In 1957, Norman Mailer spoke to the existence of the “white Negro,” an urban hipster whose fascination and fetishizing of blackness resulted in a set of practices that reflected a white imagination: part cultural appropriation, a subtle reinforcement of segregation, and a desire to try on perceived accents of blackness. “So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts,” he wrote. “The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.”
As the Princeton University professor Imani Perry has noted, “there is a sonic preference for blackness, the sounds of blackness, but there is a visual preference for whiteness in our culture.” It should come as no surprise, then, that white rappers are slowly beginning to dominate the college music scene with the ascendance of a genre that can loosely be called “frat rap.”
While similarly embracing hedonistic pleasures, the idea of frat rap positions these artists apart from those other artists, those of color, who may offer a similar style and performance. Akin to going uptown during the jazz era without having to leave the confines of white spaces, frat rap is nothing new. Whereas the other rap purportedly celebrates violence, sexism, and materialism, and pollutes hearts, frat rap is fun. What happens in college stays in college.
Historically white colleges remain immensely segregated. The growing popularity of frat rap, which has seized upon the power of online technologies and the stigmas associated with (black) hip-hop, continues not just a history of appropriation and the idea that blackness is merely a culture or an aesthetic that can be borrowed or purchased at the local dollar store; it also continues the American tradition of segregation that is a cornerstone of American colleges and Universities.
I get really frustrated when people decide to make R&J “relevant” by casting the two families as members of modern ethnic [groups] that are experiencing conflict. Not just because it’s boring and overdone and never as insightful as the directors and producers think it is.
It’s because the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets is explicitly a stupid bullshit pissing match between two powerful families that no one else takes seriously (and that even some members of the family think is silly).
So anytime someone decides to make R&J “relevant” by making those families black/white or Israeli/Palestinian or something along those lines, they a) undermine the seriousness of those conflicts by implying that a little kumbaya can prevent the deaths of young people, and b) erase the fact that, unlike the Montagues and Capulets, one of those real world groups is invariably guilty of violence and oppression against the other.
See who and what else is giving us Racializens something to think about on the R’s Tumblr!
My mother walked into my dorm room, my sophomore year, with an armful of books. I snickered at her trying to pull all the goodies she’d brought from New York to Virginia, into the small space that already exuded bibliophile. My mother always picked the same stuff up for me: compiled quotes from prominent and life-changing authors, love stories, and anything Toni Morrison. I’d begun to assess the texts and I gave them the typical nod, when one jumped out at me. It was an orange and black cover, unique amongst the rest and it boasted the title “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop.” My mom smiled at my piqued interest.
“I saw that one in the clearance aisle and I know you’re big on the history of it, so I thought you’d like it.” I smiled back at her, but didn’t show too much excitement. I was at the age where I wanted to show my mother that nothing she did could thrill me and I was an independent woman who encountered excitement on her own accord. I was a silly girl.
The book sat on my shelf, next to the other books I’d purchased on hip-hop. M.K. Asante, I thought? Who is that? It sat on my shelf for several weeks, unread, until I knocked it over, in a hurry, to grab my book bag. My OCD prodded me to put it back in formation, but instead I decided to throw it into my bag, knowing that finals week would spawn gaps of boredom, because I was all studied up.
I opened Asante’s It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop for the first time, while waiting for my SUV to be repaired. I sat in the waiting room annoyed that the “small fix” had taken three hours more than they’d estimated. However, my patience, usually worn thin easily, was in tact. I was knee deep in a text that spoke to me and analyzed a culture and genre in a way that only lyricism allowed me to.
They can call M.K. what they’d like: a memoirist, filmmaker, historian and more. However, M.K. is and will always be a poet. His last work and his new memoir Buck is lyricism at its finest, in its purest and rawest form.
Buck is M.K.’s memoir; it takes place growing up in Philly, a symphony with strums of two parents with different ideologies, the camaraderie and heartbreak of brotherhood, and the loss of friendship and love.
Two authors masterfully tell the story; M.K. uses entries from his mother’s journal and his own voice to relay the struggle of his youth. Through Carole, his mother, and M.K.’s words we’re transported to the anarchy of a teenager whose sorrow is exerted through “grown-man” antics and the mimicry of the lyricists he was so fond of.
