Black Girlhood Stories: “Now Sheba Sings the Song”

Hope-Springs_movie-poster-1-450x250As I expected, a few friends are already disturbed by my last critique of Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.  I am sympathetic to and in agreement with, of course, their desire to surround their children with images of black beauty. I will just say here though that I am as serious as a heart attack about holding black men accountable for their actions and relentlessly critiquing female passivity (the book relinquishes white aesthetic standards of beauty but keeps white femininity in tact in other ways).  This might seem tangential, but stay with me here: last night I watched “Hope Springs” and I only became more emphatic.  The movie, featuring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as a suburban, middle class married couple of 31 years, revolves around a week-long therapy retreat for the couple who need to save their marriage (this movie seemingly promised to make mainstream cinema/Hollywood relevant to baby boomers).  I was stunned by how problematic the movie was.  I expected bourgeois conceptualizations of therapy but not the celebration of abuse that the movie upholds.  Streep plays a passive and very nice white wife while Jones plays a mean, bitter, and neglectful white husband who, even at one point, sends Streep’s character crying out the room as she accuses him of bullying her.  The couple sleeps in separate bedrooms and haven’t been sexually intimate for five years.  At the end of the movie, when we no longer see them connected to marriage therapy, the couple is finally intimate again and all is back to normal.  Streep’s character, however, is still passive, submissive, nice, and quiet; Jones’s character is still aggressive and detached, but newly sexually aroused.  The gender roles are not my only problem with this movie: my problem is in the way their identity as a successful, suburban white couple rests on their ability to still “mate” after child-raising.  Herein lies the crux of why these dominant narratives do not apply to black families and to black women in particular.  Though this couple can obviously no longer reproduce children, the symbolic value of their sexuality as a good white family who have reproduced the good, white nation must be re-generated, almost as a way to re-identify older white middle class couples with their former value as young, fertile reproducers.  One sexual act is all it took in this movie to finally rekindle the flame of the marriage, even though the wife’s personality and voice are completely subsumed. The price that white middle class women must pay to represent this exalted reproductive role is such submissiveness and subservience.  If you think that this is an old school argument no longer viable within the supposed enlightenment (and I DO mean lightness and enlightened here as puns) of postmodernism and 21st century new wave feminisms, then just watch the movie.  I’m not suggesting that all white couples’ lives look this way (either in the negative aspects or the positive aspects); nor am I suggesting that Streep’s character represents a respect for white women.   I am hardly envious or impressed with the way that Streep’s character must forego any complaints of her treatment once she receives her husband’s sexual attention.  I don’t covet that cultural representation.  What I am questioning here is the cultural apparatus that centers such (varied but ideologically consistent) symbols of white family life/reproduction.

Black women’s reproduction simply does not have this value.  Black women can take care of white babies and serve white institutions in all other kinds of way, but they do not symbolize the ability to reproduce the nation’s optimal mode of being.  To suggest otherwise is to offer a delusion, not a counter-narrative. You need only think about the mourning that we are still witnessing with the death of the 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in comparison to the national response to the murder of Trayvon Martin and countless other black children in the recent past, or to our now 50-year anniversary of the murder of 4 Little Girls preparing for Sunday school.  Clearly, only certain women have the capacity to reproduce the white family/nation that is valued most.  Some middle class, black or brown, heterosexual women may now have the option of eclipsing their person under a man/hearth/nation like Streep’s character did, but this won’t make them the privileged site of the nation’s reproduction (yes, those married to wealthy, white men might get closer to this privileged site but their status will come from training/rewarding their light-skinned children to pass).  You can’t simply re-cast the story with new actresses, with black or brown women as the new queens of the home/hearth/nation and think we are getting something new; it is still the same, white storyline.

ShebaSo when I reject female passivity, it is these symbols that I am describing in “Hope Springs” that I am rejecting.  To see a text that I think challenges Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters in interesting ways, I turn to Now Sheba Sings the Song.  This book  isn’t really read by young audiences, though it was originally intended for young audiences given that Dial Books published it. The book was published in 1987 within a context similar to that in which Steptoe did Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.  And since this post started with an adult movie, I am including a discussion of an adult book (initially cast for young readers) as part of my anti-princess campaign.


