movements isn’t some feel-good warm and fuzzy we shall overcome upliftment, but rather changes in the de jure and de facto structures that legitimize racial discrimination and disenfranchisement. This is why Lincoln is brilliant. It focuses on the political maneuvers that must take place to disassemble such structures. Thus, another important scene in Selma is where the members of the SCLC debate what changes in actual practices are most necessary to enable African Americans to exercise the right to vote already established by law. It is a scene that is brilliant not only in terms of its representation of what material changes in a Civil Rights movement means, but also in showing who else was a part of the conversation: Ralph Abernathy and Bayard Young, among others. These names are hardly as recognizable as MLK’s, but nonetheless belong to men who carried on the struggle for Civil Rights and the dismantling of institutionalized racism long beyond King’s death and the turbulence of the 1960s. (The film does include Dear White People’s Tessa Thompson in a small role as activist Diane Nash; its gender politics are another, perhaps historically accurate, issue.)
Selma also disrupts the narrative of martyrdom so engrained in our stories of the Civil Rights movement by providing a new frame for thinking about martyrdom. Thus, by ending prior to King’s death, Selma highlights and names others, regular citizens if you will, who died for the cause: Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young black man who was shot by a police officer in front of his mother and grandfather for daring to march in protest; Rev. James Reeb, a white Unitarian Minister who was among the clergy who answered King’s call to join the march to Montgomery, and died from head trauma after he was severely beaten by a group of white men in Selma; Viola Luizzo, a white Unitarian Civil Rights activist who joined and helped with logistics for the marches to Montgomery and was murdered by the KKK on her way back home to Michigan.
In any case, all of this is to say that there is no self-satisfying we shall overcome endurance in Selma. Instead, there is a clear sense the King, though charismatic, was a flawed man, who struggled with the great responsibilities he took on, or had heaped upon him, like any human would. David Oyelowo deserves to be at least nominated for so fully inhabiting this role, one that lays bare the extent to which we have turned King into an I have a dream avatar and not much else. It is a performance on par with Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln. Both actors have a powerful grasp of the kind of method acting in which the actor gets lost in the character. Oyelowo is King on screen as Lewis is Lincoln. That he was not recognized for his performance while Bradley Cooper was speaks volumes about what the Academy will reward, and from whom. Nonetheless, the desire to be rewarded by an institution whose aesthetic politics are often bankrupt is in some ways a devaluation of the brilliance that is DuVernay’s Selma; in many ways it’s a mark of that brilliance that Oscar couldn’t understand what it was doing. Set aside the white noise about its treatment of LBJ. Go see it and make it a success in ways that actually count. DuVernay’s career and the careers of others like her could depend on it.
Today, I had the privilege of presenting this paper about Marlon James’ writing on a panel on Global Neoliberalisms with Ignacio Sanchez-Prado, Joeseph Jeon, and Sarah Brouillette at the MLA Convention.
I want to talk generally about Marlon James’s two most recent novels, A Brief History of Seven Killings and The Book of Night Women, to show you some of the ways Caribbean fiction is critiquing identity work and the neoliberal purposes it sometimes serves. In particular, I want to focus on how some contemporary narratives are challenging neoliberal tendencies that appear in 20th century literature. In the interest of brevity, the lone neoliberal tendency that I will engage with is the prioritization of identity concerns in reading and writing African diasporic, immigrant, and other literatures of difference. More specifically, I am interested in how literary foci on identity and difference, as bolstered by official anti-racism stances, decouple race from material conditions in a manner that both enables and represents neoliberalism’s inequalities. Moreover, I want to show how James’ work intervenes in this tendency by diffusing the centrality of identity and difference in Caribbean narratives and thus creates new possibilities for thinking about the region’s place in our contemporary reality.
To begin with, James’ writing critiques neoliberalism in structural ways propelling typically (or forcibly) localized literary discourses into more global ones. Indeed, the inescapability of global markets, central to neoliberalism, seems incommensurate with the ways we compartmentalize our examination of literary discourses—peering into some spaces for specific things rather than others. For diasporic writers and their readers, the thing that has long been looked for is a pre-imagined version of subaltern authenticity. Teju Cole’s Open City famously complicates this. The novel’s resurrection of the nineteenth century flaneur, through its protagonist and narrator Julius, poses challenges not only to the celebration of cosmopolitanism as an aesthetic mainstay of immigrant fiction, but also the unimpeachable authority and sanctity of the immigrant subject, who is also central to the work of the white savior industrial complex. If immigrant or diasporic or other geopolitical narratives of difference have been our go-to for cultural knowledge about identity and difference, writers like Cole and James are invested in disrupting this tendency.
This disruption should not be taken, however, as an uncomplicated nod to reading more of everything from everywhere for the same things. James’ most recent novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, shows how choosing between the local and global, rather than attending to the constant fluidity between them, is a shortsighted and unimaginative exercise in opacity. The novel is a 600+ page brick, built around the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley’s life. It relies on 75 12 different narrators (15 if you count the character who is in the novel under 4 different names) to encapsulate a mid seventies political moment in the Caribbean that was implicitly global, in that the attempt on Marley’s life is embedded in the narrative with the Cold War and OPEC crisis. The narrators include Jamaican gang members, uptown denizens, a live and a dead politician, a Rolling Stones reporter, the filmmaker son of a rogue CIA agent, a rogue CIA agent, active CIA agents and a Cuban CIA consultant who makes bombs. One character even appears multiple times throughout under a different name each time. To note that it is a dizzying read because of all these perspectives, also begins to get at the novel’s dissonant eschewing of the typical narrative of individual self-actualization and success.
At its simplest this narrative actively effaces the development of an authentic version of subjectivity as an organizing logic for Caribbean writing. The novel is not one person’s, one country’s, or one community’s story. What unites the cacophony of voices in James’ novel is one specific moment in history – the assassination attempt. This moment in turn works in the novel as a local anchor for one of the most turbulent decades in global neoliberal history. In this way, it makes transparent how the Caribbean is imbricated in the 1970s experimentation with and implementation of neoliberal policies in Latin America. Moreover its cacophony of identities overwhelms any effort to read the novel solely for difference and thus effectively sidelines it as a narrative preoccupation. What then comes to the fore is an account of CIA presence in the region throughout the 1970s that in turn implicates the US and its Cold War foreign policy in not only the implementation of neoliberal policy in Argentina, but also in the destabilization of governments in places like Jamaica, and in facilitating the linkages and circuits that propelled the illicit narcotics and weapons trade between South America, the Caribbean, and the US.
This poly-vocal and rhyzomatic structure thus eschews thematic and character organization around identity or culture by foregrounding instead how power works. A little less abstractly, the character Josey Wales is described in the novel’s “Cast of Characters” in three different ways “head enforcer, don of Copenhagen City, 1979-1991, leader of the Storm posse.” Each of these descriptors shows Josey’s relation to a specific source of power, which moves from local to global, as history and neoliberal order progress. Thus “head enforcer” and “don” reflect a relation to local government politics in Jamaica in the 1960s and 70s. Josey’s covert interaction with the CIA in the late 70s, a link made possible by his history as an enforcer for local politicians, opens up the world of trafficking in illicit commodities in the 80s and 90s, which in turn enables his later transition to posse leader. Thus, in the novel Josey pretends to be on the politician’s leash because it covers his dealings with the CIA as well as “the company’” connections to Medellin. What should not be lost on the reader is how this West Kingston don is positioned between and amidst capitalist structures that are distinct in the novel only along the lines of legality.
The novel’s multivocality as well as active silencing of the one individual around whom the narrative’s action circulates – a global icon and the image in which all Jamaican citizens are imagined – disrupts the centrality of an authentic subaltern subject, giving us instead a more compounded vision of capitalist interconnectivity between third and first world spaces during the turbulent years of the 1970s. In making these connections transparent, via multivocality, James’ novel issues a renewed invitation to examine the simultaneity of neoliberal policy-making, government destabilization, and the boom in weapons and narcotics trafficking in Latin American during the 1970s.
If I had to situate James’ writing somewhere in existing discourses on literature and neoliberalism, it would be among the texts that Jodi Melamed call “race radical texts.” These texts, according to Melamed represent the “points of resistance to official antiracisms” (xvii). In other words, race radical texts offer critiques of naturalized race liberal discourses and have been a part of our literary landscapes for as long as official antiracist stances have. I will use two aspects of The Book of Night Women, to explain what I mean by this – in particular why critiques of antiracist projects are also a preoccupation of contemporary Caribbean literature. Before getting into the two things, a bit of background on the novel. It is a neo-slave narrative set in Jamaica, in which a teenaged slave protagonist, Lilith, refuses to participate in a slave rebellion. The Haitian Revolution just went down and house slaves, who aspire to murder all the whites and establish an African style village in the island’s mountainous interior, foment a similar rebellion. Not only does Lilith refuse to become involved, she opts to protect her Irish lover and white overseer father from the rebelling slaves, even killing her half sister in the process, instead of fighting for her freedom alongside her fellow slaves.
On to the first of the two aspects of the novel that convey its race radical critique of neoliberal antiracism: the sentences “Every negro walk in a circle. Take that and make of it what you will,” appear at the beginning of five chapters in the novel. This repetition invests the novel with an ethos of interminable circularity and also paradoxically, as suggested by “walk,” movement and progression. The non-specific use of “negro” as the subject, rather than slave, enables a more literal and collective interpretation as “every negro” includes slaves, those descended from slaves, and even those with no personal or familial connection to slavery. Thus, travelling in a circle implies not only confinement in a system of literal slavery, but also the confinement of the means through which opposition to these systems has been articulated. In repeating these sentences five times, circularity takes center stage on multiple levels: the level of the text itself, the themes we associate with such narratives of slavery – racialized discourses of freedom and resistance – and on the level of literary practices.
Circularity in all three of these (form, theme, and literary practice) is illuminated by the second and final aspect of the novel’s race radical critique of neoliberal antiracism that I want to talk about today – its ending. The Book of Night Women does not end with formal/legal freedom for Lilith. This isn’t because Lilith runs away and lives as a fugitive until Emancipation, as is standard in the narratives of her non-fictional slave compatriots Mary Prince or Harriet Jacobs. Instead, the novel ends in 1819, more than a decade before Emancipation. The narrator tells us that despite the fact that “Lilith didn’t get any free paper … she act like a free negro. She work in the kitchen and cook and clean for Jack Wilkins and do her own thing as he her mood” (412). Thus, after the suppression of a slave rebellion and a rebuilding of the plantation, Lilith remains on Montpelier Estate, on a British colony where slavery still exists.
