The last time that I taught African American Women’s Rhetorics, I received a thank you letter from a black female student at the end of the term. I am always deeply touched when I receive such letters, and always from students of color, who I don’t think always give themselves enough credit for the deep intellectual work they do themselves and want to, instead, credit the teacher.
This letter, though, was a bit intriguing. In it, the young woman thanked me for getting her to love reading and writing again: the last time she was so engaged was when she was reading and then mimicking in her writing, the Twilight series. Now, I consider myself someone well-versed in popular culture, or rather in the context of new capitalism today in its creation of what should be more aptly called: mass consumer culture. Nonetheless, I just hadn’t paid any attention to this series at all. I’m not sure what my fog was about since the reminders, ads, and paraphernalia are everywhere. This past summer I decided that I needed to really hear what it was that my student was saying to me so I watched the entire series. I am so thankful that I had my sister-friend and professor at Spelman, Michelle, one of the fiercest thinkers I know, who really helped me deal with how traumatized I (still) am by this series. Imagine my surprise when I learned that this series was about…drumroll… vampires! And white vampires, at that, in white cake make-up so that they can look even whiter within uber-wealthy elite circles, aesthetically enamored by white canons of art. Meanwhile, a community of Indigenous folk are animals/wolves living in poverty and out in the wild who cannot fully control their primal urges. At the center of this foolishness is a young, sweet, innocent white virgin who everyone loves, adores, protects, and builds their life around to the point where she has no authority or personality (except for pained, cross-eyed, seemingly-constipation-induced, facial expressions… the acting is just horrible!) I watched the series almost frozen… and deeply impacted by how much work still needs to be done when young black women are coerced into believing that any part of this story, a story that my student is/was literally reading and writing into her own life, will ever represent their own social circumstances or life opportunities as black women. I have heard many activists argue that we need to stop criticizing young women for consuming popular culture like this because we have to meet these young women where they are. I agree. Of course, we need to meet them where they are (and where else would we meet them anyway: the moon?) but we need some analysis to comprehend these locations.
Of course, I go straight back to Wynter’s essay, “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings,” that I have already talked about here. It seems that the mass consumer culture that is targeting youth has simply recreated Prospero, Caliban, and Miranda where the presence of black women is again in absence. Wynter’s essay takes Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, and shows how Miranda, the only woman in the New World/Island is a “mode of physiognomic being” that gets canonized as the only “rational object of desire” and, therefore, the “genitrix of a superior mode of human life.” In sum, she argues that being a black feminist/womanist means contending with this mode in a way that must rewrite the entire episteme. Black women’s absence is, thus, always “an ontological absence… central to the… secularizing behaviour-regulatory narrative schema… by which the peoples of Western Europe legitimized their global expansion as well as their expropriation/marginalization of all the other population-groups of the globe.” I can’t think of a more relevant context for Wynter’s essay, despite post-modernist pundits that would suggest such categories are no longer entrenched (Have they not watched this movie?) than this movie/series my student is so compelled by. It becomes even more horror-laden when you think that Twilight has its adult-counterpart in the mega-million-selling sensation, the Fifty Shades series, whose story almost mimics the plot of Twilight. Obviously, it ain’t just kids who like Miranda’s saga and for whom mass consumer culture continually reproduces her, what Wynter more aptly calls a “regime of truth.” This seems directly related to what Wynter called the “situational frame of reference of both Western-European and Euroamerican women writers,” a frame that she contends even critical theorists like Irigaray did not fully escape.
From the time I first read “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings,” I have been drawn to Wynter’s notion of what it means to shift or mutate an age/epoch/episteme into another, a shift she doesn’t feel most bourgeois African American feminists actually achieve (often mimicking or refiguring “Miranda” and other forms of empire). Her 2000 Interview with David Scott in Small Axe (Volume 8) also challenges how I think about popular culture/mass consumer culture. In the interview, she argues that an economic/bio-economic conception of the human mandates that capitalism currently functions as the only mode of production for our everyday expressions (see page 160). Her argument convinces me that what we often do theoretically and academically in scholarship about mass consumer culture reifies these bio-economic conceptions. There seems an undeniable willingness to engage scholarship itself as a commodity for writing/researching about grossly commodified, popular culture. I do follow popular culture and think it is critical to understand how oppression and domination look and get maintained. However, Cedric Robinson‘s warning is one I can’t ever forget: black intellectual work always gets commodified, as easily and readily as the work of any rapper, singer, dancer, actor/actress. Investigating popular culture in a way that shifts our current bio-economic overdetermination is a feat different from producing writing/research that will be widely consumable. Maybe many of us have gotten to a place where we think the commodification and mass appeal of black intellectual thought are the same things as a deep, political and intellectual engagement with it.
As for my Twilight-loving student, I think/hope she will still hold on to what she walked away with: a deep anger that Twilight was imposed on her will and imagination rather than the singular text of the semester that really rattled her and got her to love to read and write… Ida B. Wells’s The Red Record. In other words, I hope she/we will move beyond Miranda’s meanings and I hope she/we can move closer towards that kind of epistemic shift that Wynter always describes.