Soul Looks Back In Wonder.      I Saw Your Face.      Jambo Means Hello.     Moja Means One.   Daydreamers.    The World of Black History.    To Be A Slave.     Zamani Goes to Market.     Something on My Mind.   These are all children’s texts illustrated by Tom Feelings, more famously known for his word-less illustrated narrative about slavery, The Middle Passage.  The success of these children’s texts are what gave Feelings a home with Dial Books and the possibility to publish Now Sheba Sings the Song, a book of illustrations by Feelings with an accompanying poem by Maya Angelou.  Though the text departs significantly from children’s literature (there are only a few images of little girls in the book), it offers a revision of queendom/hearth/nation.

FeelingsThe book is a collection of drawings of black women that Feelings did in the course of 25 years, spanning the full range of the African Diaspora in all kinds of settings.  The drawings were intentionally done in flowing black line and sepia tone, thus attempting to connect tone and line so that each drawing/woman could communicate with the larger set/group.  Feelings tried to capture his awe of black women whose faces so clearly indicated painful and dehumanizing experiences but that didn’t, at the same time, become negative visual carriers with lines/shapes that removed openness and wonder.  He kept all of these drawings at his side for those 25 years, feeling like they had formed a collective storyline, and then asked Maya Angelou to write a poem for all of them giving her free rein to do what she liked, wherever the artwork took her.  As Feelings attests, Angelou took each drawing— all 80 — and placed each one of the drawings on every surface of her home.  Feelings Portrait copyAngelou then sat, walked amongst, lived with the 80 drawings for six months, resulting in the final poem, “Now Sheba Sings the Song,” also the title of the book (the 73 lines of the poem are spread across the 55 pages of the book, making it look like the kind of illustrated text that you get for children).

Angelou’s choice of title is obviously striking… Now Sheba Sings the Song.  She is referencing the Queen of Sheba who has been given numerous names in many cultures’ “book of life”: the Holy Bible, the Holy Quran, Kabbalistic treatises, medieval Christian mystical works, etc.  Born in the 10th century BC  (Sheba was not her name but the name of the vast empire she reigned over), her empire included what is now known as Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Yemen; many argue that her rule extended into Egypt, Sudan, Central African Republic, and Kenya. As could only be the logic under white supremacy, there has been considerable doubt and questioning of the fact that she was black (of course, she would not have called herself Black or African in our contemporary, political terms, but she surely wouldn’t have ever called herself white either!) Her relationship with the then King of Israel, Solomon, resulted in a son and a long chain of rulers of Ethiopia.  The word, Song, in Angelou’s title obviously references the Song of Solomon in the bible, “The Song of Songs,” that features a love story that has been debated as an allegory of God’s love for people, divine love within the human heart, and/or the mystical quality of romantic love and sensuality; even more debates ensue around the possibility that the nameless woman in the Song of Solomon is the Queen of Sheba (with the man being King Solomon).  The fusion of Feelings’s drawings and Angelou’s poem puts these questions and issues to rest because, Now Sheba Sings the Song and clarity is re-instilled.  In this revision of Sheba’s song/queendom, it is the beauty of black women that constructs a powerful lineage system and not: the exclusivity of nobility, the presence of a man who chooses you and determines your only value, a social system based on hierarchy (everyone cannot be a queen or rule in a monarchical system), the heterosexism where women are kept/pursued/humanized solely for their reproduction of the kingdom/nation, the performance of femininity for the benefit of male provider-ship/attention, the relegation of black women to the bottom of the social system so everyone else can stay at top. Indeed, Sheba now sings a new song.

Perhaps, it is Feelings’s final thoughts on this collection of sketches that weighs in most heavily for my anti-princess campaign.  These drawings were done when he traveled outside of the United States, especially Africa, where Feelings thought he could finally see and, thus, draw the beauty in black women.  And he was very serious about re-creating black visual images, given the context of minstrelsy and other forms of visual colonization on black life (see the video from Camille Yarborough’s Ancestor House below where she and her guests discuss Feelings’s work in this regard.)  However, he realized that America had only clouded his experience because he really needn’t have looked further than his own mother’s and grandmother’s eyes.  That’s the main lesson here, coming from both Feelings’s artistic process and Angelou’s naming of this poem/book: if you want to find beauty and majesty in black women’s queen-liness, so to speak, you don’t need to concoct stories about docile heirs to or recipients of a man’s throne.  You need look no further than the everyday women in front of you who, despite the pain and dehumanization they have experienced and carry on their faces, are still beautifully open to joy and wonder in the experiences of being black women.

