All posts by Tamara Winfrey Harris

Quoted: On Beyonce and Feminism

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I can’t believe that, as someone who a year ago could scarcely quote a Beyonce song, save “Bootylicious,” I am spending so much time defending the artist these days. But the surprise release of her “visual album,” Beyonce, has sparked a fresh round of broken criticism of the star, freighted with gender and race bias.  Understand, it is not that Beyonce, for all her power-belting, catchy hook-writing and effortless dancing, is above reproach. Once we finish getting down to “Drunk in Love,” we need to analyze the hell out of Mr. Knowles-Carter’s wack ass, Ike Turner-worshipping, violence-fetishizing contribution to the “love” track:

 

Catch a charge, I might, beat the box up like Mike…

I’m like Ike Turner

Baby know I don’t play, now eat the cake Annie Mae

Said, eat the cake, Annie Mae

 

This, right here, is all kinds of problematic and the sort of contradiction a public feminist needs to be called to task for. But, as yet, I haven’t seen many people questioning why Bey let Jay spit some nasty, misogynist shit on an album that includes the feminist brilliance of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Instead, folks are still carping about whether one can flaunt dat ass, be conventionally attractive, launch a world tour using a married moniker or be rich and successful and still be feminist.

Just so we can move the analysis along: The answer to that question is “Yes,” as I outlined in an article in Bitch magazine earlier this year:

A popular star willing to talk about gender inequity, as Beyoncé has, is depressingly rare. But Freeman insists flashes of underboob and feminist critique don’t mix. Petersen concurs, calling the thigh-baring, lace-meets-leather outfit Beyoncé wore during her Super Bowl XLVII halftime show an “outfit that basically taught my lesson on the way that the male gaze objectifies and fetishizes the otherwise powerful female body.” A commenter on Jezebel summed up the charge: “That’s pretty much the Beyoncé contradiction right there. Lip service for female fans, fan service for the guys.”

These appraisals are perplexing amid a wave of feminist ideology rooted in the idea that women own their bodies. It is the feminism of SlutWalk, the anti-rape movement that proclaims a skimpy skirt does not equal a desire for male attention or sexual availability. Why, then, are cultural critics like Freeman and Petersen convinced that when Beyoncé pops a leather-clad pelvis on stage, it is solely for the benefit of men? Why do others think her acknowledgment of how patriarchy influences our understanding of what’s sexy is mere “lip service”?

Dr. Sarah Jackson, a race and media scholar at Boston’s Northeastern University, says, “The idea that Beyoncé being sexy is only her performing for male viewers assumes that embracing sexuality isn’t also for women.” Jackson adds that the criticism also ignores “the limited choices available to women in the entertainment industry and the limited ways Beyoncé is allowed to express her sexuality, because of her gender and her race.”

Her confounding mainstream persona, Jackson points out, is one key to the entertainer’s success as a black artist. “You don’t see black versions of Lady Gaga crossing over to the extent that Beyoncé has or reaching her levels of success. Black artists rarely have the same privilege of not conforming to dominant image expectations.”

Solange, Beyoncé’s sister, who has gone for a natural-haired, boho, less sexified approach to her music, remains a niche artist, as do Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, and Shingai Shoniwa of the Noisettes, like so many black female artists before them. Grace Jones, Joan Armatrading, Tracy Chapman, Meshell Ndegeocello—talented all, but quirky black girls, especially androgynous ones, don’t sell pop music, perform at the Super Bowl, or get starring roles in Hollywood films.

Black women (and girls) have also historically battled the stereotype of innate and uncontrolled lasciviousness, which may explain why Beyoncé’s sexuality is viewed differently from that of white artists like Madonna, who is lauded for performing in very similar ways.  Read more…

What names are normal? Shifting the center of the world

By Guest Contributor Lisa Wade, PhD; originally published at Sociological Images

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Sociologists observe that cultures are centered around some people and  not others such that members of some groups just seem like people and others are perceived as deviations from that presumed norm.

Names are part of how we divide the world into the normals and the deviants.  Illustrating this, the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele are super creative in this 3 minute skit.  They reverse the white-teacher-goes-into-the-inner-city trope and put a non-white teacher into a suburban school.  As he calls roll, the skit center HIS reality instead of that of the white, middle class kids.  He pronounces their names like stereotypically black names, confusing the heck out of the kids, and never considering the possibility that the names he’s familiar with isn’t how all names really are.

It’s not a safe skit — it potentially reinforces the conflation of non-white and urban and the stereotypes of inner city students and the names low-income black parents give their kids — but it does a great job of playing with what life might be like if we shifted the center of the world.

 

Counterpoint by Tamara Winfrey Harris, Racialicious editor

I have wrestled with the popularity of this Key & Peele skit for a while. And I’m afraid, for me, that it doesn’t pass the race bias smell test. The comedy here, while it may appear “edgy,” is really business as usual. The bit doesn’t “punch up,” instead the blow lands right smack where it always does: on black cultures and, particularly, the poor, working class and urban. I agree with friend of the R, Lisa Wade, when she says the skit uniquely centers the point of view of the black teacher and his idea of “normal.” Sadly, though, that decentering of whiteness is the joke. The audience is meant to laugh at a situation where creative pronunciations of common, European-derived names is acceptable. How absurd! It’s okay if this skit makes us laugh. But we need to recognize how and why it is problematic.