We could easily read Lilith’s individuality and capacity for achieving freedom amidst institutionalized confinement as a successful neoliberal narrative. In early stages of my arguments about this novel, I have done as much, celebrating Lilith’s refusal to form alliances or acquiesce to allegiances simply on the basis of race, gender, or common status. I have championed her difference as agency, because individuality and agency must dissolve the material restrictions of slavery, right? Or not. In closing, I want to hint at what becomes possible if we read the ending as a race radical moment, rather than as a triumph of individual self-actualization. If official anti-racisms have disconnected race from material conditions, even as they have limited the horizon of social possibility for overcoming racism, then leaving Lilith on the estate as property at the end of the novel where she is free but for the formal papers both forecloses the sentimentalism of self-actualization that is often proffered as the solution to racism and forces us to see how race and material conditions remain imbricated. Neoliberalism teaches us to value our individual freedoms but what do they mean when they are entrenched in a larger system of confinement and inequality, and our efforts to escape this system remain fixed in individual endeavors? Indeed, if neoliberalism remains committed to creative destruction as a form of constant revolution without content, “every negro walk in a circle” that goes far beyond the plantation.
So, I have one more class to finish grading before I can lay fall 2014 to rest, but the news about the US finally calling time out on Cold War diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba just dropped, and I find myself both in need of a reason to procrastinate and a measured sense of pause in the elation I should be experiencing about Cuba (finally) being opened to US markets. I figure it could be productive to put the two to work together and rectify this whole month since I’ve posted business.
Here’s the thing about this historic and long overdue reversal in a half-century-old policy that has crippled Cuba in significant ways: it smacks too much to me of history repeating itself. Much as it can be argued that the emancipation of slaves came came about largely for economic rather than humanitarian reasons, I cannot yet think about this as uncomplicated good news. Why? I know too much about the history of US intervention in the Caribbean. I’m about to try to write a second book about it. Watch out for it in another um, many years.
In the meantime, let’s glance back to 1823 as a defining moment in US foreign policy in the Caribbean, to help explain why I’m giving today’s announcement about relations with Cuba major ambivalent side-eye. If you were paying attention in your history classes, you’d remember that in 1823, President James Monroe stuck a little tidbit in an address to the nation that would fundamentally change US relations with the Caribbean, or more specifically, US relations with other global powers who had interests in the Caribbean. This is the part that frustrates me whenever one of these historical moments in capitalist relations between the US and the Caribbean region occur: it is hardly ever about the nations themselves, but rather about the US responding to another global power exerting influence in what it sees as its hemisphere.
But I digress with the quibbling over who/what this is really about and this whole interests protecting business. I’ll get back to that, but first a refresher on the Monroe Doctrine:
With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European Power we have not interfered, and shall not interfere. But with the governments who have declared their independence, and maintained it, and whose independence we have on great consideration and on just principles acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European Power, in any other light than as a manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.
The generous reading of what would become know as the Monroe Doctrine is that the US assumed a fraternal interest in its closest southern neighbors, warning European nations that it would not tolerate anymore colonization or puppet monarchs in its hemisphere. I don’t know about you, but I live in the America whose justice system enables the summary execution of some citizens, and as such, I do not have time or patience for that kind of Pollyanna generosity. President Monroe, in the above, begins by acknowledging the sovereign right of Europeans over existing colonies, vowing not to interfere with those territories, but he then defends the sovereignty of independent nations by ironically asserting the United States’ sovereignty in a paternalistic gesture that replaces the individual sovereignty of independent nations of the western side of the Atlantic – in particular where matters of outside influence are concerned.
So in this context, when France invaded Mexico in 1865 (with Spain and England on a joint militarized debt collecting expedition) and remained after the other two powers had left, the Monroe Doctrine was invoked to exert diplomatic and military pressure in support of Mexican President Benito Juárez. This support enabled Juárez to lead a successful revolt against the Emperor Maximilian, who had been placed on the throne by the French government. Because, given colonial history – Napoleonic wars and wot not – who wants those particular European colonial powers all up in the region where you are trying to establish an imperialistic hegemony of your own? Yay protecting Mexican sovereignty! Or, yay, keeping those European competitors out of the Western Hemisphere!
Almost 40 years later, European creditors started to threaten armed debt collection in the region again, and whoop whoop! Monroe Doctrine. President Roosevelt declared the right of the US to use an “international police power” to curb such “chronic wrongdoing.” Marines were sent to Santa Domingo in 1904, Nicaragua in 1911, and Haiti in 1915. Occupying troops remained in Haiti for fourteen years, all to resoundingly declare, “Back off Europe. We run dis!” Or alternately, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” Isn’t it great how well things turned out in Haiti?
I would like to think these interventions – easily read as protective gestures in the name of national sovereignty – ultimately created stable, truly sovereign, and autonomous Caribbean nations, rather than simply rewriting colonial scripts to install the US firmly as the region’s imperial overlord. What they reveal, however, is a pattern of US interest in Caribbean nations whenever another power begins to exert influence that poses challenges to its own hegemony the region.
Today, there are three such nations at work in the Caribbean: Venezuela, Brazil, and China. I’ll talk about the latter two specifically, because they are the most obviously connected to today’s announcement about Cuba. Brazil and China have invested significant amounts of capital across the Caribbean region in infrastructure, like highways and deep-water ports. At the beginning of 2014, Brazil began financing a $957m overhaul of the Mariel port in Cuba. The deep-water port is part of a larger plan that involves opening free trade zones in Cuba to attract foreign investment. When I first heard this story in January, I thought to myself, with Brazil getting a jump on investments and trade in Cuba, the days of the US embargo are numbered. The Mariel port and accompanying free zone projects aim to take advantage of the planned expansion of the Panama Canal, by providing the best facilities in the region for giant vessels. According to María Vitória Bernase of the Havana-based Latin American and Caribbean Economic Association,
Good for the US with its no deep southern bays. Right. The role played by Mariel in Cuba’s modern history is a truly interesting one that makes it particularly apropos that this is the site for these contemporary economic developments and the parallel role they have played in forcing US foreign policy. Mariel was where Russian naval vessels docked to unload the nuclear warheads that led to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. In 1980, the port gave its name to the Mariel Boatlift – an exodus of 120,000 Cubans to the US. But again, I digress.
The Brazilians aren’t the only ones who want to get in on this particular shipping game in the northern Caribbean. Also early this year, the Jamaican government embarked on an immensely unpopular and secretive deal for the China Harbor Engineering Company to build a mega-freighter seaport and accompanying logistics hub right in the middle of one of the island’s largest natural protected areas. The area was deemed so special that it was under consideration as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, until last year when the government backtracked on the proposal, signifying a shady change of plans. I don’t want to minimize the impact of the environmental devastation that will result once this deal is done. Neither do I want to proceed without mentioning that the China Harbor Engineering Company is a part of an international conglomerate blacklisted by the World Bank under its fraud and corruption sanctioning policy. Read about the environmental implications of this horrendous deal here and the sins of this shady-ass conglomerate as condemned by the World Bank here.
For my purposes now, though, what I want to do is put the announcement of new diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba in the context of a history of US foreign policy in the Caribbean that is more often than not enacted in response to the presence of competing powers within a geographical space whose nations have long been treated as US “protectorates.” I also want to put this history in context with other contemporary events occurring in the region–with regard to international shipping, in particular — with what it will mean to US control of trade corridors in the Western Hemisphere if Brazilian and Chinese companies set up mega-freight outposts designed to facilitate the reconfiguring of licit and illicit shipping routes.
To be clear, I am all for lifting the trade embargo with Cuba, but I know too much history to view this as simply an altruistic gesture on the part of the Obama administration. While I know I am in the United States and should expect coverage from a US perspective, I am bothered that so much of the early coverage is, shortsightedly, only about this as early campaign fodder for the 2016 election. I am suspicious of what the US wants from Cuba now and what it will cost Cubans in the long and short term. I am also watching the developments in the shipping world, because as Jamaica Kincaid says in A Small Place, “there is a world of something in this. But I can’t go into it right now.”
Nope. I can’t believe I’ve written not one but two – TWO – Kardashian posts in the same week, or even at all. I pray to everything that is holy that I don’t ever get this perplexed by anything else these people do. Because I am keenly aware that this feeds the very profitable machinery that runs on our attention to their gratuitous overexposure. I know. By even engaging this, I am helping the Kardashian enterprise, but Jehovah forgive me, I cannot help it with this one. The more I think about it, the more I think Khloe K’s KKK debacle was sibling rivalry, because you know, Kim was about to drop something big. Yes. That pun was fully intended and I make no apologies for it. Khloe’s impoverished and white privileged attempt at grabbing some spotlight by any means necessary from big sis, was no match for Kim’s rear and full frontal nudity. It is all enough to have me thinking about big butts once again.
At the beginning of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” Becky’s friend implores her to look at some girl’s butt. Her first words are ones of incredulity – “Oh, my God!” These words seem to indicate that the speaker is surprised, so surprised that she wants to draw her friend’s attention to the girl’s butt – “look at her butt,” she says. By taking in the spectacle of the girl’s butt, the speaker makes assumptions about the chick’s sexual affiliations to “rap guys” and possibly to her employment as a “total prostitute.” To top it off, these musings are derived solely from looking at the girl’s butt. By the end of this prelude, the girl’s butt is the totality of her being, the sole determinant of her self, her sexuality and her race – “she’s just so…black.” The word “black” is spat out derisively. Big butt = rapper’s girlfriend = prostitute = black. Mixed in with this racist scorn, however, is the girl’s desirability, which for Sir Mix-A-Lot and rap guys everywhere is also contingent on her big butt. So the ladies with the stereotypically white accents react with disgust and scorn and the fellas with lust. If you’re me, when you look closely at the politics at work in this opening, it resonates almost too clearly with the logic born during a historical period ironically called the enlightenment, when things like people’s physical features were used to determine whether or not the were humans, chattel, or human chattel. Put another way, what people looked like determined whether they deserved the dignity of personhood or were instead reduced to objects of labor.
As usual, I linger on a seemingly mundane thing to think about another parallel thing, which in turn, I hope will help me figure out why I am so deeply bothered not so much by Kim K yet again baring her body – her butt in particular – but rather how we look at what has to now be one of the most boring and non-titillating spectacles (for me anyway) of our present day. Shout out to Awesomely Luvvie who launched a twitter campaign for some nudity I can get behind and be about – Idris Elba’s #NekkidIdris. But I digress. What I want to talk about is not the spectacle, but the very disturbing ways we are responding to it. Things like making Christmas ornaments out of cardboard cut outs of the image that you glue round ornaments to, for example. I’d like to parallel Becky and her girl’s gawking on the black chick, who is little in the middle and has got much back, with the Hottentot Venus or now more correctly, Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman.
You see, church, it is neither Kim’s nakedness nor the robust gratuitousness with which she displays herself that troubles me. Folks have been coming down on Kim all over the interwebs in different ways. On the Twitters, for example, there is denunciation of her crassness on the basis of her status as wife and mother. As a wife and mother she has no business jumping bare-assed out of a garbage bag on the cover of anyone’s magazine, much less all over our interwebs. Am I right? Because everybody knows mothers are not allowed to have sex appeal. They used all that shit to get knocked up and once that goal has been achieved there is no need for sexy mommies. Moreover, there is no such thing as public sex appeal for women once they have a husband and a kid. That shit is fo yo man and it should be private! Obvi, yes? Hell naw! Run way from ‘ere wid dat. Scour that backward shit from you mind this minute. If you don’t understand why, holla at yo gurl. I can help you with this. I have to leave the mommy wars politics on the drafting table for a spell too – too much to work into a post about how we process the spectacle of a specific kind of nudity. So forgive me.