Black Girlhood Stories: On Inherited Kingdoms

250px-Mufaros_daughters_coverIn keeping with my self-proclaimed anti-princess campaign for young black women in my rhetoric class this spring, I decided to look more closely at the 1987 text, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.  Many of us, of course, have known this book for many years now.  It was even featured on Reading Rainbow with LeVar Burton; Phylicia Rashad did the read aloud. The book is also often marked as the African version of Cinderella.  The story is based on an African tale recorded in the 19th century that the author and illustrator, John Steptoe, researched and chronicled with the most stunningly beautiful illustrations.

mufaros-beautiful-daughtersIn the story, Mufaro (“happy man”), a distinguished elder of a village in Zimbabwe has two beautiful daughters, Manyara (“ashamed”) and Nyasha (“mercy”).  The king has asked all “worthy” and “beautiful” daughters to be sent to him in the city and so, of course, Mufaro wants to send both Manyara and Nyasha, unable to choose just one.  Manyara is mean and selfish and so leaves early so she can beat Nyasha there. On the way, Manyara encounters various spirits/animals/people who she treats very cruelly; she rudely dismisses each since her sole focus is on reaching the kingdom and securing her place there.  Meanwhile, Nyasha leaves later and encounters these same spirits and is very kind and giving to each: she offers each comfort, a listening ear, and her own belongings.  In the end, we find out that each spirit was actually a manifestation of the king and because he sees and experiences firsthand just how loving Nyasha is, he chooses her and dismisses the mean and self-centered Manyara. The book ends with Mufaro equally proud of both daughters: Nyasha as the new queen; Manyara as the queen’s servant.  There is no absentee or neglectful father in this tale; there is no older woman/stepmother who competes with the beauty of a young innocent girl-child with her spoiled daughters as proxy.  This is no Cinderella tale; it teaches morals and values completely differently.

At this point, we can empirically show that it has been primarily black authors who have represented black girls in children’s literature in life-affirming ways (see this article by Roger Clark, Rachel Lennon, and Leanna Morris).  However, this book/story doesn’t fully disrupt and challenge female subservience and patriarchy since, in the end, the good girl gets chosen by the king.  mufaros_daughters_3I appreciate the way that the young king can manifest himself as a hungry child, as a wise older woman with worldly advice, and as a benign garden snake. The king is also not looking for beauty and innocence; but beauty and worth, or, rather worth as beauty.  He must also ask Nyasha for her hand in marriage (not her father) and articulates what makes her beautiful (her compassion and generosity.) Nyasha never gets all weak in the knees with the Western construct of love-at-first-sight and she never appears so desperate or exasperated that the king chooses her. I appreciate these ideological departures from Western fairy tales.  However, we never see whether or not the King has any of these qualities that Nyasha has; he never has to prove himself/his worth, only the girls do.  Nothing is ever demanded or expected of him; all he has to do is exist.  His worth is never in question since, presumably, his kingdom/manhood IS the worth, making him the only character in the story with supernatural powers even. The qualities of goodness and niceness only seem to be expected of girls, a fait accompli many of my female students with brothers will certainly recognize.  This expectation to be good, nice girls simply won’t fare women well and is certainly a stunning mismatch to the black women’s history that we will be looking at throughout the semester.

tumblr_mczg0fZkEo1r84qxdo1_1280I am still contemplating whether I will use this book in my classes as part of my anti-princess campaign.  I have never found the original recording of this oral tale that the book is based on, so I wonder if that story’s recording got revised based on the lens of dominant Western European notions of monarchy and white femininity rather than early 19th century Zimbabwe. The visual images are just so stunning, however, that it is hard for me to resist this book. I myself own multiple copies of this book and a puzzle where you can piece together Nyasha’s beautiful face.  I just can’t resist the imagery. If I do use the book, we will need to ask more questions here than the original set of questions I had in mind (questions #2 and #4 have now been added):

  1. What kind of world(s) do this story create for black girls and why? 
  2. How are black boys and men depicted in this story?  Are they central, peripheral, and/or deeply connected— how and why?  What power(s) do they wield?
  3. What are these stories countering in the Disney empire? How? And what do these stories create instead,  for black girls especially?
  4. What do the visual images of black girls in this book do to and for them?