FYI, Key & Peele have a habit of going to the funny black name well.

Will Black Woman-Directed Docs Make it to the Oscars?

Shadow & Act big ups the phenomenal work being done by black women  documentarians. Out of 151 Academy Award-qualifying documentaries (admittedly a large pool), more than five were directed by black women, including Free Angela and All Political Prisoners by Shola Lynch and Valentine Road by Marta Cunningham. Jai Tigget writes, “…black documentary filmmakers – and black women in particular – are doing groundbreaking work that continues to be overlooked even within the doc and independent film space. The films listed above have been awarded and recognized widely on the film festival circuit, but many are still struggling to get mentioned on the shortlists that will push them towards serious Oscar consideration.”

Also included among the qualifying documentaries by black women, Yoruba Richen’s The New Black,  about race, sexuality, and the black church.

Quoted: A South African Muslim Woman’s Memories of Mandela

My daughter outside Mandela’s home in Soweto on Saturday night.

My daughter outside Mandela’s home in Soweto on Saturday night.

From Muslimah Media Watch:

I wrote part of this piece when Dr Laury Silvers asked me for a few words she could read in her khutbah at El Tawhid Unity Mosque in Toronto. She wanted to open with words from a South African, and I am grateful to her and the congregation for the opportunity to express these words on the passing of our beloved Comrade, President, Tata Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who returned to his creator on Thursday night, December 5 at the age of 95.

Tata (father), as we fondly call Nelson Mandela, represents so much to me, as a South African Muslim woman, as he does to all South Africans. His name is synonymous with struggle and sacrifice. His contributions to dismantling Apartheid in South Africa and his lifelong commitment to non-racialism and non-sexism has made my years growing up in South Africa an incredible experience. I still cannot fathom that he spent the total sum of my life (27 years) imprisoned!

I was born in one of the areas to which South African Indians had been forcibly relocated, at the tail end of Apartheid. Madiba’s rise to presidency, however, meant that I would no longer be confined to racially-segregated towns and limited options for education as my parents experienced.

Mandela taught us important lessons about the deeper meanings of peace and forgiveness but he was by no means a passive resistor against the indiscriminate violence of the Apartheid state, and nor was he without severe critics and opposition. Whilst I do not wish to sanitize or idolize the life of Nelson Mandela, neither is today a day to critique or analyse his policies and politics – it is a day to celebrate the immense goodness that one person brought to the world around him. What I do wish to highlight is that he overcame many of his own inner weaknesses (such as his rather tumultuous relationships with women) during the struggle years, and wrote openly about his development. He taught us to own up to our lives, our mistakes and our choices – and to walk for the ideals we profess to stand for.

Even after his rise to presidency in the new democratic South Africa, Madiba continued to show support and solidarity for global issues of social justice, especially HIV/AIDS, education for all

children, the occupation of Palestine, and of course, gender equality… all issues that still require our commitment and activism today.

(Left) Mandela with struggle activist Fatima Meer. [Source].

Madiba had a wonderful and open relationship with the Muslim community, and many of his closest friends during the struggle were Muslim. Figures like Ahmad Kathrada, Ismail Meer, Yusuf Dadoo, Fatima Meer, Rahima Moosa and Amina Cachalia are household names in South Africa and represent some of the key stalwarts in the anti-apartheid movement, many of whom were close confidantes and intimates of Nelson Mandela, and some of whom spent decades in prison with him. Read more…

 

Quoted: Dr. David Leonard Pens Open Letter to Marissa Alexander

Marissa Alexander Poster

But our failure did not begin the day Florida decided to prosecute you for standing your ground; we did not fall short in the aftermath of a sham of a trial and the horror of a 20-year sentence. We, and by we here I am specifically talking about men, failed you long before you said enough to abuse. We have failed to create a culture that repels violence against women, which shuns and denounces every instance of domestic violence. We failed you in 2009 when your husband was arrested for abuse. The system has failed you over again. And we have failed in not holding that system accountable, in demanding a system that actual works to create a environment. In 2010, your husband said, “I got five baby mamas and I put my hand on every last one of them except one. The way I was with women, they was like they had to walk on eggshells around me. You know they never knew what I was thinking or what I might do. Hit them, push them.” Reading this hurts me because it is further evidence of our failure. We rear men who think this is ok, who are empowered to abuse. Where were we then? Where was the criminal justice system that is so concerned about protection and safety? We have failed you and for that I am sorry. Read more…

The Acclaimed Web Series Black Folks Don’t Returns for a Third Season

 

 

Black Folks Don’t (BFD) is back for a third season–this time tackling environmentalism. The series, directed and produced by Angela Tucker, explores the myth and reality of things black people allegedly don’t do. This time around BFD will explore feminism, NRA membership, plastic surgery and more. Racialicious alumna Andrea Plaid is part of the BFD season three team, so you know it’s bound to be good!