But back to the matter at hand: how we look at Kim K’s bottom in this picture in which it looks like a melty Werthers. Church, Sister Rockstar did look and she looked hard and I have to tell you, it did not make her mouth run water like some thirsty folks out there. Instead she was perplexed. Again, this was not because of the nudity itself, but rather the genealogy of the iconography behind it. The grinning woman displayed in a way that emphasizes a hyperbolically large bottom is not unfamiliar to us and neither are the predictable ways we look at it. So, while some clutched their pearls and policed respectability, others amped up the mockery, in ways that are the exact things that puzzled me, for reasons that Baartman will soon help me to explain.
These mocking responses engage the attention-hogging ethos that makes the Kardashian brand profitable and you know folks, I have to tell you, I do not hate on this hustle. It is attention hogging and gahtdamn annoying, but it keeps them in matte Mercedes, enviable finery when they choose to wear clothes, and front row seats to wherever the hell they want. Live the dream, girls! Others are not as generous. Chelsea Handler circulated a picture of her own, noticeably flatter, nude butt next to Kim’s. For why? Who ever knows why Chelsea does nudity when she does it? (I know, but I’m being cheeky. Get it?) Images of the butt picture have also been photoshopped to highlight the parallels between Kim’s bottom and food (donuts, chocolates, peaches, frankfurters) and to wedge Russell Brand’s head between her cheeks (like she’s shitting him out). The photo has been juxtaposed with Pipa Middleton’s proper English bum to show just how improper Brit lookers think the bared largesse of Kim’s derriere is, and with an actual Barbie doll’s butt to convey the similar levels of unreality (I suppose). I’m a little horrified by the photoshopped things in particular, because I think they traffic in some of the elements of the grotesque that I will talk about in a little bit.
The judgey respectability politics that define the first set of critiques are too predictable for me to give them too much thought. The brand of feminism I try to practice at this stage in my life is one that respects every woman’s right to make choices about her own life and especially about what she does or does not do with her body. I might not make the same choices for myself – hell, no one is ever going to see me on the cover of any magazine with my bare ass peeking out over the top of some garbage bag looking thing. Of course the likkle man at home might be able to ask me to for kicks and giggles, but he’s seen it all already and there is no security like the familiar. Nonetheless, I respect and advocate for women’s right to make choices for themselves, even those I wouldn’t make for me. This is a part of what equality and freedom mean to me. I am not so arrogant as to think that my experiences, beliefs, and values are universal, or that they have endowed me with the wisdom or right to dictate other women’s choices. Will I always agree with every choice women make for themselves? Hell nah; I would have preferred that Sister Kim did not get into that garbage bag all oiled up and naked.
Of course, the issue of race is one I am always mindful of here, but I am making it sit obediently in the corner so we can think about the politics of looking. I know in the American context that Kim K, though of Armenian descent, is considered white and feted (fetid?) with all the attendant privileges. If it were Nicki Minaj busting bare assed with champagne out of whatever that black shiny thing is, we wouldn’t be having the avant-garde art conversation. What gets designated as high or low culture/aesthetics is important and has everything to do with race. Beyond race, though, and the ways it inflects these considerations with important nuance and variance, the spectacle of the large bottom is a thing very much at play today in appropriative ways among women who are not of African descent – Kim K, Iggy, J-Lo. I’ve already talked on this blog about what it means to think about these ladies as the booty pioneers in contemporary culture, and so I don’t have to re-cover this ground. What I am interested in at this juncture, though, are the ways this particular image of Kim harkens back to a thoroughly racialized iconography that is entrenched in a troubling tradition of gawking at and relishing large parts of certain women’s bodies with a strange mixture of arousal and revulsion. This is a mixture that in turn perpetuates the discrimination against, and sexualization of, some bodies simply because of how they are constituted.
What bothers me is how we participate in the spectacle of this particular choice of nudity, in ways that intersect with how we perceive the grotesque and in turn form logics of discrimination based on the perception of the grotesque. Now, when I say grotesque, I don’t mean that the thing being looked at, itself, is comically repulsive, distorted, or ugly. Rather I mean that we as viewers project these and other aesthetic values unto the images we perceive. Deciding that something is grotesque has everything to do with the looker’s own values surrounding beauty and aesthetics rather than with the object being viewed itself. Thus, it is a racist set of values that make Becky and her girl regard the chick with the big butt with disgust and scorn and associate her anatomy derisively with her person and her race. The object of their gaze herself does not actually embody revulsion, but rather revulsion is a response provoked by racist values, which in turn are projected unto the spectacle and render the viewed an object of their disgust and “some rap guy’s” lust.
In thinking about how Baartman was looked at in the nineteenth century, I can see more clearly the connections between values that imbue some physical attributes with revulsion and curiosity, ultimately rendering them grotesque, while at the same time also generating sexual arousal. Arguably, it is Baartman’s embodied iconography that Jean Paul Goude, the photographer responsible for Kim’s “Break the Internet” shoot, echoes in this particular staging of this photo shoot. It is worth noting that Kim’s shoot is a call back to a 1976 shoot, which was also controversial in its own time for its use of a black woman who also balances a champagne glass on her protruding bottom. And both shoots evoke Baartman. Baartman, according to popular history, was born in the late eighteenth century. She was “discovered,” to use a modern turn of phrase, in her early twenties, while a slave, by a doctor who ran a side business of supplying showmen with animal specimen for European exhibition. She was first exhibited in London as a “freak” in the early 1800s, “entertaining” audiences with her exotic origin and unusual physical features. In particular, as you can see from the pictures I’ve added throughout, among her most exciting and compelling features were her steatopygia.
Steato-what you say? Never heard of it? According to the OED, steatopygia means “a protuberance of the buttocks, due to an abnormal accumulation of fat in and behind the hips and thighs, found (more markedly in women than in men) as a characteristic of certain peoples, esp. the Khoekhoe and San of South Africa.” The italics here are my emphasis. A part of the “entertainment” of this particular spectacle is its abnormality. Both the artistic renderings and the modification of an excess of fat in the behind with the word abnormal convey the mixture of curiosity and revulsion that attended Baartman’s steatophygia. Notice how I reduced Baartman to a facet of her anatomy there? It’s to convey how she was treated all the way into the late twentieth century; moreover it also conveys how easy it is to slip into this de-humanizing objectification. The curiosity and fascination with Baartman’s body continued even after her death, when her corpse was given to a French scientist, depriving her even then of a personhood defined by anything beyond what was considered an anatomical abnormality. This guy, George Cuvier, made a plaster cast of her entire body and then removed her brain and genitalia for display in his own private collection, where they remained on display until 1974 – 1974! – when they were placed in storage. Her remains are eventually returned to South Africa in the eighties, but as dead as they were, we can see even today how enduring her iconography continues to be.
In case you think this is yet another cry for the sisters of all colors to wake up and realize they have allowed themselves and their bodies to continue to be ravaged by a system of sexualization steeped in slavery . . . of course, yes, this is definitely a part of it. But I am more interested in the way we as an audience continue to respond with the same brand of anatomical curiosity, revulsion, and arousal that characterized early nineteenth century viewers’ gaze at Baartman’s body. Have we not gotten past this yet?
I’d like to propose, ladies and gentlemen, that we stop thinking that it is the butts themselves, the women who wear them, or even their decision to wear them nude publicly that we need to focus on, but rather how we as an audience continue to watch, consume, and respond in racist, sexist, xenophobic, and ultimately hypocritical ways. The appearance of yet another image of Kim K’s body is not an event in itself. Every day we can get that over on Instagram. It is neither noteworthy nor novel. What is noteworthy and worth some reflection is why we as spectators continue to respond to things like steatopygia in ways that resonate with the politics of pre-abolition nineteenth century Europeans. Surely we have advanced some. Or at the very least would like to. If Kim K chooses to rest her personal posterity on her posterior, lord knows it’s vast enough to hold it, then that is her choice and I support her right to make it. But I also ask that we, as an audience, not be passive and ignorant spectators of these choices, rehearsing without even realizing it worn and frightening ways of seeing.
What the fuck, Kardashians?! What, you got tired of being the first five headlines of every tabloid online and in print because of mundane things like your homes, babies, business, tv shows, divorces, marriages, lovers, ex-lovers? You wanted to mix it up? Those “more Americans have been married to Kim Kardashian than have died of Ebola” memes were not edgy enough for you? Ok, ok, ok. My bad. Let me get this shit right. Because the last motherfucking thing I need is to fling f-bombs at the wrong K. It is the youngest girl child of the four children born of Robert and Kris, Khloe, who is responsible for the image above. What, did you think we were losing interest in how many times you were on or off again with French Montana? (Who the fuck is French Montana anyway?!) Did we need to give any more than zero damns and not a single rat’s ass about your, um, poem about Lamar Odom this week? What the fuck is this meme about, Khloe? And don’t think we didn’t check that it wasn’t a hoax and TMZ didn’t do a story about it before you yanked that misguided shit off of Instagram. What part of the internet is forever do you not get?
Ok. Let me pull back for a second. Put my shoes and earrings back on and come at this correctly. It’s self-effacing humor, right? Black men love the Kardashians and vice versa. Oooo, risky! It’s risky because you all are white, yes? I’m Jamaican. So if I’m getting America’s racial politics where you are concerned wrong (I do this all the time, sometimes just to fuck with the system), I plead green card. Anyway, everyone else makes these jokes about you ladies and your relationships with black men, so sure; you get in on the self-effacing hilarity too: “look how kool we are. We can make ‘we only screw black guys’ jokes too! I bet you are wondering “let black men in” where?” Hardi-fucking-har. Now, I like a good risqué joke. I like a good self-effacing risqué joke; see green card comment above, in case you missed it. I especially like a risqué joke about controversial things that manages to balance the offensive with some kind of clever commentary that uses humor or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues. Satire. Are you familiar? This is how you do a subtle KKK joke, where the punchline is about how the acronym offends even when it’s unintentional.
Pull up a chair; let me school you, because I am no hater and can give the benefit of the doubt. I’m a fucking educator for God’s sakes and can think about this as a poor attempt at satire if you want me to. What if we looked at the Instagram post and thought, “fuck, maybe Khloe is trying to be all politically current and is making a statement about the KKK’s recent attempts at rebranding and increasing membership by including Jews, Black people, Hispanics and gay people.” I know! Fucking generous, right? Me and the KKK both. See, Khloe? That’s how you make a KKK joke at your own expense. You leave the bodies of black men out of it. You don’t draw a direct line to the community from which its most brutalized victims were predominantly drawn – black men – for shits and giggles or even a picture of you and your sisters looking all pretty and shit. That shit is fucking distasteful. Let me tell you one reason why. I’d give you more than one but this white hot anger makes me think more f-bombs than clear logic a motherfucker can follow and be edified by, so one is all I’ve got right now.