M.K. pulls us through the memories of his teen-hood with stories that any inner-city kid could relate to and others that can only clench our hearts, in understanding. His tête-à-tête, interview-script style, reminiscent of the one with Hip-Hop in his last work, with his parents is reminiscent of the tales our parents relay to us when we haven’t been on our best behavior. A brotherly bond is unraveled in the symbolism and foreshadowing of nun chucks and brass knuckles, emcees, and older sibling philosophy. A bit of innocence and morality of a fledgling is sustained through a first love that only wants the best for a young M.K. and the refusal to indulge in all detriments of his vices.
This bit of goodness is what keeps M.K. alive. Along his path we encounter kings, queens, and prophecies that save M.K.’s life little by little, consciously and unconsciously. There is an alternative school teacher who shows him the power of the pen. There is a moment under a city bridge where M.K.’s life is saved by the remnants of his fallen loved one. There is the trip to the south, where a family member, who could pick up the angst of his aura, spouts a comparison of wolves and hunger, which will stick to every decision you make from the day after reading it.
M.K. finds his way to a thriving and traveling conscience that is the definition of transformation: a literary cacophony that can only be given justice, by being read.
Buck reads like urban fiction with conscious and purpose. It is the voice of every young black man, in America, who cries out for the world around him to notice. It’s the eyes of all the young men who sit inside of my classroom and wonder what’s next.
A few years ago I met Asante, after he spoke at the Schomburg. After the reading and the signing of our books, a few of my friends and I were given the opportunity to have lunch with him. Asante spoiled us with synopses of what he was working on and conversation that could have only been cultivated by a man who’d devoured the world hungrily. I stood in awe at our comrade, who was only 27 at the time, and I wondered how someone so young could’ve gained so much, so quickly.
Now I am certain that I know.
In New York City, we have a tendency to tell our children to relax. Often caught “getting buck” in the streets, we are prompted to quiet their notions of propelling their anger to all the wrong places.
But I’ve got this great idea…
Put M.K.’s new book in the hands of those boys who haven’t found the right way to declare their rage. Let their fingers flip through the pages that will turn to mirrors, as some of them recognize themselves within M.K.’s words. Let those words seep in and contextualize that hurt. Let them learn, line by line. Let’s give the next generation a completely different way to “get buck.”
Erica “RivaFlowz” Buddington is a teacher and professional writer living in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @rivaflowz.
Here’s the thing: historically, black women have had very little agency over their bodies. From being raped by white slave masters to the ever-enduring stereotype that black women can’t be raped, black women have been told over and over and over again, that their bodies are not their own. By bringing these “homegirls with the big butts” out onto the stage with her and engaging in a one-sided interaction with her ass, (not even her actual person!) Miley has contributed to that rhetoric. She made that woman’s body a literal spectacle to be enjoyed by her legions of loyal fans. Not only was that the only way that Miley interacted with any of the other people onstage with her, but all of her backup dancers were “black women with big butts” as Violet_Baudelaire so astutely pointed out. So not only are black women’s bodies being used as props, but they are also props that are only worthy of interaction if that interaction involves sexualization.
Now some people have said that Miley is only 20, and she’s “just a child” and that she doesn’t understand what she’s doing. But Miley isn’t new to this. Her video for the single wasn’t even the first precursor to this madness. She has been quoted as saying that she explicitly wanted “a black sound” for her new album. She is more than aware of what she’s doing, and has consciously made the choice to dabble in traditionally black aesthetics and sound in order to breakaway from her good girl image and further her career.
On Sunday night, four of my friends and I—all people of color—watched a YouTube clip of Miley Cyrus’ performance completely prepared to laugh and joke about it by its conclusion. We were expecting something that would fit neatly in the long line of ridiculous and yet mostly entertaining awards show performances. Instead, as the YouTube clip reached its end, the room fell completely silent. Even as a writer, I don’t quite have words to describe what that moment felt like. Using academic lingo to explain why cultural appropriation is problematic is one thing; the feeling in your gut when you actually watch parts of your identity being used as props is another. As is true with so many shockingly specific traumatic black experiences, this is a feeling we all recognize immediately, and a feeling we all have no words to describe. In the hours and days following, the critical feminist response was, yet again, a reminder of the ways in which my blackness—even as it exists in concurrence with my femininity—is still actively being othered.
