Impact of U.N.I.T.Y.: “You Gotta Let Em Know”

U.N.I.T.Y. Another one of them songs so many young black college students today still seem to know, even though it was released in 1994.  There is more going on here than a mainstream success story about a rap song.

This week, we looked at femcees, bgirls, and female DJs as rhetors in my class which invariably means folk start talking about Queen Latifah’s UNITY (again, this is not from my explicit directions since students were given over 50 artists/videos to choose ONE from this week).  This year I just went ahead and added the cut to a very long playlist. Of course, this year, like all years, UNITY was a point of chosen focus and all hell broke loose in class.  Maybe that’s an overstatement. I’ll just be more bourgeois and say the class grew contentious. Yup.  Over Latifah’s UNITY.  This has happened every time for more than a few years now.

Here’s how it goes down.  Some student, typically white (a white student or a non-black student who culturally identifies as white), who is not a Hip Hopper, proceeds to tell the black women in the class that this song is neither positive nor socially valuable.  Queen Latifah is routinely condemned for HER language and for her aggressive content, lyrical style, voice, and body postures.  Yes, this condemnation happens every single time and always around the word, “bitch.”  Because of the song’s message, radio stations didn’t bleep Queen Latifah when she said “bitch,” “hoe”, or those infamous, opening lines “Who you callin a bitch?” These words are left in tact no matter where it gets played and are not marked as “other” with labels of parental advisory suggestions.

You know what else happens every single time Queen Latifah and this song get condemned in my class?  The sistas just ain’t havin’ it.  Not a single one of them.

lupe-fiasco-bad-bitchThough I always loved that young people were influenced so positively by the song, the song seemed rather trite and, to me, stopped short on analysis (I had been a die-hard Latifah fan on the first two albums, not really this third one).  If a man calls me a bitch or hoe, Ima check him and get at him.  That just seems like a rather casual fact-of-life to me.  I was actually teaching high school at the time when the record dropped and even witnessed a young black woman beat the hell out of a boy who wouldn’t stop calling all girls in the school bitches; they ironically became good friends after that and, not ironically, he stopped using the B-word.  So this argument and request that black men stop calling black women bitches and hoe sounded like a simple-enough position to me.  Queen Latifah (as femcee, that is) is hardly the most “aggressive” or in-yo-face personality my students meet in the course of a semester.  In fact, I would argue that Shirley Chisholm gave the folk the business even tougher this semester.  But yet, these women of the past are not perceived as a threat to white students who authorize themselves to publicly devalue black women, even in a college classroom that is 95% filled with educated black women whose academic records and abilities far exceed theirs (I am a writing teacher and grade the papers, so you can trust me on THAT one).  This is why I need the classroom to remind me just how thick this ish can get.  Apparently, what I see as a pretty simple and straight-forward request on Latifah’s part ain’t easy to digest at all, not even 19 years later from the song’s release date.  Black men targeting black women (or some of them, as the apologists, from Tupac on down, like to say about not saying all women are bitches and hoes, as if that’s different) is VIOLENCE, plain and simple, and it is very regularized and normal.  When I forget that, all I have to do is listen when someone references U.N.I.T.Y. and watch white students, both male and female, do their best to deny Queen Latifah’s right to name and define herself outside of bitch and hoe!

I had a long conversation with one of my students, Vaughn, about this song.  Vaughn pointed out what he sees as the real threat that Latifah poses: it’s her deliberate and clear call for black solidarity.  Misogyny and sexism are called out for the sake of black unity, not for the sake of shaming black men, and Queen Latifah does this successfully.  Of course, theorists and scholars are often quick to remind me that it is naive and romantic to think that one song or one artist can counter and reverse patriarchy and deeply embedded systems of social injustice.  But, if Vaughn is right, and I think he is, then the disruption that THIS song wreaks each time it plays or gets discussed in my classes has more power than what we like to admit. When I say I learn from my classrooms just as much from the scholarship I read, it is these kinds of lessons I have in mind.  Maybe Queen Latifah hasn’t converted the misogyny of black men with this song, but, as far as I can see in my classrooms, she certainly intimidates and threatens white power… let em know, Queen!