It’s distasteful that you didn’t think about, for example, how genital mutilation was a central facet of early twentieth century KKK-run lynching of black men. Because, you know (well maybe you don’t), white patriarchal anxiety about misegenation and the corruption of white female bodies centered on an anxiety about and violence against black male sexuality. That this perhaps did not occur to you means maybe nobody assigned you James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man” when you were in school. That or you might not have been paying attention that day. Moreover, to post such a meme that alludes to your own appreciation of black men, while dressed provocatively in white and likening yourself to a more benevolent and welcoming KKK, without a single deep thought about white robes or any of that shit, conveys some of that unexamined privilege that too many run around ignorant of. This is some Grade-A privileged bullshit that makes me reprise that voice I used to talk about Thug Kitchen. Because motherfuckers who are down, regardless or race—who understand the complexities of how patriarchy and white supremacy work even today in discriminating against people of color—do not do shit like draw lines between their appreciation of black men to the KKK. Seriously, that is some bullshit. Get off Instagram for twenty minutes and go read the Baldwin story.
At the end of October, my partner and I went to get our marriage license. As with all governmental processes, The Man wanted us to tell him our race. When it was my turn, I turned to my partner to ask which box should I check this time. These things are always a real annoyance for me. Poor man shrugged his shoulders and the clerk apologized for the limited nature of the categories that I had to choose from. After looking together at the list again, we settled on “non-white other.” I’ll get to why I settled, with much ambivalence, on this one as the category that suited me best in that moment.
I have to tell you though church, I’ve been running away from writing this particular post about racial identification, much like Jonah ran from delivering the word of God’s judgment to Nineveh. If you are me, you are so properly tired of thinking about, talking about, teaching about, and writing about race, your second book project has been devised entirely around one imperative: this will not be about race. I’ve wondered about the continued relevance of saying racial categorization is problematic. Isn’t it kinda like beating a dead horse? Hasn’t everything about the problems with official categories of race been written about ad nauseum? I’ve wondered about utility. What’s the point? It’s not like I have anything new to add or anything resembling a solution to the continued limitations of the persistent necessity of racial categorization. It is not like I have come up with a theory to stall once and for all the way race continues to function in pejorative and discriminatory ways. But I’ve had more than a couple “come to Jesus” moments since the first time this topic of official racial reporting got lodged in my brain three weeks ago. While the message here is not apocalyptic like the one Jonah had, so I don’t end up in the belly of a fish – to push the metaphor – lets talk about the problems I have had with racial identity since I moved to America in 2001 and became black.
The first come to Jesus moment that got this post percolating in my mind arrived a couple weeks ago when my ladies threw me a Bollywood themed bridal shower. The instructions they gave me as I travelled to Miami for the shower was to pack something fabulous for the bachelorette, a pair of nice shoes, and they would take care of the rest. At the shower, I was presented with a bridal sari and jewelry, and they even had a henna artist on hand to do designs on me and the other shower guests. Lovely, no? They made me cry because I felt all the feels and it was just beautiful. But here’s why I raise this as a thing that got me thinking about how America races me: Bollywood wasn’t entirely a fun party theme that my friends and family appropriated on my behalf. It is within our realm of familial experience because my father is of East Indian descent and his family did not begin marrying outside of their race until his generation. While they procured all the elements for the shower, my ladies knew it would be important to me not to appropriate in fetishistic ways a culture that was not entirely mine, and guarded against that by asking people who knew where the boundaries were. Though my father was born of parents who were themselves born of people who travelled to the Caribbean from India, my bridal shower last month, which also went down on my 35th birthday, was the first time in my life I had worn a sari.
Obviously, there was some work that went into draping the thing though; like roti-kneading, I’m guessing sari-draping is a thing you begin to learn when you are young, at the hands of a no-nonsense maternal figure. There was no one like this in anyone of my bridal party’s lives, and so they watched YouTube videos, the woman who sold them the sari gave them tutorials. You see, none of our mixed-race Jamaican rainbow coalition actually learned anything substantial about the ethnic traditions of the parts of our families who arrived in the Caribbean, after the emancipation of slavery, in the nineteenth century. This ignorance is not generalizable for all mixed-race Jamaican (or Caribbean) nationals, but it does exist among my cohort of friends. While the manifestations of our mixed-ness (hair and complexion mostly) functioned as elements of social class privilege that guaranteed we were doted on and adored in a Caribbean society deeply fissured by colorism, other facets of our East Indian or Chinese cultural heritage (language and religion for example) disappeared from our familial cultural practices. This is in part due to British colonial prerogatives that used things like Christian conversion and English language acquisition as pre-requisites for education and civil service or other white-collar employment. This went as far as the Anglicization of names, which explains why my family name is as traditionally English as, say, the surname Cooper. In our surname alone, it is easy to see how rather than maintain ties to the Indian culture they came with, decisions were made to go with the hegemonic flow, as the history books tell me, for social and economic advancement, while making life in the British West Indies.
I started to think about the consequences of some of those decisions at my bridal shower when the henna artist said immediately as she came through the door, and took in my very bare midriff, “come, let me drape your sari properly.” She’s an Indian national, and an observant Muslim, who threaded my eyebrows during the Miami years. She missed evening prayers to stay and celebrate with me through a meal, games, presents, and so much big loud laughter. Her “proper” wrapping covered my midriff. My Trinidadian friend, who was raised by her Indian grandmother, who she called Nanny, like my father called his grandmother, concurred at the end of the night, “she draped it the conservative way.” I linger here on clothing and who has knowledge about how to wear a piece of clothing associated with a specific ethnic culture – depending on their relations with ancestral traditions and histories – to think also about how much of who we are gets erased by colonial history and national narratives. So much so that though our bodies bear genealogical imprints of other ethnicities, many of us have no cultural memory of these identities that got filtered out to create idealized versions of English outposts or later, in the case of the late-twentieth century Caribbean, postcolonial nations. Come to Jesus moment #2 arrived when a J-School student asked to interview me about my experience of being a black professor in the wake of Ferguson. We did the interview when I got back to the Midwest after my weekend of bridal festivities. The henna was still fresh on both my hands.
And then, we migrate to the US and encounter an entirely different set of erasures concerning our racial and ethnic identities. This became apparent the week before last, when two middle school students in Illinois, who are Jamaican, asked a substitute teacher to stop referring to them as African American (come to Jesus moment #3). Eight-grader Mia Thompson told Raw Story,
Oh yes, church, you read right. Even though teacher added what she perceives to be the politically correct term for black people in America, American and non-American, she had no qualms about deploying the epithet it was supposedly meant to diffuse/replace. We also have to contend with the request to not be called African American. It almost certainly reverberates with age old animosities between West Indians and African Americans. The former in pre-Civil Rights days often received preferential treatment as model minorities (places in all-white northern universities where African Americans were refused places for example) to make a show of racial progress. Though these Jamaicans’ refusal of African American as an identifier may also resonate with a refusal to accept what is understood as an embattled and discriminated against identification, one that is also freighted with historical rejections, that is a matter for another post. I see it and will return to it, but in the meantime my concern here is the teacher’s too easy slippage between African American and the N-word.
Here’s the thing, ladies and gentlemen. I think this example makes clear how a mere lexical change doesn’t magically effect a change in the prejudiced perspective that belies the designator. Nothing makes this clearer to me than the un-nuanced sense that African American continues to be deployed as a politically correct way of designating blackness universally, American or otherwise. While absolutely not equal in epithetic quality, an ignorance of the complexities of individual personhood similar to the one that underlies the use of the N-word is also attendant with an indiscriminate deployment of African American in the name of political correctness.
The trouble for me is in the necessity and continued utility of naming or designating racialized identities in the first place. There is a world of history in the necessity for categorizing people according to race and the fact that this continues to be a facet of our existence today – 600 years after the beginning of European global expansion and Europeans’ first encounters with people of color– bothers me deeply. Changing designators (negro to black to African American to black to person of color back to black) once the term du jour begins to acquire the pejorative weight of whichever designator that preceded it – you know the one that it was supposed to replace and in turn fix problems of racial discrimination forever amen – doesn’t fundamentally change anything about the reality of being a raced subject in America or elsewhere. There is a clear (to me at least) irony in affixing African American as a racial, rather than a national designator in order to achieve political correctness, while at the same time fundamentally erasing the national and cultural identities of the people this designation is thrust upon. What this involves is the projection of a specific history of racial politics seeded in slavery and rooted in Jim Crow onto subjects who happen to be black, but who may nonetheless have no experiences genealogically or otherwise with forms of institutionalized racism like slavery or Jim Crow. This is not to say these subjects’ spaces of origin are bereft of institutionalized discrimination (racial or otherwise), but far too much is arrogantly elided in the one size fits all model that is the category Black/African American. It involves a lack of consideration for anything that is not a part of America’s story of race. It precludes mutual understanding among people of color about the reality of variance; it hinders all actual conceptualizations of what diversity materially means. Ultimately, it perpetuates an oppressive apparatus, functioning on the level of language that renders the specific invisible via effacing overgeneralization, and in turn also leaves systems of discrimination invisible and unscathed.
So, what does this mean for me, a mixed-race Jamaican woman, who last week (come to Jesus and write the post moment #4) gets an email with neither salutation nor closing from the HR department at her place of employment, an R1 University, asking her to voluntarily declare her race? Below are the options provided: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and White. As a government contractor, the university uses this self-reported information to officially document its institutional diversity. To my mind though, besides being offensive in its lack of any realistic sense of what diversity means in the twenty-first century, none of the categories it included give any indication of the actual diversity of my mixed race Jamaican person. Thus I elected not to report. That I have chosen invisibility is not lost on me, but what am I to do when the choice is between invisibility and effacement? What am I expected to do with my East Indian patrimony when reporting as Black or African American? Why is an ancestral history rooted in transatlantic enslavement the only thing that continues to matter about my identity in the twenty-first century?
This doesn’t mean that the availability of “non-white other” as a category at the marriage license counter was much better. At the very least though, it left things open for encompassing whatever the hell it is that I wanted to declare myself; like Raven-Symoné, lets eschew all things identity with some peacock colored hair. Fun and jokes aside, however, the problem with “non-white other” is that it perpetuates whiteness as the hegemonic standard against which all “others” are measured. It is all
kinds of bullshit that that is more appealing than the category “Black or African American.” Both are neocolonial in different ways, but at least one is not a self-effacing designator masquerading under the cloak of the ironically political correct.
This is not some Raven-Symoné “colorless” bullshit either though, so please don’t get me wrong. I understand why she does not want to be defined solely by her genealogical connection to the enslavement of Africans, but rather by the American connections that she can trace; why she doesn’t want to be known by her sexuality either, but simply by her nationality, American. Where she errs, I think, is in thinking that an eschewing of blackness as it is rooted in Africa – slavery to be specific – is the route to achieving this. To be clear, I am not about rejecting any facets of myself. Rather, I mourn the things that were lost to assimilation at so many junctures in my genealogy, and thus eschew institutional confinement to only one facet of myself. It effaces too much. I’ve already lost too much. I can’t roll a thin flaky roti to save my life. I can’t drape a sari. I don’t know what my family’s name was, just two generations ago.
