“Don’t You Ever Not Recognize Yourself in Somebody Else”: Words of Wisdom from Marta Moreno Vega

I found myself listening to Marta Moreno Vega’s words last week.  It offered some sanity after an Atlanta-based rapper released a video on social media of 1990s sitcom actress, Maia Campbell, who was completely unraveled in a conversation with him at a local gas station.  I cannot vouch for the young man actually being a rapper; certainly, no one ever really heard of him until he used his phone to garner internet fame by exploiting a Black woman who was once a beloved child-star.  It becomes quite obvious in the video that Maia, who has battled bipolar disorder and drug addiction for many years now, is not doing well and is in complete relapse mode.

The video, which of course went viral, was meant to be “funny.”  The wanna-be rapper who filmed Maia even defended his actions, ranting about how he was not sorry for what he did (he has recently recanted, claiming that he jokes with Maia like this often).  I won’t link the videos here because they are too traumatizing, both Maia’s obvious breakdown and the young man’s willingness to dehumanize her (I won’t say the rapper’s name either since he does not deserve more air time than he has gotten). I see this as yet another example of the spectacular spectacle of Black women’s dehumanization that runs the gamut from Iyanla Vanzant’s/OWN’s pseudo-therapeutic “intervention” in Maia’s life to a young Black man’s calculated decision to humiliate and hypersexualize her.  While it may seem extreme to connect Iyanla to this wanna-be rapper, they connect quite seamlessly for me: both offer up Maia’s body solely for PUBLIC, CONSPICUOUS consumption; neither offer her substance or support in return for the otherwise unttainable attention and stardom they achieve via their chosen media outlets.

As I stated in my opening, in times like these, you need the words of your elders to show/remind you who you really are in the world.  This week, for me, that has meant the AfroLatinx activist, scholar, and teacher, Marta Moreno Vega.  Her closing story in the video below is especially relevant here where she describes her brother’s childhood friend, Jimmy, who was an addict.  One day, Jimmy spoke to her on the street and in her teenage/youth arrogance, she decided he was too dirty and embarrassing to warrant a response or acknowledgement from her.  When Jimmy told Vega’s mother about the incident, Vega was quickly punished and warned that Jimmy’s life could very well be her own, her brother’s, her sister’s, or even her own mother’s life.  Her mother warned her that she must never NOT RECOGNIZE HERSELF IN SOMEBODY ELSE.  As much as social media has offered radical opportunities for a radical Black Presence/ Black Voice/ Black Vision/ Black Humanity, it can eradicate all of that at the same time. The generational wisdom of the elders here as passed down to us from Vega seems critical… seeing ourselves in Maia rather than so easily exploiting her belongs to a legacy of Black expectation that we need to uphold now more than ever.

Lessons from Natural Hair & White Women’s Ongoing Racism

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"My Natural Sistas"

“My Natural Sistas”

This is that time of year when I spend a great deal of time online watching videos and reading articles on how to moisturize my hair.  Between the on-and-off again single-digit cold weather, my hair is dryyyyy.  It’s the typical saga of natural hair for black women in cold winters.  Because my hair has changed its length and texture since my no-heat commitment, it seems that what worked last year doesn’t work this year.  This isn’t a lament about black hair though, because I actually like looking at these blogs, articles, and videos.  The images are stunningly beautiful, the sistas are often funny as all get-out, and the advice is ON. POINT.

Naturally GG

“Naturally GG”

It’s the language of it all that fascinates me.  It’s always in the language, like these phrasings and positioning:

Protective styling (and headwrapping)

Avoiding over-worked hair

Understanding and mixing shea butter

Letting the scalp heal (especially if newly non-relaxed)

Working and nurturing the roots

Cherish My Daughter

“Cherish My Daughter”

I’ll just go for broke and say it straight out: only black women could and would talk about HAIR— their bodies— this way… and digitally so AT THAT!  It’s a discourse wrapped in notions of freedom from work and destruction.

It should not come as a surprise that my conversations with black women, from the compliments to the sharing of styles and product purchases, are qualitatively and quantitively different.  Those conversations are so foreign to most white women around me that this may as well be a language other than English. In many ways, this IS another language. We are talking Afrikan experience.  What other women would make the healing of roots, self-protection, and rejuvenation with shea butter the road to survival?

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You can see then why I was so stunned by a recent blog article circling the internet about a young white woman expressing her turmoil when she realized, during yoga, that the “young, fairly heavy black woman” behind her must resent her thin, white body.  Yeah.  You can’t make this up!  On top of living a racist delusion, she has co-opted a spiritual, non-western practice, YOGA (we seem to forget that yoga was not invented by middle class white women), to experience a false racial superiority.