A few weeks have passed since the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag first surfaced on Twitter. The subsequent conversation about the lack of representation and further marginalization of women of color by white women in the feminist movement (not at all a new conversation) seemed suddenly reenergized. Women of color have always talked about the subtle racism that happens within the feminist movement; just because you haven’t heard it, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been said—especially considering which narratives are allowed space and which ones aren’t. But with this hashtag, their voices suddenly had a stage. And some white women listened. Some critiqued their own privilege and pointed out the ways the feminist movement has historically dismissed women of color and their experiences. But now, it seems that even those well-meaning white feminists have yet to turn their articles into actual actions.
Most of the responses following Cyrus’ performance have been a conversation of the unconventional way in which she expressed her sexuality on the VMAs stage and the slut-shaming that ensued. Many feminists have since rushed to her defense and appropriately prompted us all to question our immediate negative response to Cyrus’ choice sexual presentation. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a valid stance—in the sense that slut-shaming is certainly a habit that supports rape culture and demanding that society recognizes a woman’s sexual autonomy is hard and necessary work. Back when Cyrus was being sexual without involving the appropriation of my blackness, I was totally on board. Now? Not so much.
Here’s where the racial fissures in feminism come out: by all means, defend a woman’s right to govern her own body; it’s great that white feminists have that goal at the top of their lists. But meanwhile, as a woman of color, I’m still defending my right to actually be considered a body at all and not decoration. Expressing your sexuality at my expense isn’t okay. You don’t get to claim sexual freedom while simultaneously perpetuating the oppression of another body. When you feel the need to express your sexuality by turning my body into an accessory, the black feminist in me—two identities which I refuse to separate—can’t have your back anymore. The feminist struggle is a struggle for autonomy. It’s a fight for recognition and full-body respect. But in Cyrus’ search for and exploration of her sexual identity, she limits my autonomy as a woman of color. She appropriates it. She cheapens it. She effectively uses the identity and lived experiences of so many women of color as a crutch for her career. Continue reading →
On the first night of the Afropunk 2013 festival, there was an onstage twerk contest.
It was not on the program and happened right before Saul Williams was supposed to go on stage. It was an impromptu event that was designed to buy time and presumably build excitement. Big Freedia was playing the next day, so it is impossible for one to say that twerking was something that didn’t belong at Afropunk. Twerking, like any other dance can be a way for a person to claim power in her own body, enjoy her physical possibilities, challenge herself, expand her range of movement and feed her mind with physical knowledge. But in that moment? In that way?
Since twerking has gone viral, commentaries on the trend have focused on the roots of the dance and what it possibly means for various groups to preform it. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough discussion about twerking in a performative context – i.e. what kinds of spaces twerking might be preformed within and for what reason. It feels like the discussion has been more about validating or condemning twerking in a vacuum rather than giving it space to exist within the realm of dance.
Dance movement depends on a dancer or choreographers intention, and awareness combined with the effect of the movement itself. A seemingly “vulgar” posture can convey profound messages. Unfortunately black women’s bodies, and dance expression have been viewed through a white supremacist lens of projected profanity, which is something some supporters of the twerk movement may be seeking to actively oppose. How do we strive to define spaces in which we can use dance and physical expression, including twerking, in a way that promotes a world in which women are free? What does it mean when this effort is confronted with a patriarchy that is vying for the same spaces? Continue reading →
This isn’t a definitive list of women of color in film. This isn’t a “best of” list, or a list of the most complicated or progressive characters in science-fiction or fantasy. This is simply a list of women of color in science-fiction and fantasy films. I tried to make it as full as possible, but ultimately had to decide on some parameters. These are women who are either secondary leads (because there are almost no women of color leads) or supporting characters. To better see how small the visual representation is, we have to be willing to look at all of the characters, in spite of their flaws, or limited screentime, or problematic nature. It helps paint a more accurate picture of the women we do see, and helps us understand why characters like the girls of Attack the Block never seem to break out into fan favorites, or why perceptions of Mako Mori becomes such a hot button topic in the weeks after the release of Pacific Rim.
Looking my previous post on the topic, after asking for suggestions, the answers didn’t really surprise me. Doctor Who’s Martha Jones, and Star Trek’s Uhura were repeat suggestions, but again, they were primarily TV-based suggestions. (I should clarify that even the Uhura suggestion pointed more at the TV-iteration of the character over the current Hollywood portrayal). In searching for a more complete list, what I found, unsurprisingly, is that most of the women of color on film are mostly background players, filling highly stereotyped and exoticized roles. I reached out to sci-fi and fantasy fans on tumblr, and pored through cast lists of the “100 Best Science Fiction Movies,” “Top 100 Science-Fiction & Fantasy Movies,” and “50 Greatest Fantasy Films.” Again, many people were stumped by the question, or reluctant to pick favorites, as women of color served to fulfill stereotypical roles, i.e. meek Asian woman or Magical Negro mystic, that furthered the white, male heterosexual narrative.