I share a trainer twice a week with some really great people. The company makes up for many things that occur during each hour long session: the fact of having to work out, the sweating, the involuntary and unlady-like noises I start making about forty minutes in, and the truly bad music that gyms must be contractually obligated to play. Our newest trainer is new to us, and newly a trainer. He’s good. I (and I think we) like him, but he uses a playlist of music that is just poor. In our last session, one of our group members, a gentleman who I would say is the least likely among the five of us to be bothered enough by the music to ask to change it, did just that. The truly objectionable playlist features things like Ke$ha’s “Timber,” (the dollar sign instead of an actual s tells you all you really need to know about the creativity of this one). It also features Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty,” which despite having what I think is a solid beat that if I don’t listen to the words I can get down to, actually offends me. The voice of the woman at the beginning and the end of the song offends me, because to my ear the woman’s voice sounds like a stereotypical or caricatured version of an Asian woman. It also offends me because I think the lyrics are stupid. So stupid that Jason Derulo has to think very little about the intelligence of his audience (those who listen voluntarily and those who are captive like we are). Otherwise he would not offer so much trite rubbish masquerading as music.
Linger with me on this stupid song a bit before we get to the stupid song that is central to this week’s post. At the beginning of “Talk Dirty” the woman says, “Jason” like “Day-son” and giggles. At the end she says “Wha? I don’ unnastan” and giggles again. If I start talking about the infantilizing of women and female sexuality here I won’t get to where I want to go, but know that I see it and have put it in the corner for now in the interest of getting to other matters. The lyrics sketch out the truly unimaginative metaphor of Derulo as the international flight that the woman in the song will get on – “first class seat on [his] lap, girl. Riding comfortable.” It doesn’t matter that she don’ unnastan; according to Jason, he’s “been around the world/ don’t speak the language, but [her] booty don’ need explaining.” So, that’s that. But listen, I take no issue with provocative music laced with sexual innuendo. I’m a Kanye fan. Take this bit from “Niggaz in Paris”:
She said, “Ye, can we get married at the mall”
I said, “Look, you need to crawl ‘fore you ball
Come and meet me in the bathroom stall
And show me why you deserve to have it all.”
Derulo could learn something from Kanye about subtlety in explicit lyrics. What I take issue with then is what I see as a lyrical laziness, something I think is present in too much contemporary R&B. I draw the comparison to rap here, R&B’s more explicit sibling, to show that even over in that game lyricism, even with things considered by some as lewd or vulgar, is a thing that can be carefully and entertainingly finessed. This lack of creativity where sexual innuendo is concerned is why I’m disappointed by that one bare line in SchoolBoy Q’s “Studio.” You know the one. I’m shy this week and don’t feel like giving it to you, so listen to it. The line is too bare and obvious, with zero lyricism. Lyricists like Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, and Kanye have, I guess, spoiled me.
But Jason Derulo’s unimaginative song with its tired metaphors and equally tired stereotypical presumptions about Asian (or perhaps just non-American) women is not why I brought up my workout group and our trainer’s playlist. Another song on the playlist, “Shake Señora” (2011) by Pitbull, featuring Sean Paul, T-Pain, and Ludacris, inspired one of my workout partners to write a Facebook status update about why it is just a bad song. In the post the song was described as worse than “We Built This City.” I knew “Shake Señora” was a crappy song, but didn’t know exactly what made it on par or worse with “We Built This City.” As typically happens when I realize can’t quite put my finger on a thing, I started to think about why it was bad, about what elements made it so.
This process gained some momentum when my partner, who is not in our workout group and had not had to hear that awful song twice a week for maybe two months, commented that this incarnation of “Shake Señora” wasn’t a bad song. Thinking perhaps it was the issue of cultural appropriation that made the song objectionable, he asked why is it worse than Major Lazer’s “Watch Out Fi Dis (Bumaye)”? “Because it is!” I shot back with incredulity that he of all people would even ask such a question. Of course this is one of those challenges that he likes to slip by me, waiting for me to unsuspectingly take the bait, hook line and sinker. It’s like that time he said doubtfully, “pie making might be too hard for you.” Three years later we pie make like a BAWS over here. As a Jamaican with no prior history or experience with pie, I sure showed his doubtful ass. Right? Never mind. As always, he plants a thing under my skin that bugs me until I figure it out. It started to really bother me that I didn’t quite know how to explain what exactly made the Pitbull track bad, and the Major Lazer one good. After all, weren’t they both appropriating cultural forms born within marginalized communities in the Caribbean (Pitbull calypso and Major Lazer dancehall), making them all glossy and mainstreamy for an American pop market? Yes and no, but to explain why “Watch Out Fi Dis” is better was a thing that took a little work. Here is a version of that work.
Now, which Jamaican – or hearing person for that matter – does not cringe a little when Sean Paul makes those rapid fire percussion noises that aren’t even words at the start of “Shake Señora”? Worst yet, am I the only one who hears the underpants gnomes’ song from South Park every time T-Pain’s voices something on the track? Why Ludacris even agreed to put his name on this mess is a mystery to me. No, scratch that. Derivative drivel sells like hot cakes in today’s market. Like Jay-Z says, he’s not just a business man, he’s a “business, man.” But this newest iteration of an old ass song is bad for two big reasons. First, its rhyming structure is on par with a nursery rhyme penned by six year olds. I mean, there are actual nursery rhymes up in there. No offence to the poetic children out there, because trust and believe little Timmy and Suzie could work better rhymes than this mess. Here is the opening verse:
Mr. Worldwide I pop up and greet her
p p p peter p p punkin eater
With no religion, make them believers
I always hit two, call me Jeter
Sean Paul, Pain, Pitbull, and Luda
Is this a one-off verse? Perhaps. Maybe Luda gives us something better on his verse? Like he does on “Gossip Folks?” You know, kinda like how Nikki shut all the shit down on “Monster” or Pharell on “Move That Dope?” Nope. The rest of it pretty much just as shitty, and bilingually so as well:
Hey mamacita, tu es muy bonita
Hotter than lava, shake it like two maracas
Bend down and touch your toes
Then hop inside this custom rolls
Two shots of tequila, manos pa’ arriba
¡Qué lástima! The second reason that makes the song bad, meanwhile, has everything to do with this over a half-century old ditty. The song has history. More than that, it has no less that four other versions since the 1940s that each give us more lyrically from one singer than from all four performers on the Pitbull track combined. The historical baggage of the cultural appropriation of calypso that comes along with the song, moreover, makes it not only lyrically poor, but also politically problematic. Here’s what I mean by that last part. A brief history: the song was originally composed and performed by Lord Kitchener in 1946. His version, “Jump in the Line,” won the Carnival Road March that year. The Road March is usually won by the most popular carnival song of the season in Trinidad; it’s the song that makes yu jump up from the very first bar of music. That it won tells you “Jump In The Line” was hot for crowds of dancing people from jump. In 1955, Lord Invader, another Trinidadian, sampled the song for his version “Labor Day (Jump in the Line).” If you listen to this one, it was tailored for the Labor Day Carnival in New York City. It isn’t until Lord Flea, a Jamaican, sampled the song in 1957, though, that the “shake señora” was added. The presence of a Jamaican in the mix is interesting in part because in some ways one would hope that Sean Paul would live up to his countryman’s illustrious contribution to the immortality of this song. No such luck. This was also a time when the Jamaican music industry was taking fledgling strides into an American market. Trinidadian calypso was already a hit genre so why not sample calypsos? Finally, there is Harry Belafonte’s version, which takes up the shake señora and relays it on for Pitbull et al. When you listen to it, Belafonte’s version sounds like the one most liberally borrowed from for the 2011 iteration.
Before we get back to 2011, though, I should note that the New York Labor Day carnival incarnation is interesting, because we want to think about what happens to a cultural object when it migrates out of its original context into another—or, put another way, is imported into a foreign culture. What accounts for the move? What happens to a song when it goes elsewhere? One thing that might explain Lord Invaders’ New York version of 1955 is the American occupation of Trinidad. Fact: Trinidad was occupied by the US during World War II under the bases for destroyers agreement between America and Britain. The US military set up shop in the geographically strategic then-British colonial territory in 1941 and the base closed for military operations in 1967, five years *after* the country gained independence in 1962. TNT and the US have a seriously imbricated mid twentieth century history. As many many scholars have noted, the calypso made, performed and enjoyed since the time the first Trinidadians were displaced to build the American base is a historical record in its own right of what it meant to be resident on a small Caribbean island on the cusp of independence from Britain, but simultaneously occupied by America.
Another Lord Invader song, “Rum and Coca Cola” (1943), for example, has nothing to do with any of that Cuba libre rubbish Bacardi tries to sell you. Instead it is about how women in Trinidad preferred the company of American soldiers – “both mother and daughter working for the Yankee dollar.” Returning to the sexual innuendo business, when you listen to calypso from the 1940s, you can hear clearly why Jason Derulo and others are so much less interesting in this area. If you listened but missed it, “Rum and Coca Cola” is a song about the how prostitution thrived in Trinidad because of the presence of American servicemen who required, well, servicing. But here is the fun part that helps me to think about why the 2011 incarnation of the age-old calypso, “Jump In The Line” is just bad.
You might be more familiar with the Andrews Sisters version of “Rum and Coca Cola,” and if you listened to Lord Invader’s you will hear that the ladies’ version is quite literally gutted of all of the song’s original social commentary – it is a song about travelling to Trinidad as tourist. What’s worse, however, this popular song also offers a lesson in who gets credit for the lyrics on any of these early calypsos when they are released in the US. Songs that are steeped in social commentary and that reflect a contemporary geopolitical moment in Trinidad are popularized in the US through cover versions and sampling which renders them entirely bereft of their original political content. When The Anderson Sisters’ “Rum and Cocoa Cola” was released in the US in 1946, it was copywritten with lyrical credit to Morey Amsterdam. Amsterdam was an American television actor and comedian, who is best known for his role as Buddy Sorrel on The Dick Van Dyke Show. The song was a hit in Trinidad when he visited the country to perform as part of a U.S.O show in 1943. Amsterdam claims in court documents that he never heard the song when there. Sure. Uh huh. The story of Lord Invader/Lionel Belasco eventually getting financial credit for his song is fascinating and frustrating – there was a lawsuit, Belasco won royalties but not publishing rights. Look it up. Here’s my point, though: the history of calypsos and American remakes is fraught with unequal and exploitative neocolonial relations.
When I began to think about “Shake Señora’s” twenty first century incarnation, the “Rum and Coca Cola” saga immediately came to mind. Both songs are an appropriation of a cultural product that strips the original of a definitive part of its substance – be it lyrical, political, or both – and ultimately presents an infantile product, with zero lyrical complexity, for the sole purpose of profitable popular consumption. For me, what’s worse is that there are two artists on this track with native connections to the Caribbean who I would like to think could/would do better. Poor, Pitbull *and* Sean Paul. Just poor.
