- ‘12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Mother of George,’ and the aesthetic politics of filming black skin (The Washington Post)
The fact that audiences are seeing such a varied, nuanced spectrum of black faces isn’t just a matter of poetics, but politics — and the advent of digital filmmaking. For the first hundred years of cinema, when images were captured on celluloid and processed photochemically, disregard for black skin and its subtle shadings was inscribed in the technology itself, from how film-stock emulsions and light meters were calibrated, to the models used as standards for adjusting color and tone.
That embedded racism extended into the aesthetics of the medium itself, which from its very beginnings was predicated on the denigration and erasure of the black body. As far back as “The Birth of a Nation” — in which white actors wearing blackface depicted Reconstruction-era blacks as wild-eyed rapists and corrupt politicians — the technology and grammar of cinema and photography have been centered on the unspoken assumption that their rightful subjects would be white.
The result was that, if black people were visible at all, their images would often be painfully caricatured (see Hattie McDaniel in “Gone With the Wind”) or otherwise distorted, either ashy and washed-out or featureless points of contrast within the frame. As “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen said in Toronto after the film’s premiere there, “I remember growing up and seeing Sidney Poitier sweating next to Rod Steiger in ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ and obviously [that was because] it’s very hot in the South. But also he was sweating because he had tons of light thrown on him, because the film stock wasn’t sensitive enough for black skin.”
But recent research published in the American Sociological Association’s Sociology of Education journal shows that my gender (male) was one of the determinative factors in the relative ease of my social integration. In an articlepublished last year, Megan M. Holland, a professor at the University of Buffalo and a recent Harvard Ph.D., studied the social impact of a desegregation program on the minority students who were being bussed to a predominantly white high school in suburban Boston. She found that minority boys, because of stereotypes about their supposed athleticism and “coolness,” fit in better than minority girls because the school gave the boys better opportunities to interact with white students. Minority boys participated in sports and non-academic activities at much higher rates. Over the course of her study, she concluded that structural factors in the school as well as racial narratives about minority males resulted in increased social rewards for the boys, while those same factors contributed to the isolation of girls in the diversity program.
Another study looked at a similar program, called Diversify. Conducted by Simone Ispa-Landa at Northwestern University, it showed how gender politics and gender performance impacted the way the minority students were seen at the school. The study shows that “as a group, the Diversify boys were welcomed in suburban social cliques, even as they were constrained to enacting race and gender in narrow ways.” Diversify girls, on the other hand, “were stereotyped as ‘ghetto’ and ‘loud’”—behavior that, when exhibited by the boys in the program, was socially rewarded. Another finding from her study was that because of the gender dynamics present at the school—the need to conform to prevalent male dominance in the school—“neither the white suburban boys nor the black Diversify boys were interested in dating” the minority girls. The girls reported being seen by boys at their schools as “aggressive” and not having the “Barbie doll” look. The boys felt that dating the white girls was “easier” because they “can’t handle the black girls.”
The black boys in Ispa-Landa’s study found themselves in peculiar situations in which they would play into stereotypes of black males as being cool or athletic by seeming “street-smart.” At the same time, though, they would work to subvert those racial expectations by code-switching both their speech and mannerisms to put their white classmates at ease. Many of the boys reported feeling safer and freer at the suburban school, as they would not be considered “tough” at their own schools. It was only in the context of the suburban school that their blackness conferred social power. In order to maintain that social dominance, the boys engaged in racial performance, getting into show fights with each other to appear tough and using rough, street language around their friends.
José Urbina López Primary School sits next to a dump just across the US border in Mexico. The school serves residents of Matamoros, a dusty, sunbaked city of 489,000 that is a flash point in the war on drugs. There are regular shoot-outs, and it’s not uncommon for locals to find bodies scattered in the street in the morning. To get to the school, students walk along a white dirt road that parallels a fetid canal. On a recent morning there was a 1940s-era tractor, a decaying boat in a ditch, and a herd of goats nibbling gray strands of grass. A cinder-block barrier separates the school from a wasteland—the far end of which is a mound of trash that grew so big, it was finally closed down. On most days, a rotten smell drifts through the cement-walled classrooms. Some people here call the school un lugar de castigo—“a place of punishment.”
