The Records We Leave Behind…


Lynch Law in All Its Phases by Ida B. Wells

I would like to think that I am cognizant and critical of what Adolph Reed has called the tendency to romance Jim Crow where the nostalgia of a more settled, dignified black community often masks class inequalities and deep economic deprivation.  I understand his point and yet, I do believe that there were some political understandings in that moment that we just do not have now.  Poverty does not make you uncritical; but today’s consumer capitalism, media, mass/popular culture surely do.  Today, I am thinking about this in terms of the record we leave behind and how we understand the lives of children of color who are not our own.

The June 12 video at the youtube channel called AllThingsHarlem made me think of this because I see the filmmaker as a Red-Record-Keeper, as part of a historical black protest tradition (and obviously, by calling him a Red-Record-Keeper, I am referencing Ida B. Wells’s writing where she chronicled and protested lynch law).

For me, this kind of video is the best of what youtube and the digital universe have to offer me.  Because our digital world is market-driven under new regimes of capitalism and the individualist, neoliberal imperative, this kind of work at AllThingsHarlem is hardly the norm.

I see this Red-Record-Keeper doing something phenomenally different from what I see many folk of color doing online when it comes to youth: building a kind of digital resume of their children’s individual accomplishments and feats.  I understand that people live long distances from their extended families and share information online but I don’t get when these sites and images are open to the public, which is more normative than not.  And I don’t get when these children’s lives are being chronicled as triumphs of neoliberal accumulation instead of openings into the larger communities in which we come to understand ourselves.


Crocodile Dundee and His Black Friend/Brother

I am reminded here of an acquaintance who pointed me in the direction of his friend, a scholar of color, who he continually INSISTED was a kind of third-world-radical, never really backing down from that position.  On the contrary, I saw this person as someone who was performing a kind of caricature of a radical-chic, never concealing how mesmerized by and covetous of whiteness they were, and claiming minority status only when it was convenient after almost a lifetime of passing as white— all of which are pretty common in academia.  Simply out of curiosity, I decided to do some google image and video searching.  I was convinced that this scholar would showcase all manner of white individualism in personal photos and videos online.  I was not wrong.  I typed in the scholar’s name and then, just one click in, there were photos of not-so-cute children (I am mean, I know, but I gotta be honest here), with one dressed as Crocodile Dundee and it was NOT even Halloween!!   That’s right: Halloween wasn’t even around the co’ner; this was a reg’lar excursion. I’m dead-serious. I really wouldn’t lie about something like this.  I couldn’t even make up something like this if I wanted to.  Yes, a “third world radical” calling their child the white male character in a horribly racist and colonialist film (I wouldn’t have actually known that the intention was for the child to look like Dundee but it was explicitly named and celebrated as such in the caption/title.)  Now, you would think my acquaintance would have mentioned or questioned this stuff since he certainly witnessed all of it way before I did and in much stronger doses (that one photo was all I could stand …I couldn’t even glance at all the foolishness captured on video).  Since all these folk proclaim themselves radical scholars, they must think that the very real nooses around black people’s necks in Wells’s The Red Record were simply a theoretical metaphor. And KRS-One’s words about police brutality must also just be more metaphor, just a background song on the video above, all while black and Latin@ children are routinely violated just on their way to school in NYC.  This very real violence is simply not part of your politics when you are digitally celebrating your children’s visual proximity to Crocodile Dundee with a peanut gallery of folk of color proclaiming and co-signing this as “radical” consciousness.

Crocodile Dundee and His Other Black Friend

Crocodile Dundee and His Other Black Friend/Brother

Even if this child wasn’t made into the Dundee-Lookalike-Extraordinaire, I would still have questions about this kind of objectification of children’s bodies in a digital universe where all children can now publicly dance, sing, and perform like Little Shirley Temples for the empire’s cameras. Be clear: I am NOT talking about recording and keepsaking children’s wonderful spontaneous moments, school events, sports, or community functions; I am talking about grown folk who deliberately create digital spectacles from children’s orchestrated, pre-rehearsed performances in a living room.  In this world, of course, the Dundees, though ridiculously exploited, still come out on top because not all children/commodities have good stock value; some can be discarded like the ones caught on the film above. Cameras can amazingly reveal what we really see and value in the world.


When a Black Man is NOT Dundee’s Friend!

I know this Dundee narrative seems like a crazy detour but it is an example of why I am so drawn to people who do the kind of digital work that you see in the youtube video that I have highlighted at the top.  This brotha is not someone who will only construct, notice, and chronicle the individualist accumulations of biological offspring.  Maybe it’s because he’s not the academy’s typical critical theorist who is reading books about radical thought but never actually thinking and doing any of it.  For him, radical ideas are NOT something that you do for university approval while you live the rest of your life as an imperialist.  Adolph Reed hit this best for me when he says such intellectuals are sealed “hermetically into the university so that oppositional politics becomes little more than a pose livening up the march through the tenure ranks. In this context the notion of radicalism is increasingly removed from critique and substantive action. Disconnected from positive social action, radical imagery is also cut loose from standards of success or failure; it becomes a mere stance, the intellectual equivalent of a photo-op.”

