Category Archives: Entertainment

Book Excerpt: “Seeing Things” from Godless Americana

By Guest Contributor Sikivu Hutchinson

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The two young men of color walk through the gallery transfixed. There is so much to see and so little time to see it in; no docents handy to provide a frame, no earphones to squawk on about context and artist’s intent. The trip from their South L.A. school to the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA) in the Miracle Mile section of Wilshire Boulevard is, figuratively, a world away. As the first car-euphoric corridor in Los Angeles, Miracle Mile still retains its sheen. The museum’s multi-million dollar exhibits and au courant architecture showcase the pinnacle of Western culture—from classic to modern to contemporary avant-garde. The wing that the students walk through is the brain child of billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, an ethereally lit sanctuary that brings them face-to-face with artist Glenn Ligon’s anatomy of black otherness. Ligon’s exhibit beckons with written evaluations from his elementary-school teachers. Their comments range from praise to quizzical disappointment. One implies that he is squandering his potential. Another pronounces that he has insufficient “black consciousness.” As records of one student’s arc, they are unremarkable, inviting a voyeurism that only piques interest in the context of the artist’s success. However, as grade-school primers of the genealogy of Ligon’s marked body and, implicitly, that of all black students, they are deeply moving.

In the art gallery, time is suspended. It is crafted as a hermetic space, a rebuke to the outside world where quiet contemplation is a rare commodity, fast becoming the province of the super rich. At this particular exhibit, guards of color stand silently at the ready. There is a black presence stationed in every room, a reminder of the invisibility of people of color in the high-flying corporate art scene. With their stiff uniforms and stoic expressions, the guards both comment on and perform the authority of the museum. They are there and not there, breaking from the tedium of their posts to remind students to put away their cell phones and refrain from taking pictures. They protect the secular sanctity of the gallery space through the veneer of enforcement, adding another layer of seeing and surveillance.

What do the students see in a culture in which they are trained to view art and aesthetics as the province of white geniuses? How do they navigate seeing in a culture in which the vision of white geniuses defines universal standards of beauty, value, goodness, and human worth? How do they learn, as Carter G. Woodson says, to breathe, swallow, and regurgitate the template of white universal subject-hood as sacred creed and covenant? How do they learn—how did they learn—to become blind to themselves, to see themselves as the Other?

The politics of seeing are part of what drives God lust. God provides a blank canvas for all fears, anxieties, hopes, ambitions, and dreams. He/she/it becomes the tabula rasa for the dreamer, the universal fail-safe for the fucked-up, the crushed, the abject, and the abandoned. In an intensely capitalistic, racially segregated culture, God-dreaming is a kind of art-making. God is closely tied to self-making and invention. It’s a realm that offers both the illusion of agency or control and the conceit of subjection.

Ligon’s show includes a re-examination of the infamous Robert Mapplethorpe Black Book exhibit from the 1990s. Photo after photo of naked black men sprawl next to quotes from commentators, critical theorists, and art mavens. The quotes weigh in on the public blasphemy of eroticized black male bodies, musing about whether Mapplethorpe’s images were exploitative. The comments run the gamut from appreciation to outrage, many of them conceding the ambiguity of representation and desire. Interspersed with the provocative poses of the mostly taut, virile young men, Ligon’s arrangement of the quotes underscores the ways in which the black body has always existed as contested space, as politicized. In an era in which mass incarceration and criminalization have become the predominant media for black embodiment, Mapplethorpe’s photographs are even more difficult to view within the lens of aesthetic pleasure. Mapplethorpe’s identity as a prominent white gay male photographer cannot be separated from the photos’ reception. Nor can his identity, power, and privilege be distanced from the tragic downward spiral of his black gay subjects, many of whom died of AIDS. It’s nearly impossible to imagine a black gay photographer gaining intimate access to the lives of white men for a similar photo essay. Heady pronouncements of colorblind equality are even more farcical in the context of the segregated art world, where artists of color are routinely ghettoized into “ethnic” shows. But art-making has an especially critical relationship to knowledge construction and human value. Who has the authority to make art, whose art will be considered as “great,” canonical, or universal is deeply connected to the standards of what is worth being seen.