Impact of Lauryn Hill: Beyond Double Standards

“I don’t know any black woman that could go out here and make a sex tape and get a cupcake line, a clothing line, a perfume line, and be touted around on the arm of an athlete like this is my girl, cuz you know when we do that kind of stuff we called Supahead… I’m [not] put on a pedestal like the other women.”  ~Sherri Shepherd

These were the words spoken by Sherri Shepherd on a panel discussing black men and women’s relationships.   I was struck by the relevance and accuracy of the sentiment but also by her ability to push this reality much farther than how we usually like to see and talk about such issues: as “double standards.”   This notion of “double standards” just doesn’t go far enough and stops incredibly short of any real analysis.  I prefer bell hooks’s terminology: “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy”— a totalizing and interlocking system.  Strange as it may seem, there was something, or rather someone, in particular who triggered my memory of Sherri Shepherd’s words and my general disdain for every everyday discourse that names social violence on black women as “double standards”:  that person is Lauryn Hill.

lauryn-hill1Quite frankly, with the exception of my classrooms that enroll large numbers of young black women, most of what I hear black folk— men and women alike— discuss in relation to Lauryn Hill is her mental and emotional collapse after her album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.  Between the emotional abuse she has obviously endured from her partner, the inability to perform with her original music and hence the bands she deploys, the legal tax issues she faces, and the allegations of mental breakdown and drug use, she gets dissed all around.  And yet, every time I see Bobby Brown or Q-Tip, I suspect the crackpipe is not far away.  In the words of Rick James, cocaine is a helluva drug! I always (secretly, I admit) wonder when Busta Rhymes is going to leave the steroids alone because something just ain’t lookin right (I say the same about L.L. Cool J and Botox).  Wesley Snipes still ain’t figured out what taxes are.  I am also amazed by the way we enshrine Eazy-E without nary a word that the brotha died of AIDS with seven children from six different women. Needless to say, that brotha was clearly into some shit (not unlike the many, many men Supahead so fabulously chronicled for us). The folk who are so curiously silent on these issues are the same fools who diss Lauryn.  Double standards?  Naw.  There’s more than just that going on here.Lauryn+Hill+PNG

Like what I recently said about Aja Monet, Lauryn Hill gets love from my students every semester.  I don’t even have to bring her name up— they will do the work.  I am noticing this more now as I close out a semester of teaching black women’s rhetoric.  I see my students’ embrace of Lauryn Hill as a way they combat a system intent on stealing a black woman’s light, a system that they too are up against.

I am confident today that my students have a substantial, new body of knowledge on black women’s history, that they even know some rhetorical theory as well as black feminist thought.  But what I am most impressed with is the way they fight for black women’s lives: they fight to let. black. women. live.  That’s what I see them doing with Lauryn Hill against an “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” that intends to obliterate her.  I stand with my students on this one: much love to you, Lauryn! 

Liberated Response to Patriarchy

Imagine that you are a black woman who had a full-day, grueling job interview and then returned to your hotel room to speak to your partner until 1am in the morning, though you needed to return to the interview at 8am the next morning.  In the course of the day, you did not encounter any other black person so you know that taking this job will be more than a notion.  Your partner, a black man, is in distress via work-related issues (since his job looks similar) and so that is all that you talk about because, after all, this is what it means to truly support someone.  However, never once, not even in the weeks and months later, did he ask you what happened at that interview (and clearly a lot happened since the interview lasted for more than 15 hours).   As a black female professional/academic, this scenario is more common than not and approximates the kinds of conversations I routinely have with many girlfriends— married, dating, looking, AND single-by-design.  And while this example is certainly from a now bygone and regrettable past, it ain’t that past as to represent some kind of different century when women were supposed to just be barefoot and pregnant… and yet, you would think so.

After Tyler Perry dropped yet another movie about purposeless/pathetic/pathologized black women, I spent my last week talking to many black female students about their anxiety that their professional success will make them undesirable to black men, the message they receive everywhere around them (the weeks after a Tyler Perry movie are always a rollercoaster ride in my office with young black women who want to talk about relationships).  Even Tyrese, RayJay, and Keith Sweat give dumb, misogynistic advice in new relationship books targeting black women now. To quote Keith Sweat himself: sumthin sumthin just ain’t right. With Steve Harvey’s banal relationship books topping numerous bestseller lists (and considered one of the top 10 bestselling relationship books of all times) followed by his movie that grossed 28 million dollars in its first week, there is obviously some real big money in black men telling black women what to do. I usually ignore this stuff because it is just so simple and played-out but I end up chiming in, if only to shift the direction of the conversation when I am talking to young black women.