I hope to pay more attention to these kinds of Red-Record-Keepers today. I am grateful to my special sistafriends, real maroons, committed allies, and genuine colleagues who will challenge me if I start forgetting or slippin on that kind of work.  Otherwise, history will look back on we “radical scholars of color” who did nothing but act as neoliberal individualists who digitally chronicled, celebrated, and defended ourselves/our children/Crocodile Dundee for accumulation of white capital.

Black Girlhood Stories: “Now Sheba Sings the Song”

Hope-Springs_movie-poster-1-450x250As I expected, a few friends are already disturbed by my last critique of Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.  I am sympathetic to and in agreement with, of course, their desire to surround their children with images of black beauty. I will just say here though that I am as serious as a heart attack about holding black men accountable for their actions and relentlessly critiquing female passivity (the book relinquishes white aesthetic standards of beauty but keeps white femininity in tact in other ways).  This might seem tangential, but stay with me here: last night I watched “Hope Springs” and I only became more emphatic.  The movie, featuring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as a suburban, middle class married couple of 31 years, revolves around a week-long therapy retreat for the couple who need to save their marriage (this movie seemingly promised to make mainstream cinema/Hollywood relevant to baby boomers).  I was stunned by how problematic the movie was.  I expected bourgeois conceptualizations of therapy but not the celebration of abuse that the movie upholds.  Streep plays a passive and very nice white wife while Jones plays a mean, bitter, and neglectful white husband who, even at one point, sends Streep’s character crying out the room as she accuses him of bullying her.  The couple sleeps in separate bedrooms and haven’t been sexually intimate for five years.  At the end of the movie, when we no longer see them connected to marriage therapy, the couple is finally intimate again and all is back to normal.  Streep’s character, however, is still passive, submissive, nice, and quiet; Jones’s character is still aggressive and detached, but newly sexually aroused.  The gender roles are not my only problem with this movie: my problem is in the way their identity as a successful, suburban white couple rests on their ability to still “mate” after child-raising.  Herein lies the crux of why these dominant narratives do not apply to black families and to black women in particular.  Though this couple can obviously no longer reproduce children, the symbolic value of their sexuality as a good white family who have reproduced the good, white nation must be re-generated, almost as a way to re-identify older white middle class couples with their former value as young, fertile reproducers.  One sexual act is all it took in this movie to finally rekindle the flame of the marriage, even though the wife’s personality and voice are completely subsumed. The price that white middle class women must pay to represent this exalted reproductive role is such submissiveness and subservience.  If you think that this is an old school argument no longer viable within the supposed enlightenment (and I DO mean lightness and enlightened here as puns) of postmodernism and 21st century new wave feminisms, then just watch the movie.  I’m not suggesting that all white couples’ lives look this way (either in the negative aspects or the positive aspects); nor am I suggesting that Streep’s character represents a respect for white women.   I am hardly envious or impressed with the way that Streep’s character must forego any complaints of her treatment once she receives her husband’s sexual attention.  I don’t covet that cultural representation.  What I am questioning here is the cultural apparatus that centers such (varied but ideologically consistent) symbols of white family life/reproduction.

Black women’s reproduction simply does not have this value.  Black women can take care of white babies and serve white institutions in all other kinds of way, but they do not symbolize the ability to reproduce the nation’s optimal mode of being.  To suggest otherwise is to offer a delusion, not a counter-narrative. You need only think about the mourning that we are still witnessing with the death of the 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in comparison to the national response to the murder of Trayvon Martin and countless other black children in the recent past, or to our now 50-year anniversary of the murder of 4 Little Girls preparing for Sunday school.  Clearly, only certain women have the capacity to reproduce the white family/nation that is valued most.  Some middle class, black or brown, heterosexual women may now have the option of eclipsing their person under a man/hearth/nation like Streep’s character did, but this won’t make them the privileged site of the nation’s reproduction (yes, those married to wealthy, white men might get closer to this privileged site but their status will come from training/rewarding their light-skinned children to pass).  You can’t simply re-cast the story with new actresses, with black or brown women as the new queens of the home/hearth/nation and think we are getting something new; it is still the same, white storyline.

ShebaSo when I reject female passivity, it is these symbols that I am describing in “Hope Springs” that I am rejecting.  To see a text that I think challenges Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters in interesting ways, I turn to Now Sheba Sings the Song.  This book  isn’t really read by young audiences, though it was originally intended for young audiences given that Dial Books published it. The book was published in 1987 within a context similar to that in which Steptoe did Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.  And since this post started with an adult movie, I am including a discussion of an adult book (initially cast for young readers) as part of my anti-princess campaign.