Charyjay

Charyjay

Now, can sumbody please tell me why women who invent and design practices and languages just to maintain non-white alternatives to their HAIR—with digital tools to educate and sustain one another about it— would be pining away at white women’s bodies?  If that weren’t enough, this white woman also configures herself as an advanced yoga practitioner, but if this is where her mind is during the process, what the hell kinda yogi is this?  I enjoyed Kristin Iversen’s discussion who critiques the commercial white feminism of the journal alongside white colonization of yoga. I also value Tressiemc.com’s review of research on black girls who also have a critique of white standards of beauty at a young age. That’s why I am confused by the black women who perceive this moment as a possibility for good dialogue.  Good for whom?  Black women?  This moment replicates nothing more than Sylvia Wynter’s now longstanding critique of white femininity in her analysis of the Tempest in its depiction of Miranda: the only woman in the New World/Island, the “mode of physiognomic being” that gets canonized as the only “rational object of desire” and “genitrix of a superior mode of human life.”

I won’t mention this woman’s name, because she is not worthy of that.  Just trust that her own physical appearance in no way matches the admiration and awe that she thinks her body engenders.  I ain’t sayin she ugly, but she sho ain’t cute. For black women out there who do aspire to whiteness, this ain’t the white woman they would be aesthetically mimicking (especially when she is sweaty and funky.)  How does someone of such absolute visual mediocrity become convinced she is the center of physical attraction? As is so strikingly evident here, it is a pathologized, corporeal white-thinness alone that is supposed to mark aesthetic power and desire. Truth is, this little dumb blog post isn’t worth the attention it has received (and brought the writer into focus in ways she was perhaps too young to understand, though the journal surely did, with the intimacies of her personal life now publicly on display, i.e., drug abuse).  For my part, I will keep moisturizing my natural hair and using a black woman’s language with black women to navigate the world.  I won’t be standing behind any white woman any time soon with the desire of being that.  I have my own self and black women’s language to sustain me. [/ezcol_1half_end]

Django Rechained: Russell Simmons in Context

horsesI might be the last hold-out, but I finally watched Django Unchained.  I had read and heard so much about it that I really did forget the nature of  Quentin Tarantino’s tomfoolery.  I was stunned, for instance, at the scene where none of the white male nightriders, intent on yet another vicious murder, could agree on what to do with their masks because no one amongst them had the skills to cut eye holes in the right place.  When you see and hear historical footage of the likes of southern police commissioners, governors, et al  justifying Jim Crow, north and south, you won’t be hearing anything that sounds even close to intelligence.  In his zeal to make KKK-styled nightriding into something funny, Tarantino might just have captured white men in that era quite well.

I didn’t watch Django Unchained because I actually wanted to see the movie though.  I watched it because I wanted a deeper context for understanding Russell Simmons’s “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” parody.  Unlike so many others, I didn’t have any questions of why Simmons thought this short skit was fine.  Simmons doesn’t have the kind of ethic or high standard in any aspect of his life for me to expect right-thinking from him.  I am pretty clear that Simmons thought he would be cashing in on this feel-good-slavery-movie era so I have to ask: why the prevalence of this genre in the neoliberal era?  And who does it really belong to?  Who’s “new” history is this?

Lincoln-Movie-Poster-1536x2048_extra_bigI needed to see what this genre is actually doing so I self-hosted my own personal movie night.  I started with the movie, Lincoln, and I was amazed.  Here we have a film that displays just how pro-slavery and anti-black the North really was but yet and still casts the white men of that era and location as the heroes.  We see with our own eyes that many voted in favor of abolishing slavery simply because of the monetary/status/job favors they received because hardly no white man wanted to see slavery end.  It takes some real cinematic orchestration to make it look like progressive thinking triumphs in the end.  And, of course, it is as if the supra-radical Lincoln invented the idea of freedom for black folk. Spielberg insists he created an accurate film of Lincoln’s radicalism but his accuracy is along the likes of his most fantastic cinematic fantasy… E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.  I knew this movie would be as fantasy-based as Django Unchained; I only started with it because it was long and incredibly dull and gave me some background sound and image while I dusted my house.

Abraham-Lincoln-Vampire-Hunter-by-Henry-Jackman-The-Horse-Stampede-2012Next was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  It is actually a good follow-up to Lincoln because in both films, Abe is the sole location of humanity, progress, and radicalism.  And once again, white violence gets minimized, but this time not by a dramatization of white property owners in Congress.   Slavery in this movie is really the work of vampires and so we get a whole new narrative for the origins of white terror and inhumanity that invented and sustained slavery.  It’s all a battle of good vs. evil with the North being good.  This movie is as fictional as Lincoln.  And we get to really see how extreme this absolute cinematic inability to look whiteness in the historical eye of slavery really is.