Glenn Ligon's “Notes on the Margins of the Black Book” (1991-1993), based on photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. (Photo: International Center of Photography)

Glenn Ligon’s “Notes on the Margins of the Black Book” (1991-1993), based on photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. (Photo: International Center of Photography)

In the twelve-plus years since Ligon’s original Mapplethorpe exhibit, and fifteen-plus since the book’s publication, the art world template for the white genius as all-seeing and all-powerful has not changed. What has changed during this period is that HIV/AIDS has become a leading cause of death for young African Americans and mass incarceration has been deemed the “New Jim Crow.” Against this backdrop, God-lust amongst African Americans has morphed into a more fevered, strategically public practice. It’s not uncommon for young blacks to retort that some wayward person should get “right with God.” It’s rare to go to a black public event that isn’t kicked-off or concluded with a prayer from a local pastor. On TV shows like CNN’s Black in America: Silicon Valley, scenes of black folk bowing their heads and joining hands in prayer before a stressful event are pro forma. Black NFL players like Kurt Warner and coaches like Tony Dungee routinely attribute their success on the field and in life to God’s co-piloting. Over the past several years some Black churches have even declared Halloween a new “Satanic” ritual, offering their own kid-friendly, fall-themed festivals as suitably God-fearing alternatives. T-shirts and paraphernalia with Scripture and religious references flood the streets in predominantly black communities, where disposable income is an oxymoron for most.

Embracing, invoking, and bowing down to God have become shorthand for achieving upward mobility. In Essence magazine, Tasha Smith, a popular actress and fixture in Tyler Perry films, reflects on her journey to success. This particular actress is habitually cast as the kind of ball-busting Sapphire alpha men love to hate and white women love to fetishize. Smith’s specialty is channeling the hand-on-hip, tell-it-like-it-is, keepin’-it-real “bitch” who is never afraid to slice and dice her man in a high-octane public throwdown. Consequently, the reader is “shocked” to learn that she was once an atheist—frustrated, adrift, and emotionally scarred by a traumatic childhood. It’s implied that her lack of faith was a kind of spiritual albatross. As told to Essence, her subsequent transition to a God-fearing woman of faith hastens her rise to fame, wealth, love, and redemption via that rarefied cultural vehicle—the Tyler Perry film. The profile on the actress assures us that giving one’s life/fate over to God is an authentic rite of passage, a naked reclamation of self in the midst of a cold spiritual wilderness. God enables vision, and, ultimately, upward mobility. Godlessness signifies rudderlessness and absence of self-control, a potentially fatal flaw for a black woman trying to bootstrap to a moral life. Being a “good black woman” is defined by masochism. It is only through the crucible of self-sacrifice, by extending one’s faith until it hurts, that redemption can be achieved.

Witness: an acquaintance experiencing extreme economic hardship pledges to lay her life down to God after an email solicitation yields a gift of $50. The “ask and ye shall receive” regime of the prosperity gospel has become the cult of true blackness. On the surface it’s a rebuke to black invisibility, a bird flip to a dominant culture that revels in the myth of black downward mobility driven by lazy blacks shuffling from government handout to government handout.

If God is Black America’s co-pilot, then what does that say about the landscape of 21st century United States, where black wealth is virtually nonexistent? What does it betray about a country where residential segregation of African Americans and Latinos has become more prevalent now than during the 1980s? It’s tempting for some religious skeptics of color to dismiss these displays as indicative of backward thinking from uneducated black folk. But, as the faith-based pandering of President Obama and other politicians demonstrate, education and religiosity are not mutually exclusive. Just as there is no shortage of storefront churches in poor black communities, there is no shortage of mid-sized to megachurches in middle-to-upper-middle-class black neighborhoods. Faith and religiosity don’t exist in a political, social, or economic vacuum. Nor are they static. One female interviewee from the 2010 gospel documentary Rejoice and Shout acknowledged that Christianity was originally the “white man’s religion” but dismissed the claim that blacks were brainwashed or indoctrinated. The gender pageantry of the Black Church is on vivid display in the grainy archival footage from this fascinating documentary (and document) of black life in the early 20th century. Black women getting the Holy Ghost crowd the church aisles, writhing, gesticulating, and testifying to the Lord’s transfixion. Every now and then the camera captures a swooning male congregant, but, for the most part, the men sit upright and respectable in the pews as the reverends hold sway in the pulpit. It’s implied that performance and possession—the raw abandon of getting the Holy Ghost—are a woman’s medium, a manifestation of their natural sexual otherness, their closer relationship with the body, and, thus, their irrationality. Here, religious performance, the collision between sacred and secular, becomes a kind of artistry. Ecstatic religious expression is portrayed as a powerful device in a social context that does not afford poor black women agency, creativity, or visibility.