Now let’s imagine another scenario.  A black woman’s partner disappears for 6-8 weeks to focus on his own project but expects that she’ll be there waiting when he returns.   The culture of patriarchy nurtures men to live this way as stoic, individual prototypical Lone Rangers who keep to themselves, presumably able to move through the world all alone and on their own, so this scenario should not seem so strange.  On the rare occasion when the partner checks in (maybe between coffee stops and drinks at the bar), she is expected to listen and give support. Nevertheless, he never once gives any such support to her though her own project is just as critical during this 6-8 week period. Though there were some occasions when she was supported (like, maybe, in the very beginning), those occasions are not in the majority because, after all, as a black woman, she is regarded as someone made of Teflon. As such, her person isn’t seen as needing the same kind of care, attention, or defense as a non-black woman (or in more pessimistic terms, black women are simply not as valued as white women or other non-black/women of color so are not seen as deserving of care).  It’s not an understatement to say that many of us feel like we are supporting and holding up the world and never getting that back in return from anyone anywhere. Self-help books do get some of it right though: folk (family, friends, partners) will take and take and take and give almost nothing, but ONLY if you let them.  These texts, however, offer no critical social-help.   The kind of support that women need in these new work-worlds that look unlike what women have ever entered in such large numbers is simply not forthcoming from many male partners at home.   Unlike what you get in mainstream discourse, black women are not trippin’ because we make more money than black men, because there is no one to date, or because we have terminal degrees with extra letters behind our names now (see what I have to say about what it is like to be a black woman in graduate school and you will really understand that we do NOT experience ourselves as being on top of the world).  You have to wonder how and why white mainstream pundits and black male public figures so frequently talk this way about black women.  We can STOP talking now about how to “find a good man,” the mantra you hear ad nauseum.  This notion of “finding a good black man” sticks too closely to the good man/bad man binary under patriarchy (a good man is, after all, just a benevolent patriarch).  We need to instead START talking about building a partnership with a LIBERATED MAN (yes, they exist), which is what I think Jill Scott has in mind here:

These very public (and lucrative) discussions about cultivating black professional women to find black male partners is just a cover-up for the real issues: what will happen to partnering in a patriarchal system when the economic world no longer gives ANY man the sole capacity to be bread-winners (poor black men have always faced this)?  Will we re-script maleness or just blame this newest lack of breadwinning on women/feminism rather than on new modes of capitalism?  Will femaleness get re-scripted or will we go to work, come home, and then act as if we are still stay-at-home moms so that patriarchy can look in tact?

Old, patriarchal models won’t serve working women well who need the same emotional support that men have always been able to count on from women (see the above examples).  The crisis of patriarchy under new capitalism means white supremacy punishes black women the most by labeling us as most undesirable or irrational (or just such robust workers/cotton-pickers that we won’t need anyone or anything). These exaggerated levels of attention that get paid to professional black women who are “unable” to “find” “good, black men” COULD actually point us in the direction of a new rupture of patriarchy if we see that, at root, that is really what we are talking about. Black women’s discourses can lead the way here just as much as when black women became the first and only women to openly and publicly critique male physical and sexual abuse via the Blues— a historical fact that I see as the single-most important contribution of Angela Davis’s book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.  The fact of the matter is that the model of male breadwinner/patriarch and stay-at-home wife (or the almost stay-at-home wife with a man who earns twice as much and who, therefore, has the career/needs that take precedence) is no longer viable for anyone except a very small 5% of the wealthy, elite.  That was never viable for working-class black people anyway but now a more multi-hued middle class is getting to experience what po’ black folk have always faced, hence, all this attention.  And in true American fashion, the nation will work out its psychoses on black bodies.  Unless you are with a trust-fund baby or a Wall Street crook, you gon be workin in the 21st century.  Old notions of domesticity just won’t cut it, not even for white male patriarchs.  I suspect black women will be the ones to take on this charge of re-framing how we understand these old notions though we won’t be acknowledged as such… right now, that is certainly what my office hours are looking and sounding like.

