Category: Popular Culture
These are some impressions…I am thinking through recent experiences.
This Jim DeRogatis quote has floated across my Twitter timeline several times this week. DeRogatis was referencing the lack of accountability for R.Kelly’s repeated sexual assaults of black girls. I must admit to grinding my teeth every time I’ve seen the quote. It isn’t that I don’t agree with the sentiments expressed by DeRogatis. Rather, I don’t believe that 90% of those who are sharing the quote actually grasp the lived realities of too many young black women and girls in America. So the implications of the quote are too easily ignored. But for hyper-disposable black girls, the pain lingers and festers…
“Nobody matters less to our society than young black women.”
I’ve spent the greater part of my adult life working with black girls and young women. I created a workshop that I co-facilitated several years ago focused on using Lil’ Kim’s image and experiences to illuminate our own lives as black girls and women. In other words, I’ve had a longstanding interest in and commitment to engaging in discussions with black girls about issues of representation and survival.
“Nobody matters less to our society than young black women.”
Since Beyonce released her visual album last week, there have been many, many attempts to analyze, dissect, and discuss it. This is not another post about Beyonce. At least, it’s not a post about whether Beyonce is or is not feminist. It’s also not an album review. It’s a post (I think) about the historical devaluing of black American girls and women and its implications for today.
Before yesterday, I’d never heard of Lily Allen. But then my Twitter feed exploded with criticisms of her new video for a song called “Hard Out Here.” So last night (while battling insomnia), I watched it and it was boringly predictable. It wasn’t shocking or provocative. Dating back to slavery, black women’s bodies and sexuality have been expropriated for white profit and pleasure. This isn’t new.
When I was in high school, I picked up a book called “We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century” at my local library. It was the first time (but not the last) that I would come across a daguerrotype of an enslaved girl named Delia.
This photograph, which is thought to perhaps be the earliest made of an adolescent enslaved black girl, has been seared in my mind since I saw it when I was a teenager. Delia was compelled to sit naked for the purpose of having her body examined and documented. The photographs were commissioned by scientist & Harvard professor Louis Agassiz. Agassiz was studying the bodies of blacks to prove that we were a separate and inferior species. Delia’s body was not her own but public property.
I used to be fascinated with Delia’s photograph. I made a copy of it and pasted it in my journal. I think that I was 15 or 16 years old at the time. Her eyes reminded me of my cousin’s. I focused on her eyes. I was embarrassed by her nakedness. I didn’t know why. I didn’t have the words to convey the horrors of slavery. As I grew older, I realized that no one in this country does either. Therefore, it is difficult to represent or understand that which is unspeakable.
you not a noplace
– Lucille Clifton
Watching Allen’s video reminded me that black women’s bodies have always been sites of both domination and resistance. The entire script of American chattel slavery was written on black women’s bodies. Control of our bodies was key to both the economic prosperity of slaveowners and to the subjugation of the entire black race. Adrienne Davis (2009) suggests that: “Enslaved black women gave birth to white wealth (p.229)” White people have been fighting to maintain their mastery over our bodies ever since. Black women have continued to resist this and to write our own body stories. And it’s been and is a mighty struggle (see the consistent policing of black girl dancing, for example).
To Lily Allen, consciously or subconsciously, black women are Delias. We are meant to be put on display, to be used as props for others’ pleasure & profit. We are just flesh & property. In the tradition of Agassiz, our anatomy is meant to be examined and prodded. The verdict is out as to whether we should still be considered an inferior species.
am a black woman
tall as a cypress
beyond all definition still
indestructible — Mari Evans
Yesterday, another black woman was on display, this time in front of a white judge in Florida. Her name is Marissa Alexander & she was in court to hear whether she would be granted bond and released until her re-trial. The judge made no decision on bond and set another status hearing for January 15. Marissa will likely spend another Christmas in jail. Sitting in the courtroom, Marissa’s body is inscribed with inherent criminality; already presumed guilty. Her blackness makes her both invisible and hyper-visible. I wondered what Lily Allen would have to say to and about Marissa. Then I thought better of it, what could anyone have to say to a chair? For Allen and her ilk, black women are chairs (inanimate objects) to sit on, to decorate their homes, and to eventually discard for a newer/shinier model. To Lily Allen, black women are Delia.