Fans often have to isolate the parts of the narrative they find compelling within these problematic portrayals, or be willing to look past the negative aspects of the narrow characterization to find something to relate to. Even in worlds where crime can be predicted before it happens, and lightning can be bottled and sold, women of color still cannot be protagonists, or have complicated and compelling backstories. It’s frustrating when I look at the casts of some of my favorite films and wonder what about the role seems to require a white actress (or actor). As much as I love Stardust, I’m not quite sure why Yvaine had to be played by Claire Danes, or why there weren’t any people of color in the fantastical candy-colored world of Edward Scissorhands, besides Officer Allen. We are slowly moving towards more visibility for women of color, as crowd-sourced films and more venues for the fan conversation call for better characters and more visibility. Just look at the conversation around this summer’s Pacific Rim, led to the creation of an alternative Bechdel test, the Mako Mori test.
Mako Mori being great.
Without further ado, here are 45* women of color in science-fiction and fantasy films. Again, this role isn’t exhaustive or anywhere near complete, but serve to illustrate the types of roles that women of color get in these genre films. All of these women and characters should have greater visibility as we continue this conversation about women of color in Hollywood. (*Two women on the list, Mary Alice and Gloria Foster, share a character, so they have been grouped together, only because I think 45 sounds better than 46.) It should also be noted that superhero/comic-book movies have also been grouped in with the overall sci-fi and fantasy category, if anyone wants to get nitpicky about it.
Aaliyah as Queen Akasha in Queen of the Damned
Alfre Woodard as Lily Sloane in Star Trek: First Contact
By Guest Contributor Pier Dominguez It is perhaps a queer time to be writing about Whitney Houston. After all, she died over one year ago and the many memoirs and remembrances that trickled out since then–on television, magazines, newspapers and countless blog posts–have been replaced by fresher news in the celebrity gossip industrial complex. But nostalgia has its own rhythms.
It wasn’t until I saw Oprah Winfrey’s recent interview with Whitney’s mother about her memoir, in which she discussed Whitney’s relationship with Robyn Crawford that I thought about Whitney again. And it wasn’t until I heard James Blunt’s sad, poignant tribute to Whitney, “Miss America,” that the nostalgia led to more thinking.
I remembered that, at one time, I had been a pretty invested Whitney Houston fan. I wasn’t around for “How Will I Know” Whitney because I wasn’t old enough to follow pop music and she wasn’t a big star in Colombia—where I’m from–in those early stages. I missed her 80s pop princess moment, in which she brilliantly continued Diana Ross’ lineage of black feminine beauty and glamour and combined it with cheerfuly melodic Dionne Warwick-style pop music. She wasn’t part of my pop culture landscape either as the leather-jacketed, Babyface-produced, R&Bish “bad girl” of “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” My initial interest in Whitney came at the most obvious moment, during “The Bodyguard” era, when her worldwide celebrity was arguably as big as it would ever get, aided in part by the scandalous frisson of the heterosexual interracial pairing at the center of the film.
Before that, Whitney was perceived as having a perfectly prissy image in her shiny gowns. “There she is, Miss Black America,” Time magazine once exclaimed, and it was an image so overwhelming–such a model of racial achievement and gendered comportment–that even after Whitney’s death, Madonna said she envied her “innocence.” In truth, though she negotiated the public sphere differently than Madonna, she was always a liminal, contradictory figure.
From the start of her career she was accused of “selling out” and making pop music that was too “white.” The film pairing with Kevin Costner was part of that logic arguably. Her real-life pairing with Bobby Brown seemed to disrupt it, because he seemed too “black,” and some saw her wedding to the bad boy of R&B as a career move to appease less pop-oriented followers. According to Brown himself, it also seemed designed to manage other contradictions. Because it turned out her liminality was not only racial.
I had no idea then that there was a Robyn Crawford in Whitney’s orbit, always haunting her image, like some queer ghost. While Whitney was alive, every major profile of her, from Time magazine’s “Prom Queen of Soul,” to Vanity Fair’s “Thoroughly Modern Whitney,” would allude to the intense relationship between her and Robyn Crawford, which had started when they met at 16. It was brought up, often as a parenthetical aside, and left as an open question, denoting the relationship to connote queerness. Whitney would either deny it or say it wasn’t anyone’s business.