Soul Looks Back In Wonder.      I Saw Your Face.      Jambo Means Hello.     Moja Means One.   Daydreamers.    The World of Black History.    To Be A Slave.     Zamani Goes to Market.     Something on My Mind.   These are all children’s texts illustrated by Tom Feelings, more famously known for his word-less illustrated narrative about slavery, The Middle Passage.  The success of these children’s texts are what gave Feelings a home with Dial Books and the possibility to publish Now Sheba Sings the Song, a book of illustrations by Feelings with an accompanying poem by Maya Angelou.  Though the text departs significantly from children’s literature (there are only a few images of little girls in the book), it offers a revision of queendom/hearth/nation.

FeelingsThe book is a collection of drawings of black women that Feelings did in the course of 25 years, spanning the full range of the African Diaspora in all kinds of settings.  The drawings were intentionally done in flowing black line and sepia tone, thus attempting to connect tone and line so that each drawing/woman could communicate with the larger set/group.  Feelings tried to capture his awe of black women whose faces so clearly indicated painful and dehumanizing experiences but that didn’t, at the same time, become negative visual carriers with lines/shapes that removed openness and wonder.  He kept all of these drawings at his side for those 25 years, feeling like they had formed a collective storyline, and then asked Maya Angelou to write a poem for all of them giving her free rein to do what she liked, wherever the artwork took her.  As Feelings attests, Angelou took each drawing— all 80 — and placed each one of the drawings on every surface of her home.  Feelings Portrait copyAngelou then sat, walked amongst, lived with the 80 drawings for six months, resulting in the final poem, “Now Sheba Sings the Song,” also the title of the book (the 73 lines of the poem are spread across the 55 pages of the book, making it look like the kind of illustrated text that you get for children).

Angelou’s choice of title is obviously striking… Now Sheba Sings the Song.  She is referencing the Queen of Sheba who has been given numerous names in many cultures’ “book of life”: the Holy Bible, the Holy Quran, Kabbalistic treatises, medieval Christian mystical works, etc.  Born in the 10th century BC  (Sheba was not her name but the name of the vast empire she reigned over), her empire included what is now known as Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Yemen; many argue that her rule extended into Egypt, Sudan, Central African Republic, and Kenya. As could only be the logic under white supremacy, there has been considerable doubt and questioning of the fact that she was black (of course, she would not have called herself Black or African in our contemporary, political terms, but she surely wouldn’t have ever called herself white either!) Her relationship with the then King of Israel, Solomon, resulted in a son and a long chain of rulers of Ethiopia.  The word, Song, in Angelou’s title obviously references the Song of Solomon in the bible, “The Song of Songs,” that features a love story that has been debated as an allegory of God’s love for people, divine love within the human heart, and/or the mystical quality of romantic love and sensuality; even more debates ensue around the possibility that the nameless woman in the Song of Solomon is the Queen of Sheba (with the man being King Solomon).  The fusion of Feelings’s drawings and Angelou’s poem puts these questions and issues to rest because, Now Sheba Sings the Song and clarity is re-instilled.  In this revision of Sheba’s song/queendom, it is the beauty of black women that constructs a powerful lineage system and not: the exclusivity of nobility, the presence of a man who chooses you and determines your only value, a social system based on hierarchy (everyone cannot be a queen or rule in a monarchical system), the heterosexism where women are kept/pursued/humanized solely for their reproduction of the kingdom/nation, the performance of femininity for the benefit of male provider-ship/attention, the relegation of black women to the bottom of the social system so everyone else can stay at top. Indeed, Sheba now sings a new song.

Perhaps, it is Feelings’s final thoughts on this collection of sketches that weighs in most heavily for my anti-princess campaign.  These drawings were done when he traveled outside of the United States, especially Africa, where Feelings thought he could finally see and, thus, draw the beauty in black women.  And he was very serious about re-creating black visual images, given the context of minstrelsy and other forms of visual colonization on black life (see the video from Camille Yarborough’s Ancestor House below where she and her guests discuss Feelings’s work in this regard.)  However, he realized that America had only clouded his experience because he really needn’t have looked further than his own mother’s and grandmother’s eyes.  That’s the main lesson here, coming from both Feelings’s artistic process and Angelou’s naming of this poem/book: if you want to find beauty and majesty in black women’s queen-liness, so to speak, you don’t need to concoct stories about docile heirs to or recipients of a man’s throne.  You need look no further than the everyday women in front of you who, despite the pain and dehumanization they have experienced and carry on their faces, are still beautifully open to joy and wonder in the experiences of being black women.