Finally, then, this brings me to why it’s not just a matter of cultural appropriation—why “Watch Out Fi Dis,” though also an embodiment of problematic cultural appropriation, is better. Diplo under the guise of Major Lazer goes in for none of that watered down shit. First, his song is a good track because it works to stay true to the raw verve of the Jamaican dancehall. It accomplishes this with the inclusion of a dancehall artist, Busy Signal, who speaks actual words. This 2013 track is also superior to “Shake Señora” because of what and how it samples. The main horn-based rhythm line of “Watch Out Fi Dis” is built on 10 seconds (ten seconds!) of a salsa track by Willie Colón & Rubén Blades titled “Maria Lionza” from 1978. What makes this sample brilliant is that it builds an almost four minute song out of ten seconds of music from a track in another genre of music entirely—one channeled, moreover, through the baile funk that Diplo also spent a lot of time immersed in in Brazil. “Watch Out Fi Dis” does this in a way that shows how danceability and hype need not translate to inane lyricism or compromise on the localization of a particular sound. The song might not be Jamaican by birth, but it gets a Jamaican sound right like few others who were not born on The Rock can (Gentleman, I see you baby). It does so, we might note, by recognizing that much Jamaican music is built on well-chosen samples from other forms of music. Diplo’s song is not only better than “Shake Señora” it is superior.
Here’s the thing, though. Diplo doesn’t always get this part right in his various Jamaican inspired projects. One place he gets it quite wrong is the VH1 series he hosts called SoundClash, which I decided not to watch on principle. If you know me, and what I watch on television, you know this kind of principled discrimination is rarer than it probably should be. I may eventually watch, but my Jamaican musical snobbery knows the premise doesn’t play close enough to the original tune of its title. A sound clash is a competition of sound. As the word clash suggests, it has combative facets. In the context of the dancehall, two DJs (the equivalent of the MC in rap/hip hop) duel lyrically, or two competing sound systems duel over who can play the best music. The best clashes are when DJs or sound system selectas arrange songs together to insult his/her competitor. The equivalent in rap are battles (like in Eight Mile). So, when Diplo, as a producer who gained mainstream popularity by liberally incorporating a Jamaican sound, borrows something else – sound clash – the potential purist watcher is surprised by the fact that it is stripped of the competitive dimension. According to the description, the show takes the form of an “event, where bands perform classic jams, current hits, and on-the-spot, unreleased collaborations.” Badman nuh play collaboration inna sound clash. Diplo move wrong deh so.
Thus, where “Watch Out Fi Dis” sticks close enough to the grain, SoundClash removes a pivotal concept and practice from Jamaican dancehall culture and drains it of all of its aggressive virtuosity. Without that, to me, it becomes rubbish. The dancehall purist in me is not entertained by that. Here’s where this becomes more than bad music at the gym that you riff on, though. Hopefully, you stuck around for the moral: not all cultural appropriation is bad. There is a way to do it. Pitbull, though, hasn’t got a clue.
I’ve come to the realization that one of the most difficult things for a young female academic of color such as myself to do is to avoid identity politics. Put another way, among the difficult things for me, I have discovered, is to write, read, and teach things that are not about race, gender, or various other marginalized identities. It’s what I do; it’s my solemn duty. It’s what I’m good at. Of course, a long time ago, when I was struggling for a cohesive through-line for my first book, someone asked me a really difficult question: “how is this book not another book of Caribbean literary criticism about identity?” It was one of the most productive questions I have ever been asked. It helped shape my first book, which in part challenged the primacy of identity and its conflation with sovereignty in Anglophone Caribbean discourses. This question’s prompting to think counter-intuitively against the grain continues to inform my present scholarship, teaching, and of course this lovely blog of mine.
A thing dawned on me about this blog though. What got my blood boiling and the writing momentum going in the last month was racial and gendered politics as we encounter them in popular media. Sure, I work to dislodge them from tired, worn, and unproductive logics, but in the back of my mind I’ve been thinking about what could quickly become an exclusive focus on identity politics and that is a little unsettling to me. The thing to write about this week, of course, given the trajectory of the other pieces herein, is the story of the lesbian couple in Ohio who are suing the sperm bank because they were inseminated with the wrong sperm thereby creating a mixed race baby. All week the choruses of “that’s racist,” or “that’s white privilege” resounded and it seemed like this would be the difficult subject of the week. A thing that would come to me very easily is outlining exactly why declaring this couple as either racist or privileged doesn’t even begin to get at the truly perplexing issues of this story. I’ve had lots of practice. In a nutshell: words like racist, white privilege, even feminist are so widely circulated their potential for conveying complexity is often diminished. In a way, they are like when my students use the word culture for example: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a book about Dominican culture. Yikes.
We all know what such popularized words mean once invoked; some of us experience them with emotional associations, but this familiarity comes with the flip side that there is no need to think anymore deeply about why a white couple would have problems raising a mixed race child beyond their own ignorance based on privilege or racism. Complexity vacated. White privilege makes them racist. End of discussion. Nonetheless, neither of these things gets at the connections between the Ohio couple and my own encounter this morning with a woman at church, who timidly and apologetically asked me what products I used on my fantastically impeccable big curly coif. I mean today the hair did the damn thing and did it right! Anywho, church lady’s daughter, who I assume might be adopted (both parents are white) is mixed race and has hair that is curly like mine. It’s only a matter of time before she/they give up on the natural texture and turn to the relaxer for deliverance.
Truth be told, I’ve always looked at the daughter’s hair and recognized some familiar struggles: the wrong products, the wrong shape, the lack of bounce shine and movement, a general uncertainty about how it looks and whether or not it looks right. I have been there. She’s a teenager. This is why some curlistas abandon their natural texture; it’s different from everyone else’s; it’s too hard, especially when the knowledge that makes it easy isn’t in say mainstream beauty and fashion magazines. In the last six years, I’ve watched the daughter come into her own as a young woman in so many ways, but the hair I can tell, continues to be a struggle. I’ve often thought about how I could approach her, all big curly haired sister like, and talk with her about her hair care regimen. These things are delicate though. I know she notices my hair; she compliments my outfits and I’ve seen her looking, but she hasn’t asked any questions. General unfamiliarity with such interactions myself, especially with folks I don’t really know, means I have not volunteered wisdom. Today, though curly haired daughter was absent, parents were present and Mom was wearing a blouse in a color that was so lovely on her, I told her as much during the meet and greet portion of the service. I suppose this was the window she needed to ask me when service was over, again apologetically, about my hair. Here is where I was planning on making the connection between this and the baby the couple wasn’t planning on having, but really church, I tire of this. I tire of it because it is becoming a box in which I am putting myself. I’d like to push back on my own critical impulses if you will.
Like Olivia Pope who ran away with Jake to an isolated beach paradise because she got tired of always being asked to do the same angering and soul crushing things, I have always found it difficult that I am more often than not called upon to do one kind of thing. This thing – race – in large part frustrates me, often angers me, in particular as I often get called upon as an authority on it. To speak, as though it was the totality of my being, about this one facet of it. I am good at it. I am an authority on it, but it’s still complicated. Remember a couple weeks ago, when the tone deaf Alessandra Stanley tried to compliment Shonda Rimes by celebrating her capacity to get away with being an angry black woman? Linda Holmes explained in her own thoughtful piece that there is something to be said about the questions Rhimes gets asked as the only successful black female show-runner of our time – the ways these same kinds of questions may often result in angry or perhaps less than enthusiastic answers:
Now, I am neither Shonda Rhimes nor Olivia Pope, but I do understand this pigeonholing on a personal level. In my first semester on the job as an assistant professor, I was asked to serve on the College of Arts and Sciences first ever diversity committee – college level committee work in a 2/2 job in my first semester on the ground. Go read Mat Johnson’s Pymto figure out how I now feel about this and diversity committees more generally. Whenever I am approached by journalism students to be interviewed for either course assignments or one article or another in any one of a number of local newspapers it always comes with the exact same question “Professor, I wonder if we could do an interview about being black in [insert small Midwestern town here].” Every year, no, just about every semester this request comes (it is the only kind of such request that comes) and I feel the same way about it as I do when I get emails from professional organizations on and beyond campus addressing me as African American faculty. But, I nonetheless always participate. I agree to be interviewed about what it is like to be black here. I try to point out, when I can get a word in for this purpose, that there are other facets to who I am as a woman of color from a place that is not America and other facets to what I do, but that hardly ever makes it to print. Even more difficult is to realize, I’ve been asked to do this so much, I have done not nearly enough work conceptualizing anything else.
Let’s not get it twisted though. I know this is good and much needed work and trust me, I am up for the task and will continue to puzzle through the hard things about various facets of indentarian inequality. Much like Olivia Pope though, while I do want to stand in the sun, drinking rare vintages, without the baggage of all the things I am expected to do, the show could go on. Despite me yelling at the TV, “Stay in the sun, Liv. Fuck DC,” Olivia eventually returns to all the things that continue to make her tired. I hope some things change for her; like maybe she goes down to Florida and lays out in the sun there, at the Mandarin Oriental, get a massage and talk about it from time to time, away from all the things that drain her, though always perpetually require her expertise. Maybe she could start a food or fashion blog. I sure as hell hope making jam in Vermont with Fitz does not become a thing though, because in my mind that would simply be retreating to the other side of an extreme spectrum.
What is the psychic toll of only ever being asked to do one thing? What does it mean to hone one skill disproportionately in relation to others? How does it affect one’s capacity or even desire to think more expansively? Neither jam making in Vermont with Fitz nor feeling like the help in DC feels like a desirable position. I have to keep at it despite the frustration, for the young aspiring to similar levels of fabulosity. But I’ll be damned if I envision my work or myself through myopic lenses. Maybe next week I’ll tell you about the couple and their mixed race baby.
I fucking love Thug Kitchen. I love Thug Kitchen so much, I will lace this post with the profanity that is characteristic of this popular food blog because I also want to meet Thug Kitchen on its own terms. I am also going to curse like a motherfucking sailor here, because I am a tad distraught. This is what my thoughts look like before I’ve had a few days to make them all gentrified and shit. If curse words offend you, click away now and come back next week, when I’m feeling less profane and perplexed. No harm, no foul, no offence taken. Folks need to have their limits and I respect yours. All this cursing will probably shame my mother (mommy if you are reading this, stop now). All that said, what the fuck white people? Why?! Why must you thoughtlessly popularize shit, making me think that it really isn’t about anything but vegan food made more interesting by a liberal use of profanity, and then put out a lily-white promo video for your new cookbook and get featured on Epicurious and make me realize, fuck, some shit is rotten in Denmark.
