“The Unwritten Rules” Writes B(l)ack

I am not a regular watcher of RHOA, those Hip Hop minstrel shows (Flava of Love, Love and Hip Hop, T.I.& Tiny, et al), or any reality TV actually.  I have seen some of the episodes and have read other people’s commentary but that’s about it.  I didn’t watch weekly episodes of Scandal or even the Wire; I watched entire seasons all at once on Netflix after the hype.  I was usually disappointed.  I have, however, watched every episode of “The Unwritten Rules.”  “the Unwritten Rules” is a web-series based on the book, 40 Hours and an Unwritten Rule: The Diary of a N**ger, Negro, Colored, Black, African-American Woman, by Kim Williams, the executive producer and writer of the show. Each episode revolves around a young, black woman, Racey (Aasha Davis), and her life as the “Black Co-Worker” in a white workplace.  Last week’s episode, part of the new Season 2, may have been my favorite.

unwritten-rulesIn just one, rather short episode, there is a parody of the WWCW (white woman crying at work), the transracial adoption of (Madonna’s) African children, the attack on the head black official as a socialist, issues around black hair & discipline with white parenting, the difference in expectations of black female labor vs. white female labor, and the definition of white privilegitis… now this is TELEVISION, honey!  After Issa Rae’s success, an opening was created (inkSpotEntertainment and BlackandSexyTV are my favorites) for these shows and the hits seem to keep coming.

This is, by far, my favorite workplace comedy because the comedy actually depicts experiences that I can relate to and call my own.  For some of us, racial micro-agressions, institutional racism, and anti-black hostility are as everyday as taking a lunch break.  Isn’t it ironic then that for most of the television viewing of my life, these everyday realities have been relegated, at most, to a special episode?  For me, “the Unwritten Rules” also highlights how politically and ideologically bankrupt our requests for “representation” often are.  We constantly ask to see larger numbers of ourselves on film and television but that is meaningless unless our request also demands a sharp airing of the social and political issues that we face. This web series is a step in the right direction.

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.

Wrapping Our Heads: Archiving Black Women’s Style Politics

IMG_8438I learned to wrap my hair with a scarf with age-cousins to protect my braids and beads as a little girl.  Today, each evening, on a night when I have to go to work/school the next day, I twist my hair and still tie my hair with a silk scarf.  Now spring is ending, summer vacation is here, work is over, and the incentive for my time-consuming semi-daily twist-outs and intense moisturizing are long gone (check out HIMAY10NENCE for the most exquisite description of how time-consuming and difficult this process is!)  Couple all that with the fact that now is the best time to purchase scarves and what you have is a new fashion/hair moment: the head scarf as fashion, not just sleepwear.  At this time of year, I can find $10 silk scarves and $3 faux silk scarves all because capitalist clothing machinery imagines women’s scarves as fall and winter apparel for white women’s necks rather than the superfly and protective cover for black women’s heads.

I have gone to youtube for headscarf tutorials as much as for natural hair care regiments.  It is not a coincidence that at precisely the moment when black women are exploiting social media to educate and communicate with one another about natural hair that headscarf fashions are also taking full bloom.  Yes, the headscarf is connected to natural haircare and protection, but there is also a whole other public discourse happening here, one that is re-tooling and re-vocabularizing black women’s beauty and heads away from a white media cartel that has quite purposefully desexualized, criminalized, and uglified black women in headwraps.

aunt-jemima3I think a lot about what possessed white media monopolies to craft historical images of blackwomen in headscarves as the epitome of unattraction, care of white children/families, desexualization, enslaved domesticity, self-hatred, and backwardness.  Here, of course, I am talking about Pancake-Making Aunt Jemima, the most obvious visual marker and stereotype (cartoons were also subsumed with such images). I won’t go into the history of Aunt Jemima and its ideological purpose in creating white nationhood (that will happen later this summer), but suffice it to say that derogatory and racist images of Aunt Jemima always depicted her in a headscarf, pretty much up until 1989 when she got a perm and pearls (of course, it was not JUST the headscarf that was mocked but the FULL body and skin). The question for me is: why did white women and white men need so desperately to take the cultural image of the black woman’s headwrap and negate it so fiercely?