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Sikivu Hutchison’s book, “Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels” is now available.

Race + TV: Four Summer Shows From Across The Pond

By Kendra James

I'm not luring you in here to tell you to watch Doctor Who or Sherlock. You have my word.

I’m not luring you in here to tell you to watch Doctor Who or Sherlock. You have my word.

Upfronts are done, premiere schedules are set; Stefon and Seth ran off into the sunset; and, even though it’s only May, it feels like we’re already halfway through the summer blockbuster set list…so what’s a pop culture junkie to do?  I humbly suggest using this hiatus season to catch up on a few British shows you may have missed while our gladiators were white-hatting.

At no more than six episodes per season, I promise you’ll be done before Olivia Pope’s return. Just give us a moment to close our eyes and turn around, so we don’t have to witness whatever it is you have to do to get your hands on the four shows underneath the cut.

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Quoted: On The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Summer Prince

Cover of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince

 

In addition to race and class dynamics, other issues from our real-world culture persist in Palmares Três. Even in a city run by women, teen motherhood continues to be stigmatized. One character in the book is the son of a woman who had him when she was 16. Although eighteen years have passed, both the son and mother, who has become a talented and sought-after designer, still face prejudice from those around them. In fact, in a city where people live to age 250, anyone under age 30 are treated with condescension, if not disdain. Enki’s popularity among both young and old people threatens the smooth and unchallenged reign of the Aunties and the Queen. And, with Enki as Summer King, June (and the rest of the city) start to realize that deceit bubbles beneath the beauty of Palmares Três.

So poverty and inequality are not eliminated under matriarchal rule. But Johnson’s matriarchy changes some of the ways people regard sexuality. People love and lust after for whomever they want, regardless of gender. June’s mother was first married to a man. Less than a year after his death, she marries a woman. No one bats an eye except June, who is furious at her mother’s rapid remarriage. At his first public appearance as Summer King, Enki and June’s best friend Gil meet and are immediately smitten. Their romance becomes constant fodder for the gossip feeds, but again no one questions their pairing.

The Summer Prince doesn’t push readers to think about real-world injustices like TankbornPartials orTruancy do. Instead, it was only when I emerged from Johnson’s beautifully written pages that I began to reflect on some of the similarities (and differences) between her world and this one. I can see YA readers, particularly YA girl readers, enjoying The Summer Prince, but it might take some prodding to connect the world and underlying injustices of Palmares Três to real-world issues of race, class, stigma and power.

— “Can a Society Run by Women Still Be a Dystopia?” by Victoria Law via Bitch Magazine

 

June, our heroine, is likably complex. She’s headstrong and confident, frequently referring to herself as “the best artist in Palmares Tres,” but she’s also believable as a slightly naive kid who hasn’t had to look outside the bubble of her privileged life as the stepdaughter of a government official. That life, of squabbling with her mother, working on cheeky performance-art stunts and hanging around with her best friend, Gil, changes dramatically when Gil falls in love with the newly elected Summer King Enki, a young man from the algae-farming slums.

It’s an unexpected twist in a novel full of them. Yes, this is a YA-dystopia-love-triangle story, but how unusual to see the heroine become the third wheel to a sensitively depicted gay relationship. And how deliciously unusual to read a YA dystopia that’s comfortable with ambiguity and nuance. This is a book that doesn’t condescend. Gil, June and Enki find themselves having to tread carefully as they work out their own answers to a host of questions about love, art, technology, tradition — even sex. Slightly bratty teenager June matures noticeably over the course of the narrative, becoming much more understanding of the adults in her life and what drives them. And even though one of the central conflicts in the book is a standard faceoff between the youth of Palmares Tres and the somewhat ossified ruling class, even the villains come off as understandable in the end.

— “Samba, Spiderbots And ‘Summer’ Love In Far-Future Brazil,” by Petra Mayer of NPR

Open Thread: The Great Gatsby

By Latoya Peterson

Gasby Movie Poster

Gasby Movie Poster

So I haven’t done a movie review for this site in forever, and I probably will never again.  That’s because before I started this gig, I watched movies like this:

 

Because Michael Jackson picked good movies.