Black Bodies, Public Spectacle, and Narrative: Lessons from Karla Holloway

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks

I recently listened to a talk given by Karla Holloway at Georgia Tech University.  In her talk, Holloway discusses Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, now destined for HBO, courtesy of Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball.  In her book trailer, Skloot herself confirms that it is the characters that basically make this science book readable and riveting to a general audience.  Henrietta Lacks, known by the medical/science industry as HeLa, was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 for developing what we now know to be the vaccine for polio and the central tools for cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more.  Her cells have made billions of dollars but her family, then and now, do not have even health insurance.  The story is now widely known and was even dramatized/re-mixed by one of the Law and Order episodes.  What Skloot’s book does though is take us deep into the interior of this family, putting her, rightly so, in the direct line of Holloway’s fire.

In her talk, called “Henrietta Lacks and the Ethics of Privacy,” Holloway asks a compelling question: “which bodies have earned the public presumption of the right of privacy and which are available, reasonably available, for public scrutiny?”   Her own research shows that it is blacks and women who are most “readily rendered up for public storytelling,” what she calls a “persistent loss of privacy” where privacy is a “right” only granted to some audiences.  Holloway connects Skloot’s book to shows like the Real Housewives series and their exploitative representations of women, Maury Povich’s media publication of paternity cases, and Jerry Springer’s public consumption of community and family dysfunction.  She sees these media empires as the motivation and subtext for the ways in which Skloot invades and publicly showcases the lives, medical records, and stigmatized diseases of Henrietta Lacks and her family.  The most intimate medical histories are made public in this book, alongside a kind of voyeuristic unveiling of Deborah Lacks’s (the daughter) challenges with understanding medicine/science, the details of one of Lacks’s son and his time in prison, and even the amount of Deborah’s disability checks. Deborah Lacks actually dies before the manuscript was published so there clearly was none of what we qualitative researchers like to call “member checking” on the final product here.  Holloway reveals that she herself is uncomfortable in even summarizing Skloot’s book because it would mean participating in the very violation of this family’s history that the book exploits. What Holloway clearly shows here is a kind of parasitic relationship between a wealthy white journalist mining the stories and family histories of the Lacks and to brilliant fanfare given how well the book has sold and been awarded.  In sum, Henrietta Lacks’s body was “stripped” as a spectacle, first, in the name of science research, and now in the new telling that Skloot engages.   Holloway doesn’t hesitate to connect this history of violence and exploitation on black bodies in the name of academic research and public spectacle to James Marion Sims and his experiments on black slave women (Sims invented the speculum, made of bent spoons, to see inside of women’s uterus) and Katherine Stockett’s imagination of race in The Help.

What Holloway also compellingly shows me is that the focus on crafting a tantalizing, evocative narrative about black women’s bodies is rooted in historical white violence. A story is not good because it is widely read by and marketable to a general public already mesmerized by the likes of “Real Housewives,” Maury, Jerry Springer, The Help, and the general set of pathologies and dysfunction under capitalism.  This is not to say that black people do not themselves choose to offer their bodies and stories up for public spectacle, only that there is a history of white supremacy and consumption that makes this thinkable and desirable.

I am compelled by Holloway’s discussion as both a qualitative researcher and a writing teacher.  How you write, what you say, how you say it, who you talk about, and what you say/include are always deeply political and enmeshed in the ways that the culture tells you to consume black bodies. If the narratives we write as and about black women do not take as their first call of duty an unflinching critique of the unjust systems in which our bodies get defined and used, including the marketing and/or academic systems that tell/sell our stories, it seems to me that we are just being served up again as a James Marion Sims’s experiment.  Holloway has a stunning critique of these unjust systems and points us toward new directions in how we analyze, write, and talk about those systems too.

“My Time as a Human Was Over”

Based mostly at the suggestion of various friends, I have been catching up on movies that I needed to see, in the cultural sense, but didn’t necessarily want to see, in the political sense.  As always, I am traumatized by these viewing experiences.

First was the movie, Flight.

Then I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Then came that final twilight foolishness: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 2. I have already talked about that here so, unsurprisingly, I didn’t change any of my positions on THAT.