I’ve followed Thug Kitchen on Facebook for maybe two years now, and I have made maybe a couple of their recipes and that shit is always legit. Those motherfuckers over there do not play. More than anything else, I really just enjoy their prose. Who can resist a tagline like this: “eat like you give a fuck”? Certainly not me. Shit, if it gives me a reason to curse gratuitously, fuck yeah! This food blog is a curse word littered take on vegan healthy eating that is written so humorously, I didn’t think too much about the word “thug” modifying kitchen. Why would I? Shit, artistic license. Plus, I’ve grooved to Jah Rule feat. Bobbie Brown’s “Thug Lovin” in the 90s – “I know you’re getting’ bored…” – among many other thug-laced things. I am under no misapprehension about “thug” or “thug life” being widely appropriated beyond the confines of black communities where it is used to criminalize young black men in particular. Shit, if you want to appropriate elements of things generally considered to be intimidating and all around badass to help vegan food look enticing and appetizing, who the fuck am I to shit on your parade?
But then this week, I watched the trailer for Thug Kitchen’s new cookbook. It is a cookbook that I, as a fucking badass cook and eater extraordinaire, would love to have in my repertoire so I can lay some ill ass vegan shit down on the table like I do. The promo trailer, though, only had white people in it – of all ages and both genders, but only white people; there wasn’t even an Asian person. No people of color. As if white people are the only folk who want to, or should, (or can?) eat like they give a fuck. With things like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease laying more black people low than any other diseases in this country, it seems fucking negligent to not even cast a black friend or something. I mean, what kind of bullshit is that?
While the interwebs is going bonkers this afternoon, over Thug Kitchen’s identities finally being revealed, I always knew, more peripherally and unconsciously than anything else, that this was the brainchild of two white people. I have a fucking PhD in English; reading between the lines is how I get my paper. So, from reading their posts, I knew unconsciously that Thug Kitchen was peopled by a couple, who even though they deliberately kept their posts free of information that could identify them personally (something I am working on doing myself here), mentioned things like “my girlfriend.” So I knew there were two. I assumed the aggressive tone of the posts, as conveyed by the profanity, was attributable to a speaker who was male, but I have always been prepared to be proven wrong for this fucked up stereotypical logic. Additionally, the knowledge of and frequency with which tempeh (whatever the fuck that shit is) appeared in recipes concretized the assumption that at least one of these motherfuckers was white. That they are white is not the goddamn problem here.
Something popped off in my brain when I read the Epicurious piece though. I mean, that shit pissed me off. All of a sudden, while reading what Epicurious called the pair’s “cheerful profanity,” I began to think about, as I often do, who does not get access to this kind of carefree shit. Like, Thug Kitchen liberally uses vernacular terms, popularized in black culture in a rags-to-riches project that is very much on the come up (on the riches side) as I type this. But there is a fucking serious flipside to this bullshit. The descriptor “thug” is used to criminalize the very existence of young black male bodies, in recent times fatally. Teenaged boys are getting shot in the street, for no other reason than they appear in the eye of twisted beholders as the embodiment of the stereotypical characteristics that render them thugs, criminals, better off for all of us dead. Hands up don’t shoot.
Fuck cheerful profanity. This is not the time to be willfully ignorant of what “thug” means when applied to some bodies today. I am not asking for Thug Kitchen to politicize their shit. Not everyone is, should, or needs to be a motherfucking activist for the causes of prejudice and discrimination and shit. Keep using the word thug; I have no problem with that. But at the very least show some motherfucking awareness of what the hell is going on in America today. Remember when Mama died of diabetes in the movie Soul Food? Shit, put somebody’s black grandma in di blasted promo and have her cursing up a blue streak. Who does not a love a black grandma who says fuck? Show us that you actually have a less vapid sense of what eating like you give a fuck means, like you are aware of the harmful permutations of your moniker, like you have a sense of how diverse your fan base is, and are at least trying to be thoughtful about it. None of us has the luxury to be thoughtless when children are being shot down in the street. Make like you are even remotely aware of what the fuck is going on around you, like you actually give a fuck. Shit.
Before you click on to the next one, feeling validated in what you have always known about Sister Bey’s wayward ways, I say she is not a feminist for reasons that may not be the ones you think. Sit back down, church; I may have already given you a benediction of sorts, but this is a different kind of church service and it is only just getting started. Beyoncé is not a feminist because the word feminist as we use it, clutching our pearls, does not / cannot encompass what she does. This is not because of some kind of semantic incapability. Words are nothing but signifiers that pretty much can come to encompass whatever we want them to, because of their arbitrariness and the dynamism of cultural development. Beyoncé is not a feminist because our understanding of the word might not be flexible enough, yet. And by our, I mean both those of us who denounce feminists as shrill brassiere-disavowing man hating harpies who are angry because they can’t find a husband, and those of us who for the sake of wanting to guard against such narrowing perceptions often marshal a version of respectability politics that inflexibly polices the boundaries of what can/should be considered feminist. This dichotomy is not meant to be representative of all the relations and responses to this particular f-word that exists. I cannot even begin to encompass all that and really all I would be doing anyway is mounting of caveat on top of caveat and who really wants to read that kind of quibble? Suffice it to say what Beyoncé is doing today cannot be conceptualized according to the current terms of discourse, for some of the same reasons Roxane Gay calls herself a “bad feminist.” That’s the vein I’m working here.
In calling herself a bad feminist, Gay highlights the distinctions between feminism and “Professional Feminists,” the latter of whom we place on “Feminist Pedestals” (Bad Feminist xi). In some ways, Beyoncé is deliberately asking us to insert her into Pedestal Feminism, and that might be counterproductive to some of the legitimate gains her participation in these discourses can bring – if only because it restricts us to questions of whether or not she is a feminist. As Gay puts it, “people who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. Then they get knocked off when they fuck it up.” I, like Gay, and like Beyoncé “regularly fuck it up. Consider [us] already knocked off” (Bad Feminist xi). For my purpose here, this postlapsarian position is useful for shedding some of the identarian baggage that presents barriers to thinking about particular people (and texts), because we require them to be representatives of some identity-based platform or another. Such representation is of course important and necessary work that we cannot fully afford to leave behind, especially for the world’s various marginalized and underrepresented people. But church, it is also dangerously limited and our inability/refusal to confront such limitations perpetuates some of the problems the good work of identity politics aims to solve.
Let me use the every-present example of Shonda Rhimes to shed some light on what I mean here. (I kinda wish they would just let Sister Shonda be though, f’real.) As the only successful African American female show-runner Rhimes hardly ever gets asked anything, for public consumption, this is not related to the politics of racial and gendered underrepresentation on television and in American life. She is a mouthpiece that we are incredibly lucky to have, but we only ever ask her to talk about one thing – race and black womanhood in America and on TV. How come we don’t ask Vince Gilligan or Aaron Sorkin similar questions? Hey Vince, what strides have you made in mitigating the underrepresentation of white me–. Never mind. I hope you get my point. How come we don’t ask Rhimes more questions about craft and process? Linda Holmes’ piece for NPR this week helped me in a big way to think about this. She had to interview Rhimes after Stanley-gate and wrote a thoughtful piece about “Only Ones.” In the article Rhimes tells Holmes that
She’d learned … that on shows with Only One (only one woman, only one black character, only one Asian person, only one gay character), that’s when the Only One is required to be about nothing except that characteristic. She said her hope was in part that just by having more than Only One on her shows, she gave those characters room to develop and to have other things about them be important. She hopes that — and here’s the rub — by consciously increasing diversity overall she makes the race of each character less limiting, less defining.
In invoking the problem of the Only Ones, I’m intentionally dislocating Beyoncé both from the sphere of feminist disavowals and the Feminist Pedestal. I am hoping that doing so will help me to consider her public persona in less limiting ways, ways that in turn can tell us something about how Bey not only negotiates a complicated world of technology-based image consumption but also exerts a unique and powerful level of control. I am interested in what this shift in how we talk about Beyoncé can then tell us about both the progress women have made and the work we still have to do.
(I hope) it goes without saying that this is not a disavowal of feminism. I am a feminist. <– That is the first time I have said that out loud, acknowledging it for myself and to you. Claiming feminism for myself, like Gay does, but without the caveat/modifier “bad,” involves elasticizing the term to fit the fact that though we can/should all believe in equality (not sameness but equality) for all women. we can/should also understand that “feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves” (Bad Feminist xii). Moreover, we can/should understand that our varying experiences as men, women, and everything in the spaces between does not put us in a “position to tell women [or anyone for that matter] of other cultures what that equality and freedom should look like” (Bad Feminist xii). As feminists, supporting access to choice is important.
With this assistance from Gay, then, I begin by declaring that Beyoncé is not feminist—somewhat disingenuously (duh!), because my ultimate goal is to take us closer to what figures like Beyoncé are doing. As we say in Jamaican parlance, we haffi wheel an’ come again fi do dat. My goal here is to think about what Beyoncé is doing in relation to contemporary discourses of femaleness and my hope is to return her (eventually) to feminism, not only because she is deliberately casting her public persona as feminist, but because my gut tells me feminism needs her. Feminism needs her to help us break out of the Pedestal paradigm that creates the unproductive compartmentalization and alienation that has plagued feminism since Seneca Falls. Feminism needs Beyoncé to become a more humanly dynamic movement. Beyoncé wanting in on the f word might be the most productive thing to happen since Lean In made more than a few of us want to jump ship. But we can only begin to see this if we attend to the compelling strides she is making in the interrelated discourses of beauty standards, privacy, and love.
Since your patience with me and this Beyoncé business might be wearing thin by this point, let me preview where I’m going in the next couple thousand (yes thousand) words or so; you know, so you stay with me and don’t decide to duck out right after communion. By (temporarily) dislocating Beyoncé from feminism, I hope to show you how she represents productive shifts and possibilities in three areas that also fall under feminism’s purview: 1. The Carters, that is Beyoncé along with her husband Jay-Z (Shawn Carter) are re-configuring the traditional nuclear family script in ways that are everything but traditional. It is a reinhabiting if you will. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is crucial to my thinking here about all the things that are hopeful and beautiful about this particular reconfiguration. 2. Beyoncé is re-scripting the rules of privacy and access to information in an age where celebrities cannot keep their naked pictures private. What she chooses to show us is what we see. 3. This is related to 2 and will probably be the least palatable portion of this discussion, but if you’re still with me at this point, I know you are down for swishing this around a little bit – you know, giving yourself over to the oaky tannin. Beyoncé’s strategic exposure of the female body – her own and those of the dancers who accompany her on stage – presents an opportunity for thinking about how we continue to use women’s bodies to shame them and offers us an out of sorts.
Ok, ready to join me on a thought experiment that positions the public narrative of Beyoncé and her family next to the narratives of family presented in The Bluest Eye? If you haven’t read it, close the computer, go read it and come back. Not because you necessarily need to have read it to follow me here, I will give you the background you need to follow me, but you should stop reading my lengthy missive and go read this very important novel for thinking about race, gender, and class in America in ways that attend to but also transcend the specificity of historical context. Morrison’s book is devastating not only because of what happens to just about everyone in it, but also because its representation of the way we approach family, female bodies, sexuality and beauty has not come nearly far enough since the novel’s post-Civil Rights movement release in 1970. The destructive impossibilities of unnatural and unattainable standards of beauty for some and the insidious effect of these standards on our capacities to love and appreciate each other in sexual and familial relationships still linger too prominently in our everyday 2014 lives.