Because Michael Jackson picked good movies.

And now I watch movies like this:

 

No one is impressed with this film. McKayla and Barack agree.

No one is impressed with this film. McKayla and Barack agree.

But the other Knights wanted to go, it looked pretty, Hova did the soundtrack, and I was hoping it would be as much fun as Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. (Huh? Plot? We ain’t got time for alla that. That’s what the book is for.)

So, Gatsby was fun–as one of my friends noted, it’s “Art Deco Porn.”  But of course, there’s also race things.  Some quick observations after the jump. *SPOILERS TOO!*

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Scandal Recap 2.22: “White Hats Back On”

By Arturo R. García

Might want to keep your ears open, Liv.

Greetings Scandalizens!

And thanks to Kendra and Joseph for allowing me to follow in a proud tradition of San Diegan closers by being your guest recapper for the season finale. But enough about me.

Previously, on Scandal:

Spoilers under the cut, and they will be thorough.
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Quoted: Lucy Liu On Racial Image And Romantic Comedies

by Joseph Lamour

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Image via Net-a-Porter.

The levels to which I would like to see Lucy Liu, Eva Mendes, or Aisha Tyler as the next Rom Com Queen knows no bounds. It’s nice to know Ms. Liu feels the same way. From The Edit magazine:

“I wish people wouldn’t just see me as the Asian girl who beats everyone up, or the Asian girl with no emotion. People see Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock in a romantic comedy, but not me. You add race to it, and it became, ‘Well, she’s too Asian’, or, ‘She’s too American’. I kind of got pushed out of both categories. It’s a very strange place to be. You’re not Asian enough and then you’re not American enough, so it gets really frustrating.”

I have so many (read: so many) ideas in the works for romantic comedies, each starring a lead of color. And, one gay one- starring me, of course. If Lena Dunham can do it, so can I. I just want to see someone like Lucy fall in love in a movie lit like a Dannon commercial. Doesn’t everyone want that?  Fellow lovers of Hitch, The Wedding Planner, and Something New: who would you like to see meet-cute, wardrobe montage, and run towards (or away from) an airport in a romantic comedy? Make your case in the comments.

The Mindy Project‘s Rishi And The Call For More PoCs In Charge

By Guest Contributor Crystal Xia, Blogger at There’s Nothing Here

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Mindy Kaling’s show, The Mindy Project, wrapped up its first season on Tuesday. In its first year, the show picked up critical attention and found an audience. More importantly, the show found confidence and its voice, and it developed characters and relationships true to Kaling’s signature comedic style. While the majority of the main cast is white, the show cast Utkarsh Ambudkar to play Rishi, Mindy’s little brother, for a couple of episodes in the first season.

Rishi is a hilarious, complex, and multifaceted character, a strong role for an Indian American male. He can be considered The Mindy Project’s take on the emerging stereotype of an Indian American “faux-gangster” male. Although he is studying science at Stanford University, Rishi is more interested in moving to New York City and becoming a rapper. Interestingly enough, Rishi isn’t just a “typical American kid trying to make it in a creative field”, a trap that many writers who want to normalize the minority experience fall into. He’s actually cool. Instead of being another corny wannabe, Rishi is a great rapper who can command a room, be it a break room full of Mindy’s coworkers or a “Battle of the Rappers”.

The Mindy Project does a great job of making Rishi more than his ethnicity without ignoring it. Jokes about Indian Americans have punch lines that make mainstream society and its misunderstanding of minorities the butt of the joke, not the minority Indian Americans. For example, Rishi manages to convince Mindy’s building manager to let him into Mindy’s apartment because “a well-spoken Indian can get into anywhere he wants”. This is a play on the idea that Asian Americans are stereotypical “model minorities”.

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Scandal Roundtable 2.21: “Any Questions?”

Image via ABC.com.

So Scandal last week. Like… OMG, right? So much to say, so much to spoil in this introduction if you haven’t watched last week. I ask, however: why haven’t you? Go, now. I’ll wait.

If you’re back, (or if you’ve never left,) join Kendra James, Jordan St. John, Zach Stafford, Loree Lamour, Johnathan Fields and I as we talk about last weeks game changing episode and our expectations for tonight’s finale.

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