20121030132042I really couldn’t get past the first five-minute frames of each of these movies and, ironically, each started basically the same: with a twisted, pornographic imagination where women are slithering animals and sexual objects.  I was actually surprised by Flight, despite all that I had heard about using Denzel, a black man, to play an addict.  I didn’t expect for the movie to open by showcasing a Latina’s naked body (played by Puerto Rican actress and model, Nadine Velazquez).  I expected that we wouldn’t see Denzel fully naked, not because it’s Denzel, but because it is quite normative for every ad, video, or television show to have a fully clothed man next to an almost naked woman.  There’s no logic to a man dressed in long sleeves and coat standing next to a woman in a bikini—someone must be really cold or someone must be really hot— other than the deliberate parading/selling of women’s bodies.  As I watched Flight, Denzel’s white female love interest (played by Kelly Lynch)— an unemployable drug addict who almost dies from an overdose— is never shown fully naked, not even in the studio where her friend/drug-supplier is making porn videos. Instead, this white love interest is frequently told by a cancer victim of her beauty, gets saved by Denzel from her eviction and landlord ‘s physical violence, and then she saves Denzel in the end by introducing him to AA.  A (black) shining knight to the rescue of a white woman!  The movie seems to make a point of letting us know that the first woman is Latina by stating her full name more than a few times.  Intentionally so, this is not another J-Lo-featured movie where we have a Latina playing/passing as a white woman. Though he defends her in the end, Denzel’s Latina love interest does not receive the same salvation in this movie as the white woman.  The two black women in the movie are not even full characters: the ex-wife is scorned, angry, alone, and demanding money; the co-worker is asexual and loyal (even if it means telling a torturous lie) til the very end, the perfect mammy.  The talk about the movie seemed to question why Denzel’s love interest couldn’t have been a black woman, but the answer to that question seems obvious and does not begin to deal with what the movie does with Latina bodies (and that’s only ONE of the problems with the movie).  Clearly, when we talk about the sexual exploitation of women’s bodies, not all women are equally exploited and sexualized, and white women seem to always be rescued.  But we knew this already, didn’t we?

936640_068Beasts of the Southern Wild opens with a little black girl climbing around in her underwear (Hush Puppy, played by Quvenzhané Wallis).  It’s unnecessary to repeat all of the problems with the images of this little black girl in this film.  At this point, all you need to do is read bell hooks’s analysis, “No Love in the Wild,” on Mark Anthony Neal’s blog.  I was, unsurprisingly, mesmerized by Wallis’s talent as well as Dwight Henry who played the father; both are very talented within a script that could not adequately allow for it.   At this point though, I am most stunned by the willingness of adults— whether it be 21st century parents, Catholic priests, or film producers— to sexualize children’s bodies with the aid of digital cultures, social networking, and other multimedia operations.  The gaze of these filmmakers on Hush Puppy’s body feels no different to me than the gaze of the new digital archivist-parent who posts videos of her half-naked child on youtube, including my own college peers, who post endless photos of their children (and themselves) on Facebook half-naked all the time (these are supposedly protected FB sites and yet I am not even on FB and can get access).  And while cultural critics can talk forever and a day about the necessary and positive blurring of private and public and the rupture of respectability politics, there is something really wrong when parents have their small children perform, wearing only underwear or pajamas, in front of a camera for a youtube audience in the context of a cyber-world that daily criss-crosses with pedaphiliac violence. Everyone has a role in digital empire and this is what it looks like for exploited children and their digitized pimp/parent. You need only watch shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras” to see that parents willingly and regularly participate in the media pimping of their children quite regularly in all kinds of ways. I agree with hooks that  Beasts of the Southern Wild certainly participates in this culture of commodifying children’s bodies but in my mind, it is doing so as the new digitized pimp-parenting, not simply as a Hollywood tool.

As for the last installment of Twilight?  Well, like I said before: it is something I have had to keep up with in order to experience what many of my students have experienced.  Here again, we have a woman slithering around, literally roaming the woods, climbing walls, hunting for blood/food, like a starved animal, because she is a vampire now.  At least, unlike Trina in Flight and Hush Puppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, she gets some supernatural powers.  Bella tells us somewhere in the movie that her time as a human was over, but given these images, one might wonder if women were ever allowed to fully participate as human in the first place.