For 12-year-old Paloma Noyola Bueno, it was a bright spot. More than 25 years ago, her family moved to the border from central Mexico in search of a better life. Instead, they got stuck living beside the dump. Her father spent all day scavenging for scrap, digging for pieces of aluminum, glass, and plastic in the muck. Recently, he had developed nosebleeds, but he didn’t want Paloma to worry. She was his little angel—the youngest of eight children.
After school, Paloma would come home and sit with her father in the main room of their cement-and-wood home. Her father was a weather-beaten, gaunt man who always wore a cowboy hat. Paloma would recite the day’s lessons for him in her crisp uniform—gray polo, blue-and-white skirt—and try to cheer him up. She had long black hair, a high forehead, and a thoughtful, measured way of talking. School had never been challenging for her. She sat in rows with the other students while teachers told the kids what they needed to know. It wasn’t hard to repeat it back, and she got good grades without thinking too much. As she headed into fifth grade, she assumed she was in for more of the same—lectures, memorization, and busy work.
Sergio Juárez Correa was used to teaching that kind of class. For five years, he had stood in front of students and worked his way through the government-mandated curriculum. It was mind-numbingly boring for him and the students, and he’d come to the conclusion that it was a waste of time. Test scores were poor, and even the students who did well weren’t truly engaged. Something had to change.
- As Demographics Shift, Kids’ Books Stay Stubbornly White (NPR Code Switch)
So why is diversity in children’s books such a persistent issue? One theory is that it’s all about money. “I think there is a lot of concern and fear that multicultural literature is not going to sell enough to sustain a company,” says Megan Schliesman, a librarian with the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.
But Schliesman says that belief is a myth — after all, some companies publish multicultural children’s books and are profitable. For instance, Lerner Books published the nonfiction picture book Bad News For Outlaws: The Remarkable Life Of Bass Reeves, Deputy U. S. Marshal
The book, which told the story of a black lawman in the Old West, won awards, got attention from libraries and independent bookstores and became a best-seller for the company.
“There is an enormous amount of demand for this kind of content from libraries,” says Andrew Karre, an editor with Lerner Books. According to Karre, public and school librarians try very hard to put books with a wide range of characters on their shelves.
Inspired by Ntozake Shange’s 1975 choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, the series centers on the struggle of Benjamin Boyd, Sr. to rekindle his relationship with wife and reassume his role as father to two teenage children.
“The spouses, friends, children and community of incarcerated individuals are the voices we don’t hear,” says Muhammad. “Oftentimes when a parent is removed from a home as a result of incarceration, children or young adults must assume a level of responsibility they are often ill-equipped to handle. For Colored Boys: Redemption is a story that gives a voice to the voiceless by exploring the lives of everyone affected by incarceration.”
Today the millennial is a variant of the idea of the indulged hipster. The kids of “Girls,” of Williamsburg, underacheivers and snotty art kids living indulged shiftless lives; the comedy of artisan this, microbrewed that and bad service blah blah. Schooled and reared in Brooklyn and Queens, I now find the places where I grew up and went to school priced far beyond my means and those of the communities that sustained me. When Brooklyn experiences a “ renaissance,” the Hassidic, Latino and West Indian communities that made it get moved out. And their kids — yes, also millennials — can’t afford to live there.
All of this, and still we are seen as complacent go-along-to-get-along layabouts. Our education, housing, healthcare and sexual autonomy are all in jeopardy and the constant refrain is, “Well, do something.” Yes, Occupy happened. But I want to ask anyone who thinks millennials are lazy: Why aren’t people like the Dream campaigners part of the moment? Why aren’t the marches for Trayvon Martin and The Dream Defenders part of it? Millennials have met these challenges with protests , marches, and yes, cross-generational organizing. We’re fighting redistricting, police violence and voting rights challenges that hinder the very moment we’re supposed to seize. “Dirty hippies” and disadvantaged citizens, however, aren’t the best and brightest, so their struggles to secure the dream we were promised and the rights we were guaranteed don’t play as well in London or New York.
And while we’re supposedly being indulged at every turn, just getting an education has been a constant battle.