Black women’s sexuality is so often misread by mainstream culture as excessive and/or queer, that it’s arguably too easy to assume there is something beyond the eroticism of friendship going on between Oprah and Gayle or Whitney and Robyn. Yet after Whitney’s death, there were numerous non-punitive attempts to claim her as gay and contest the media’s representation of her persona. Peter Tatchell, a white gay LGBT activist writing for The Daily Mail, remembered meeting her with Crawford: “When I met them, it was obvious they were madly in love. Their intimacy and affection was so sweet and romantic. They held hands in the back of the car like teenage sweethearts. Clearly more than just friends, they were a gorgeous couple and so happy together.” Obvious. Clearly more than just friends. A desire for certainty.
In an evocative essay provocatively titled “The Widow,” black gay New Yorker critic Hilton Als remembered the early days of Robyn Crawford in the Cubby Hole on Christopher Street, where they “knew” she was going out with Whitney. With obvious warmth he calls her “our” Whitney, a queer, black Whitney before she was swallowed up by the racial and sexual protocols of stardom: “Whitney Houston’s alternately powerful and bland resonance for us was not inseparable from our queerness.”
Evelyn C. White, author of a biography of Alice Walker—a powerful artist who never denied the queer complexities of black experience—wrote in the comments, “Thank you so much for this honest offering of true black love. You’ve said what those of us in the black lesbian community have known in our hearts — for decades.” Truth, race, love. Race and sexuality, knowledge and heart.
Robyn Crawford herself, in an as-told-to article that appeared in her “voice” in Esquire, finally said her piece/peace without any mention of romance. Towards the end of the article she says, “I have never spoken about her until now. And she knew I wouldn’t. She was a loyal friend, and she knew I was never going to be disloyal to her. I was never going to betray her.” Speaking, silence, loyalty, betrayal. Betrayal of what? Speaking about what knowledge? Why the silence? As Eve Sedgwick has taught us, sexuality and knowledge have always had a fraught, messy relationship.
Perhaps that is why, in the Oprah interview, Cissy Houston seemed so surprisingly candid in admitting that she didn’t “know” the exact nature of the friendship between her daughter and Crawford. Beyond friendship, she didn’t know. It was precisely her admission of not knowing which seemed so rich with possibilities, seemed to say so much and speak so loudly.
Many commentators focused on her homophobic outburst, when she said she wouldn’t have approved of queer Whitney. For some, queer Whitney means white Whitney. This prompted discussions of homophobia in “the black community” and a reconsideration of what had led to her downfall: it wasn’t “too black” Bobby Brown who had ruined Whitney, it was keeping her sexuality secret from her mother (and the world) that had done her in. Life is incredibly complex, and it seems like biographical reductionism, part of the need to make everything into a cohesive narrative, to claim Whitney’s problems all came from having to “hide her sexuality.”
Yet I understand the feelings of sadness and anger upon sensing that it had turned out to be “true” that there was a queer Whitney. I was saddened and it was an overwhelming feeling because of the totalizing way we are still made to think of sexuality, as if it’s a matter of true or false, black or white, all or nothing. That is part of the problem—though perhaps also the pleasure–of sexuality as we currently conceive it. It can create such an alienating wedge between oneself and someone, even while celebrity identification can feel so full and intimate. As James Blunt sings in his tribute, we thought we “knew” her through the bars of a song and her face on the silver screen.
Whitney’s queer afterlife divides her public once again: Whitney, we hardly knew you. Whitney, we knew you too well. What does it mean to “know” somebody? Why do we align sexuality and race with truth and knowledge? Whitney, who was such a big star, teaches us something in her afterlife. She teaches us about the size, color and emotional resonance of “sexuality.”
Now we have James Blunt’s white soul tribute to Whitney. Blunt has himself teased the public with “knowledge” about his sexuality, falsely “coming out” and later denying it. Gay or not, he has created an affecting, cross-racial, queer tribute to a diva—one as delicate and haunting as Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” about Marilyn Monroe. He sings, in the melodious way she might have sang it, “No Goodbyes/You’ll always be Miss America.” But the resonance of that innocent pose will always strike everyone differently. Queer Whitney haunts us all.
Race, Culture, and Identity in a Colorstruck World