The way many read this novel is that it is a story about an eleven year old black girl who is just shat upon by too many people in this novel, for no other reason than they have been shat upon themselves. Ugliness, how ugliness is determined, the way beauty is contingent on rendering others as ugly, and the destructive effects on those imbued with ugliness are at the center of all the novel’s conflicts. It is this girl, Pecola’s story, and it is devastating not only because her father rapes her and she becomes pregnant, but also because she thinks having blue eyes will solve her ugliness problem and save her. Blue eyes, for Pecola, are the ultimate symbol of beauty that, if she possessed them, would mean she would be seen by others as beautiful – worthy of human kindness – rather than as an ugly black child deserving/requiring nothing else beyond being shat upon. The novel is set in the year between 1940 and 1941, when the ultimate compliment that a black girl could receive was being likened to Greta Garbo and Ginger Rogers.
If in the The Bluest Eye Morrison exposes the pernicious yet idealized pervasiveness of a specific brand of beauty exemplified by white film stars like Rogers, Garbo, and Shirley Temple, as well as actual little white girls in the novel who are described in all the consumptive sugary softness of marshmallow Peeps, she also exposes this brand of idealized beauty’s role in undermining black family life through destructive (and in the case of the novel violent) self-alienation. With this in mind, the novel also allows us to re-examine what we, as readers consider normal, beautiful and desirable. What if in the day of the novel, Pecola’s mother Pauline could see Beyoncé on screen with her black husband holding their child? If The Bluest Eye’s troubling of beauty and familial scripts convicted us, as readers, in our desire for clearly alienating and problematic ideals, the Carters are recouping and retranslating these ideals. Again, what if Pauline had On The Run to watch instead of Imitation of Life?
This is in no way an unproblematized reading of the nuclear family ideal 2.0 that the Carters offer us. It is a heteronormative union, which is problematic in more ways that we can take on in this medium at this point. Moreover, Beyoncé is still strutting it in the light skin that conveys problems of colorism and the truly legit weaves that tell us Eurocentric standards of beauty still have glamour on lock. And yes, it is problematic that it is the light skinned chick that gets to (publicly) live a thoroughly glamorized version of the storybook, happily-ever-after, dolce vita.
While the performative genealogy that Beyoncé draws on in On The Run doesn’t necessarily dissolve these issues (a problem with Pedestal Feminism because the infallibility of humans means one is not a conduit for the complete dissolution of anything), it does give us a more expanded way to think about how, as a stage persona, she gives us more than the problems. It isn’t coincidental that the tour, among the projected images, lights, and pyro, includes images of Josephine Baker herself and of ZouZou as played by Josephine Baker. What does this have to do with Beyoncé and her weaves? Well, nobody today talks about Baker’s performances as anything but groundbreaking, for their time, both in terms of gender and race, even if—as always – American audiences were slow to catch on. One should also not miss the play on persona here in the invocation of Baker portrayal of ZouZou – who remains iconic for us today mostly through the performance where she sings in a gilded cage draped in risqué places by nothing but feathers or the famous banana costume, which was pearls and a skirt made from, you guessed it, bedazzled bananas. Here Beyoncé identifies herself with a performer who simultaneously played along with the rules of performance for black women, trading on her sexuality, but also exerted both a positive vision of black beauty and a powerful sense of artistic agency
But I’m getting ahead of myself – what I want to pull into this conversation about beauty and black femininity is Blue Ivy, the Carters’ two-year-old daughter. I know, I know, we should really leave Blue out of it; she’s a toddler for God’s sake. But we haven’t left her out of it and this is perhaps the paradoxical gift that is the careful access that the couple grants the public to their daughter. There are those among us who have thought it would be funny to start a petition, admonishing Beyoncé for her neglect of Blue’s grooming. Yep. You read right, a petition, later defended as a joke, for admonishing a black mother for not combing her black daughter’s hair. Now, I grew up in a context where before I left the house, my hair had to be combed, and it also had to be combed before bed so the combing before leaving the house the next day would not be an ordeal for me, my mother, my father or whoever else had hair wrangling responsibilities on any given day. This is absolutely not to say my mother was anything like Pauline or Geraldine from The Bluest Eye, but somewhere along the way the idea that being groomed meant taming my wild hair was seeded in my consciousness. I was twenty-seven years old before I encountered a stylist who treated my hair on its own terms and showed me how to wear it for itself. For too long styling black hair has been about problem solving rather than just letting it be. Not even two-year-old babies are immune, church. When Beyoncé lets us see her daughter, we see Blue Ivy wearing her hair as it grows out of her head, naturally. Forgive the corniness, but as a woman who needs to travel from where she lives in the Midwest to Miami for her hair to be treated on its own terms, as hair and not a beast to be tamed, Beyoncé and Blue strike a beautiful contrast. As a woman who continues to sit in a stylist’s chair feeling apologetic for the problem that is her hair, Blue at the VMAs with her hair adorned by nothing but a headband is a beautiful thing. I could also talk about the beauty of the Carter’s portrayal of partnership and marriage, but that is for another day. I still have two points to go.
She, Kerry Washington, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are very similar in this regard. I saw Adichie read last year and she refused to answer a question from the audience about her marital status. More precisely, when asked why she didn’t take her husband’s name – an un-African thing to do, according to the questioner—Adichie responded, “Next question please.” She later returned to that question and tackled the business of un-Africanness, contending that people are the dynamic forces that determine cultural practices and not the other way around. She also noted that had she been a male writer, no one would be asking her in that venue about her marital status. She never did confirm her marital status and never has, anywhere. For those so inclined (as I am) a Google search with the terms “Adichie husband” should satisfy your curiosity. That being said, when women like Adichie manage to eschew this kind of gendered scrutiny via access to her personal life, I am actually a little disturbed by the absence of any acknowledgement that this control exists, that they possess it. Where are the conversations about what it means for women to have this much image control, today, when other celebrities have so very little? With all the talk about white people Columbusing butts and braids, we are clearly thinking about the contingencies of who gets credit when a particular thing enters various locations in the mainstream public sphere, and under what conditions; why not see this in relation to the strategies of control that figures like Beyoncé and Adichie exercise?
What does it mean, when all things celebrity wedding are plastered everywhere (I mean enough of Lauren Conrad already!), for everyone, even those who don’t care to see, for Beyoncé and her husband to keep the images from their own wedding private? Slate describes that last seven minutes of the On the Run concert, where in a mash up of “Forever Young” and “Halo” the couple reveal never-before-seen footage of their engagement, their wedding, their pregnancy, the birth of their daughter, family vacations, as the best part of the show. The images are this striking because we had never seen any of it before. The concept of never-before-seen footage of the life of any celebrity, much less a pair of celebrities as famous as Jay and Bey, is becoming more and more rarer. How come we haven’t noticed that this couple not only keeps shit on tight lock, but that they are able to also capitalize on that privacy, and thus profit immensely from manipulating the demand and supply chain of our voyeuristic appetites? We had epic conniptions when Brangelina sold the rights for the first authorized image of their first-born, but somehow remain unable to think about what the Carters are doing with their control of their own image in the same conversation.
But now we must roll on to the third thing about Sister Bey that I would like to help us think about in more flexible ways. The fear and anxiety attendant upon the horrendous breaches of privacy that is the public exposure of naked pictures is contingent on women feeling shame about their bodies. Indeed, it was this image in particular, bottoms up vulvas out, that gave me the most difficulty in joining Beyoncé and feminism together in my mind. I know too much about the dangerous objectification of women through their bodies to not be disturbed by what looks like a tremendously privileged woman objectifying other women and then having the nerve to call it feminism. Church, I know 3 PM is drawing nigh and we been here since 9, but again, this is why I needed to set feminism in the corner for a bit, so I could think about why the exposure of my naked body continues to be something I consider a weapon that can be used against me, a weapon whose destructiveness is triggered by shame.
Bottoms up and vulvas out, I argue, can be thought about as a way of demystifying, publicly, the shame associated with codifying respectability through the privatizing/hiding of bodies and the way that public revelation of private things (willingly and unwillingly) in turn equates to all things lewd, lascivious, and shameful. Should we dislodge this completely from the very real problems of the objectification of female bodies? Hell no. But are we not sophisticated enough to hold multiple things together at the same time? Are we comfortable with letting go of the insight to be gained in body shaming so that we can continue to decry objectification? As Elizabeth Plank said this past week, “Nude photos won’t go away. But we may be able to limit their power over use once women stop believing that their bodies can be used to punish them. Behind every successful women, there’s a naked body, and that shouldn’t be something that women should have to fear.” Butts up, vulvas out made me (sometimes still makes me) uncomfortable, but this is a discomfort that I need to be reflexive about. Without it, I might not think as hard as I am about the shame I sometimes experience about my own body. We need to examine the responses we have when we see things like the word vulva being used multiple times in one really long essay, when we see things like actual vulvas protruding in a concert performance for the VMAs. If we set aside a few things – like our sense of proper feminist posturing – and engage our own revulsion and anxieties about our bodies, Beyoncé might not have to disrupt business as usual with vulvas and pixilated screens that declare FEMINIST after the pole-dancing portion of the set-list.
The thing is, church (and I’m wrapping it up now), when we think about things together and as our minds allow, with a sense of simultaneity, we see that Emma Watson said the same things at the UN’s inaugural “He For She” campaign event last week that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her “We Should All Be Feminists” talk at a TEDxEuston event last year, a clip of which appeared this past spring in Beyoncé’s track “Flawless.” During the On The Run Tour, the track was always introduced by a backdrop that declared FEMINIST in bright white. The portion of the speech that Beyoncé samples includes observations like “we teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: You can have ambition but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man.” On stage with her husband during the tour, Queen Bey dramatizes for us how as a woman she can be dizzyingly successful, and dominate a stage, while sharing the spotlight with her similarly successful husband. Anyone who has read Morrison’s rendering of Pauline and Cholly falling out of love in The Bluest Eye can also understand why this equality is a powerful thing. Individually Bey and Jay make bank. Together? Shoot. I don’t have a word for what they make together. A public command of female sexuality is everything here, as is evident by this additional portion of the Adichie sample: “we teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way boys are.” A part of this that is missing but is also in the talk and now available in print is the following “we police girls. We praise girls for virginity but we don’t praise boys for virginity (and it makes me wonder how exactly this is supposed to work out, since the loss of virginity is a process that usually involves two people of opposite genders.)”
So many of us learned that successful feminism relied on shifting how we socialize girls and boys and on being attentive to the healthy emotional development of boys before Watson delivered her message at the UN, because Beyoncé used Adichie’s words to declare her feminism. My point here is this: instead of thinking about whether or not we should let Beyoncé sit at the table, I find it much more productive to think about how she enables a more dynamic spread.