Fall-leaves-007-450x337I do want my students to see and experience the radical practice of centering the visual beauty of two pretty little black girls in cornrows.  I, however, also want them to deconstruct the king’s power to choose and define which women are best; to expect compassion and love but show no evidence of providing it.  For some, my readings of children’s literature might seem a little bit over-the-top while others will surely resist my criticism of such a beloved tale.  But, honestly, women need not look far within their own friend-networks (or within themselves) to find a heterosexual woman who is supporting a man who offers very little emotional support in return, or who is accepting as her fate all manner of abuse and neglect simply to have a man/provider, or who is directing her very self-worth according to men’s attention and desires, or who is shaping her rhetoric according to the male personae in power.  These fairy tales are not mere fiction; they are BOTH thermometers and thermostats of a social ordering. We need only point back to Karen Rowe’s canonical 1979 work, “Feminism and Fairy Tales” (see the journal, Women’s Studies 6.3) where she argues that these stories portray romanticizations of marriage where the heroine is rescued externally, lives under the care of fathers and princes, and gets restricted to homelife.  For Rowe, real-world passivity, dependency, and self‐sacrifice are romanticized virtues learned early by women because these are the dominant scripts of the social order. And by women here, we should say white, bourgeois women and all their proxies. Unfortunately, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters really doesn’t make a radical departure from this script; it only ethnicizes it.

Visit any pre-K or kindergarten classroom and you will see that young children often see and act on the world through exactly the kind of problematic, racialized+gendered scripts I am talking about here.  These are not the kind of scripts that have ever benefitted black girls.  Disney today merely exploits these stories for capitalist gain; it did not invent them.  The inclusion of black girls as princesses, while leaving the main story of male dominance fully in tact, is simply not radical or reflective enough of the socially transformative work of the black female rhetors we will be studying this semester.

Black Girlhood Stories: “Queen of the Scene”

queen-scene-book-cd-latifah-hardcover-cover-artLast year, I realized something on a level I had not fully problematized before: my black female students want to be princesses.

This revelation came very early in the semester last spring in my black women’s rhetoric class. We were reading excerpts from bell hooks’s Sisters of the Yam (see Sariane Leigh’s inspiring discussion of the personal impact of this text) and somewhere in a sentence that wasn’t even the focus of the piece, hooks criticizes princess-fairy-tales, the kind of indoctrination of female subordination that Disney (and the media) sustain. The sentence was, for me, so obvious so I really didn’t flinch when I read it but that is what many of my students focused in on.  They disagreed with hooks because, yes, they want to be princesses and find a rich, wealthy prince to sweep them off of their feet and there’s nothing wrong with that.  I was stunned, though I should not have been.  I have come to expect this sentiment from what I would call my domesticated female students, which often includes women of color, especially lighter-skinned women who often identify (or want to) as white [and, for some reason, flipping or twirling one’s straight(ened) hair seems to be a kinesthetic hallmark]: women who marry right out of college at 21 or 22, plan a big wedding with 22 bridesmaids, buy as big of a home as possible with a 2-to-3-car garage, work until they have children which is when their bread-winning husband takes over finances (and pretty much all decision-making).  There are variations of this but this is still the main storyline.  Many of the women on this chosen path love Disney and/or everything pink and princess-y and argue for it quite vociferously in my classes.  This little, neat, domestic map often gets unmapped fairly quickly and/or “messily” though in real life because it requires women’s subservience and, thus, manifests divorce, infidelity, financial trouble, resentment, intellectual/general boredom, or general unhappiness, part of what hooks, in fact, argues in her Love Trilogy.  However, the women desperately clinging to their prince-charming fairy tale last spring were young, conscious black women on the way to becoming artists, lawyers, doctors, professors, organizers, researchers, writers, and activists (none of whom, by the way, had boyfriends or even patience for the young black men they met in college).  It’s not like my college days weren’t filled with young black women who were looking for Prince Charming.  I was perplexed, even then, that black women who have become some of the nation’s top surgeons, CEOs, CFOs, and attorneys would only date men in college who looked as if they would be professional athletes or movie stars— Prince Charming on a whole other nightmarish level.  Yet and still, these women didn’t explicitly and publicly call themselves aspiring princesses back then.  I think it just wasn’t the discursive currency like in today’s media campaigns under Disney/Basketball Wives/Real Housewives.  Given the current and future successes and high drive of the black women in my classes that I am describing, their embrace of patriarchy is a contradiction since they are not likely to subsume their minds, time, and desires according to a man’s dictates and ego.  I think they simply need to see and hear an alternative model, one that matches the patriarchy they are not inscribing anyway.