The images in the slideshow below are taken from black women’s online sites (click here for a sample website).  I think the slideshow makes it clear that it took an INORDINATE amount of calculation, time, and visual sorcery/dishonesty for media monopolies to make such women and their adornments ugly. Was the distinctiveness of this beauty and style politics THAT threatening to the maintenance of white male dominance and white femininity?

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We know from the oral histories of former slaves collected by the Federal Writers Project that black women during slavery used headwraps for utilitarian, symbolic, and ornamental reasons. Even those interviewers, considered young “progressive” whites for their time, talked about their black female interviewees in headwraps as typical, old “mammies” in head rags so you have to read the descriptive details about the ways the scarves were wrapped very closely.  In the objective descriptions of intricate scarf wrappings and patterns, you can hear that these were not women who considered themselves ugly or their headwraps as marking an informal, mammy time.

In even this famed photo of some of the slaves who built the White House, you can witness the range of headwrap styles.

In even this famed photo of some of the slaves who built the White House, you can witness the range of headwrap styles.

Black women’s headwraps protected their hair and scalp from heat and sun as well as kept their hair clean. But these wraps were also symbols and adornment.  There are records of slaveowners, particularly white female slave mistresses, who commented in disgust at how bright black women’s headwraps were, seen a mile away.  When I try to imagine what that scene must have looked like in reality, I envision something quite splendid!  While other whites would have understood these white women’s responses as a commentary on black women’s subhuman status, I see it as proof that black women in slavery used headscarves as ornaments that marked their beauty and themselves in community with other black women.  We also know from the historical record that black women wore different kinds of headscarves for formal events (funerals and the like) and also tied them differently for different occasions. In photos before AND after emancipation, you can see groups of black women in headscarves where no two headscarves look the same: the patterns and the wrappings are endlessly varied, working as a kind of improvisational performance reminiscent of a Jazz Quartet…. an elaborate individuality alongside community rhythm at the same time.

Other aesthetic philosophies are also operating here.  European-descended women, of course, wore headscarves too, usually called kerchiefs, but they were styled in a different way.  Headwraps tied at the front of the crown rather than at the nape of the neck is an aesthetic invention of West African women solely.  For the West/subsaharan African-inspired headwrap, facial features are intentionally highlighted with a scarf that wraps upward to draw your eyes up rather than allowing you to look down on a woman.  Since black women under slavery were the ones who did ALL of the sewing and weaving, black women obviously had access to a range of fabric remnants to create headwraps (they even used sailcloths when necessary); they also carried memories of African patterns and design (you can clearly see this in slave women’s quilts), cloth dying techniques, and alternative philosophies of women’s ornamentation. So these headwraps carried heavy meanings that black women both understood and actively manipulated.  While whites used headwraps to mark black women as different from and inferior to white women (there are records of laws in Louisiana, for instance, that made women of African descent wear their headwraps in specific ways to better recognize them, especially significant for those who could pass for white as mulattoes), black women had their own meanings.  Headwraps were particular to black women and represented radical ideas about hair, face, and beauty: defiant, self-empowered, communal, individual, resistant.  Was the distinctiveness of this beauty and style politics THAT threatening to the maintenance of white male dominance and white femininity?  Yes, indeed.  Nothing else adequately explains how something so seemingly benign as a headscarf had to be so demonized and mocked.

I hope it makes sense how and why I use youtube to “archive,” if you will, black women’s headwrapping today.  Given the history I have discussed, it seems safe to say that the endless renditions of black women’s headwrapping and design materials that you can find on youtube tutorials (which include women from the Americas and Europe) represent deep, ancestral ties.

Page 28 of the June 2013 Issue of Essence Magazine

Page 28 of the June 2013 Issue of Essence Magazine

These are not just the scarves that all black women have come to know— those wraps either we ourselves or women around us wear to bed at night. No, these wraps by young women on youtube are used as the centerpiece of outfits or as THE accessory which sets off the rest, just like what their predecessors did.  My time in classrooms is also a good litmus test: I have seen more and more young black female college students wearing fabulous, intricate headwraps in the past five years than EVER before.

I hear a lot of people say that today’s black women are taking back the headwrap from the negative, racist stereotype of white media’s invention of Aunt Jemima.  But I don’t see us as taking anything back... I think we are holding on to what we have always had.  

“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.

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.