By the time I got to Django Unchained, I was not surprised by anything anymore.  I knew I would get some real gore and violence but there was, of course, no context for it.  We do get a new male gaze in this movie, however: the white male gaze on black women’s bodies.  There is no black woman in the movie who has any agency but here’s the new, cinematic twist: every sista in the film is stunning, even the mammy who controls the kitchen of Candyland is gorgeous.  Movie mammies are never supposed to be pretty. Kerri Washington is more attractive (and naked) in this movie than she is with all her make-up, fake hair, and designer warddrobe on Scandal… and she has absolutely no personhood.  There are no tired, haggard, tore-up-from-the floor-up black women in this movie because white men are surrounded by dozens of beautiful black women who serve merely as delicious, beautiful backdrop— a Candyland, indeed.  We certainly know that white men did not visit black women in the slave quarters and people their plantations with rainbow hues simply because they had sexual urges. Plantation discourse presents a public discourse that white women were the center of beauty, femininity, and virtue but that has never been true nor was it ever endorsed in private by white men.   All that public discourse did was offer a cover for white men’s sexual violence against black women.  The media unleashes that same public discourse now, with the addition of the Jennifer Lopez’s and Kim Kardashian’s into the center of beauty and purity (yes, after all that impurity, beauty, desire, and profit for them are never threatened). Either Tarantino slipped and let his private world/longings show through and/or he wanted us to really see what white men see and want when they see black women.  

harriet-tubmanWatch these three movies and then play the “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” skit.  It all fits together.  I really do believe Russell Simmons thought this video would be subversive and funny and that he really never meant to offend.  Black people are not at a place where they can create a good, sellable, laughable fantasy story about slavery though, even when we think we are recreating Django Unchained, part two.   We WERE the auction block, not the auctioneers.  That’s the only history we have in the context of slavery and it ain’t re-inventable or fantasizable.  White property today may not mean explicit ownership of black bodies like in slavery, but white property today certainly means an unequivocal control of the ways the histories and legacies of slavery get told.

No, You Can’t Touch My Hair: For Karina

Early this morning, I talked with one of my former students, Karina Ozuna, who was deeply disturbed.  She is trying to make sense of the current public art exhibit going on in Union Square in New York City called “You Can Touch My Hair.”

colonialdiscourse3As you can probably tell, places like twitter are all abuzz.  Like Karina, I understand the desire for a much needed dialogue about black hair but acting like these dialogues can just happen any ol’ where and any ol’ how and outside of discussions of particular sociohistorical experiences and political realities is problematic.  Those of us in NYC know that Union Square gets marked as a hip spot given the characters the park attracts, its radical history, the statue of Gandhi, and the close proximity to places like the New School and New York University.  However, you gotta also know that the rents in that area run at about $2500.00 per month for a small studio.  Yes, I said a studio apartment: one small bathroom, one small closet, and an open space (maybe 15X30 feet) that will include your kitchen.  What might it mean to be a black woman, standing in THAT space, holding a sign asking for folk to come feel on you?  While folk take pictures. This sounds like the neo-racial (usually misnamed post-racial) version of an auction block during slavery… mixed with the infamously racist exhibits at the 1893 World Fair (which celebrated Colored People’s Day by giving all African Americans a free watermelon)… mixed with the 19th century exhibits of and experiments on Sarah Baartman, otherwise known as Venus Hottentot (as depicted in the drawing above).  You really can’t deny the similarities here. Even the designer of the public art exhibit references her inspiration from a white female friend who likened her desire and curiosity to touch black hair with wanting to touch snake skin and rabbit fur.  I love Karina’s response to all of this:

I am assuming that she probably wants to start a dialogue on black hair, and it is usually the job of the oppressed or the objectified to educate the oppressor (paraphrasing Audre Lorde), but why should I have to educate people on my hair, or let people touch it at that? Why must my hair be viewed as “the other” or not the norm?  Why is it so hard to understand that our hair does not grow straight? It is curly, kinky and nappy. My hair grows up, not down, and that is not weird, odd, or abnormal; it is nature, it is an act of God.  This exhibit feels too much like a petting zoo for me, and I’m tired of us getting treated like animals.

I’m with Karina on this one.  I’m not interested in honoring white curiosity and I wonder about the black women who are: the all-consuming fascination with and desire for white attention and approval. I am certainly up for the challenge to interrogate white curiosity of my body but I’m not talking about the kind of interrogation where I trick myself out.  I think this exhibit might confuse too many folk into thinking they can just run up on black folk and cop a feel because, let me tell you this: if someone touches my hair who isn’t my partner, cousin/family, or sista-hairdresser, their fingers gon be mine! To her credit, I think the creator of the exhibit, Antonia Opiah at unruly.com, is willing to welcome such discussions, despite her totally ahistorical and apolitical dismissal of black people who consider the public spectacle of white people running their fingers through black hair an issue of an assumed ownership of black bodies (her response to that interpretation is that such an interpretation is: “extreme and likely written out of the anger and shock of their encounters.”)  What inspires me so much about Karina and her peers is that they do not seem to be missing the 200 years of history that situates this new World Fair happening in Union Square.