So, at some point this spring 2013 semester and thereafter, on at least one day in the semester, I am planning to present an anti-princess campaign for young black women and I am going to do that with African American children’s literature, the kind of visual texts that should be part of every black girl’s life as an alternative to the Media Empire of White Femininity.  I am not suggesting that non-black women do not need to rupture patriarchy under the Disney empire and, thereby, Western culture.  However, I am not going to subsume the supra-alienation that brown and darker-brown-skinned women experience in the white liberalist, color-blind mantra of helping “all girls.”  To riff of Fanon, we start at the bottom and, thereby, liberate the whole.  I am intentionally turning to this space of children’s literature rather than popular culture where I don’t think we can expect media moguls like Beyonce to ever fully (or consistently) depart from the gendered prescriptions that a capitalist system pays her for.  I won’t assume that the young black women in my classes had access to these stories as children either… but it’s not too late.  The point will be to ask students:

  • What kind of world(s) do these stories, most often written by black women, create for black girls and why?  
  • What are these stories countering in the Disney empire? How? And what do these stories create instead,  for black girls especially?

I have many books in mind and I will be building that library for the rest of this month as I finalize the syllabus for this class that first meets January 24. (I will discuss many of these books here and will use this space to think aloud for this part of this course, so to speak.)

image2073932j The first book in my arsenal is Queen Latifah’s Queen of the Scene.  I am often (well, always) confused by the kind of media portrayals Dana Owens takes on but when she is really doing it up as “Queen La,” I can be down with her.  Despite her political choices in Hollywood roles, I really like this book and all of what it entails: Queen Latifah’s black girl rhyme; Frank Morrison’s 21st century art that seems to revive Ernie Barnes’s “Sugar Shack” (the infamous painting on “Good Times”); and the focus on a little black girl who is Queen (NOT princess) because she can hop scotch, jump double dutch, run, play handball/ stickball/ basketball/ tennis/ soccer, make sandcastles, swing high, walk tall.  Here are my favorites lines:

You don’t want to race me–

I’m fast as spinning dice

if it looks like I’m just catching up

I really passed you twice.

The-Games-Black-Girls-PlayI am especially drawn to this book given how many parents and teachers, mostly white and/or middle class minorities, have denounced the book because the little girl at the center of the story is too confident, claiming the book to be unrealistic and dangerous for girls.  I can’t imagine such a thing as being too confident as a black girl; it also becomes revealing to call this book unrealistic while staying silent on the cultural embrace of Disney princesses, as if THAT is realistic.  Most importantly, the book works, rhetorically and stylistically, as black-girl-speak, in the sense of the words and rhyming that you hear in double dutch games and black girls’ songs/games like Kyra Gaunt has so brilliantly discussed in her book, The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip Hop.

This rhetoric and style are also linked to what Daryl Cumber Dance calls the “baad-women,” the female counterparts to the more commonly known African American male folk-heroes such as Shine, Stagolee, and John Henry.  The purpose of these women’s discourse is to show superhuman exploits which are, basically, the makings of an imagination and creativity you will surely need in white supremacist, capitalistic, patriarchal contexts.  These baad-women quite willfully show the ways that they succeed at exactly those goals (both sacred and very secular) imagined to be outside of what women can do and, in the case of Latifah’s Queen of the Scene, what blackgirls can do.  Courageous, aggressive, and guile, it seems like only their words and quick wit can keep up with them given the ways that they rhyme, signify, and sass (a word, which, as Dance shows, is a West African derivation.)  Although white male or female, black male, and other unsympathetic women of color do not often understand or approve, the stories and discursive styles of baad-women provide immense pleasure and vision to black female audiences.

When I have students look at the black girl story of Queen of the Scene, I will ask them to read the words and look at the visual images of black girlhood through the lens that Gaunt offers about the games black girls play and the baad-women traditions that Dance has chronicled.    Most importantly, I want to look at the ways that, in this case, African American “folkore/orature” has long provided alternative identities and rhetorics to the gendered hierarchies and institutions that inscribe us: from the plantations under slavery/JimCrow to the indoctrination under Disney.  Baad-women always offer us an alternative world(view).