“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.

Remembering George Whitmore this MLK Day

IDFor a few years now, many, many black women have recommended the ID (Investigation Discovery) channel to me.  I always promised to check it out simply because I trust sistas’ judgements about this kind of thing, but I honestly never got around to it.  Quiet as it’s kept, black women talk about the ID channel more than they talk about Scandal; at least to me, they do. What holds constant across these black women’s recommendations is the promise of a representation of bone-chilling criminality and death without the overdetermination of mass media’s (local and national news; shows like CSI, Law and Order; all of the NYPD; etc) equation of violence with blackness.  This is not the goal of the channel and race is never admitted or discussed, but it is all right there for the taking.  This winter break I started watching ID channel and let me just tell you, I ain’t never seen so many murder-hungry white folk in my life…. outside of history books, that is.  Like I said, I trust sistas’ judgements on these kinds of recommendations and they did NOT disappoint.  I can’t even watch this channel late at night because Freddie Krueger and Elm Street ain’t got NUTHIN on the kind of nightmares and fears that this channel induces.

I could tell countless stories of the things I have seen on this channel.  One story in particular fascinated me: the robbery and brutal murder of an elderly white couple in the state of Washington in the dead of winter a few days before Christmas.  (Generally speaking, after these few weeks of watching this channel, I can truly say that if you are in any small town in Utah, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, or Minnesota and you see/hear/feel something kinda strange, RUNNNNN FOR YOUR LIFE!)  Two young white men from the town held the elderly couple at gun-point in their car, took $8500 from them, shot them in their backs, and then threw them on the side of the road in a couple of feet of snow.  It was 20 years before the killers were caught.  One teenager, driving in the car with his mother, saw the elderly couple with the two local men (his friends), knew they had committed the murders as soon as he heard about the incident on the news, and claimed he was so scared that he said nothing about what he saw and knew about that day… for 20 years!  The two culprits moved to Alaska a few months after their crime so this man claimed fear for more than 19 years even though he never saw the two men again. The two criminals abandoned the elderly’s couple’s car at the mall where many locals saw them exit the vehicle with guns under their arms.  Because the law does not require anyone to conceal their firearms in Washington, no one thought anything of it.  Nuthin quite like American shopping malls!  And, it gets better. The two murderers had borrowed the guns they used from a friend, so they returned their borrowings to their friend who suspected what they had done.  The friend simply had his stepfather get rid of the gun to protect the murderers.  Other than a neighbor who saw the two criminals casing the elderly couple’s home, no one in this “warm, small, tight-knit community” (the townspeople’s language, not mine) said a word about what they knew.  Twenty years later, the 60-year old children of the elderly couple hired their own private detectives to secure new leads and discoveries in order to re-open this unsolved case.  At this point, the criminal pair was hidden deep in the arctic jungles of Alaska so when authorities finally found the pair, one had already died: a diabetic who used heroine profusely even though, apparently, diabetes and heroine do not mix.  The other still-living culprit was as cool as a cucumber and even paused to order hisself some chicken wings while being questioned by police. Now, this ain’t such an extreme murder case in the context of the ID channel, but what baffled me the most was the townspeople’s insistence that this town was warm and friendly.  Ain’t enough money in the world that could get me to visit that town and if I ever get stuck there, Ima get down on my knees and pray for escape ideas from the kind of North Star-knowledge of a Harriet Tubman!

In a really strange way, I began to see very clearly how the media really does twist people up.  Racially subordinated groups often believe the stereotypical images of black/brown-as-innately-violent and hate their own skin.  Racially elevated groups believe their kind can do no wrong and risk their daily lives with their inability to see the white dangers right in front of them at the gun-friendly shopping mall. Wow!  This is not a surprise, for sure, but ID channel just showcases these issues in amazing ways. Like I said, there is never any such race-dissection in the shows.  The commentators seem to believe in these delusions of white-town-innocence too.  I most certainly don’t.

So this brings me to the point of this post: THE LIFE OF GEORGE WHITMORE.

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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.

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!

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.