I am reminded again of Karla Holloway’s work.  Holloway keeps warning us that there can be no expectation of privacy for black female bodies in our current moment.  We are witnessing an almost automated public spectacle-making of black bodies with media cartels that offer us daily consumption of the likes of Flava Flav, Real Housewives, or Tyler Perry’s newest television shows.  It makes me very nervous when black women choose to forego noticing this reality Holloway describes and, instead, work to promote it. To Karina and all of her sisters and brothers in spirit: keep holding up that righteous indignation.  I am feelin’ you.

Remembering Maya Angelou: “Everybody Takes Their Chance By Taking a Chance On Us”

angelou-picEvery semester, one of my students references or presents one of the following two poems by Maya Angelou: “Still I Rise” or “Phenomenal Woman.”  I think back to the first time I heard those two poems and I remember their stunning impact on me too.  Nevertheless, I get nervous now that Angelou’s work, especially these two poems, are completely commodified and co-opted such that any radical representation of black women in her writing is gone.  Of course, nothing I am saying here is new.  I have especially liked Cheryl Higashida’s discussion of Angelou in her book, Black Internationalist Feminism, where Higashida reads Angelou’s autobiographies as the legacy of black women’s work in the post-World War II anti-colonialist Black Left.  Higashida achieves a nice balance: she acknowledges Angelou’s presence as a Pan African radical; she criticizes the ways that Angelou oftentimes undoes the collective action and consciousness of the Black Left by celebrating individualist (and, thus, capitalist/neoliberalist)  triumph and achievement.   These two poles do not have to be opposing though.  Like I already showed just with black women’s scarf wrapping styles, you can be a bold and emboldened individual and part of a collective too: it just depends on the ideologies you use to situate that individuality.  Black women are often co-opted by mainstream audiences who, in turn, force Angelou’s revolutionary politics into the background by only celebrating the notion of a rise of phenomenal individuals.  Higashida gives me a way to resuscitate Angelou’s fierce Black Feminist Left/Internationalism since, more often than not, that is deliberately erased from view in public celebrations of her work, including those celebrations by mainstream black academics and popular black celebrities.  This ain’t no surprise though now is it?  Put a black woman’s words in the mouths of misogynistic men, undercover-racist white folk who just want folk of color to join the mainstream, or bougsie/wanna-be-rich-and-famous black folk and the message will surely lose its meaning.  Hardly a coincidence.

This semester was a bit of a switch with the video below that one student asked us to watch in my  class. This video features an interview with Maya Angelou after shock jock, Don Imus, authorized himself to call black women on the Rutgers Basketball team out of their names. In that interview, Angelou calls out black men who publicly call black women b**ches but who would never do such a thing with white women in power, giving the then president’s wife, Laura Bush, as an example. I found her most compelling when she responds to Russell Simmon’s comments (at 1:32):

In the beginning of the interview, Angelou erases racial and gendered specificity by calling all vulgarity the same and marking all speakers the same— that’s just not historically accurate as any rhetorician would tell you.  But then the FIRE comes, you can even feel a palpable difference in her speech and vibe. As she states, if black men called white women in power B-words, they would see how powerful they are: “see how long you will live.  There wouldn’t be enough rope to hang your butts.”  This is Angelou at her finest: a poetic way to basically call these men cowards and coons. Angelou goes on to remind us that black women “are last on the totem pole” which means that “everybody has the chance to take a chance on us.”  Again, Angelou at her finest: another poetic way to show that the deliberate degradation of black women by black men for public consumption (while being too scared to do the same with non-black women) only makes you a stupid fool and sell-out. This is the Maya Angelou that mainstream America doesn’t readily present to us: one who locates words and experiences in the unique bodies and historical experiences of black women.  Like she says, there is a reason black men and white men feel so free and comfortable to call women of African descent B-words and no other group.  She leaves it up to imagination and drops off a powerful suggestion at the end, at least this is how I hear it: keeping taking your chance by taking a chance on us and see how we handle your stupid butts!

What Angelou teaches me (and I would say that the same thing is now happening with Ntozake Shange and For Colored Girls) is that I must teach how and why black women’s writings get co-opted… and participate in uncomfortable conversations of how we ourselves participate in this.  It ain’t just the rap video vixens who are out here shaking their behinds for public consumption and pseudo-access to white male power. It’s an important lesson for understanding capitalism, black women, and black women’s rhetoric.