My friend, the brilliant Dara Cooper, did something really terrific yesterday. After a conversation with some youth worker friends, she decided to crowdsource questions on Facebook for people who wanted to debrief Django Unchained particularly with black youth. I love this idea even though I think that the attention paid to the film is already completely disproportionate to its quality or value… But that’s unimportant. Many black people are packing theaters to see this movie and many in the audience are young people. I asked Dara if I could share the list on this blog for others who might find it useful. She agreed by saying: “It’s ours.” That’s pretty much typical of Dara…
I recently read that some new research confirms the fact that black children who are instilled with racial pride do better in school. I am sure that this does not come as a shock to anyone but it is always good to get some empirical evidence for what you suspect in your gut. One of the study authors, Ming-Te Wang, explains:
“Our findings challenge the notion that ‘race blindness’ is a universally ideal parenting approach, especially since previous research has shown that racially conscious parenting strategies at either extreme—either ‘race blindness’ or promoting mistrust of other races—are associated with negative outcomes for African American youth.
“When African American parents instill a proud, informed, and sober perspective of race in their sons and daughters, these children are more likely to experience increased academic success.”
Anyway, I contributed some of my own questions to Dara’s curated list. If you want to contribute your own, please leave them in the comment section and I will keep adding to the list. Below is the Facebook note from Dara:
I never knew this but it seems that Ella Fitzgerald spent a year of her life as a teen at a girls’ reformatory in New York. She never spoke about this period of her life. I stumbled upon this information as part of my ongoing research about Billie Holiday.
An article by Nina Bernstein appeared in the New York Times in 1996 which unearths this unknown period of Fitzgerald’s life:
The unwritten story survives in the recollections of former employees of the New York State Training School for Girls at Hudson, N.Y., and in the records of a government investigation undertaken there in 1936, about two years after Miss Fitzgerald left. State investigators reported that black girls, then 88 of 460 residents, were segregated in the two most crowded and dilapidated of the reformatory’s 17 “cottages,” and were routinely beaten by male staff.
At a time of renewed calls for institutions to rescue children from failed families, this lost chapter in the life of an American icon illuminates the gap between a recurrent ideal and the harsh realities of the child welfare system.
Like Miss Fitzgerald, most of the 12- to 16-year-old girls sent to the reform school by the family courts were guilty of nothing more serious than truancy or running away. Like today’s foster children, they were typically victims of poverty, abuse and family disruption; indeed, many had been discarded by private foster care charities upon reaching a troublesome puberty.
When Thomas Tunney, the institution’s last superintendent, arrived in 1965 and tried to bring back former residents to talk to the girls of his own day, he learned that Miss Fitzgerald had already rebuffed invitations to return as an honored guest.
“She hated the place,” Mr. Tunney said from his home in Saratoga Springs, where he retired some years after the institution closed in 1976. “She had been held in the basement of one of the cottages once and all but tortured. She was damned if she was going to come back.”
“Nothing good ever came out a prison.” — Johnny Cash
This is the first of a series of meditations about Johnny Cash. Cash became somewhat of an obsession since I first heard ‘Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison’ when I was 15 years old. I came upon the record quite by accident. I was at a friend’s apartment. Her father was an avid country music fan. He was playing the album while I happened to be visiting. It would be several years before I became an anti-prison activist. So at the time, it was the music rather than the song content or lyrics that piqued my interest.
Later when I was much older, I began to appreciate the album for its social significance. It is a statement about the marginalized in our society and fits perfectly into the protest music of its era.
According to Michael Streissguth (2004), Cash learned about Folsom Prison in 1953 by watching a film titled “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison.” The non-critically acclaimed film inspired him to write the song “Folsom Prison Blues” with the memorable line “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.” This line and most of the song have been criticized as being plagiarized from various sources. Regardless, Cash recorded the song in 1955 and it became one of his biggest hits.
Someone got really angry at me last week. She asked me to “defend” Chief Keef and I said no. I declined to engage with her not because Chief Keef isn’t “worth” defending but rather because he is a proxy & therefore irrelevant. What this woman really wanted me to do was to condemn Keef. I won’t do it. [Full disclosure: I've been asked to appear in the media to talk about Keef & have declined too.]
Many people cringe when they watch Chief Keef’s video for his song “I Don’t Like.” Some people find their fears of young black men confirmed by the images that they see. Others rage against him for embodying the worst stereotypes attributed to black boys. Are we to believe, however, that the negative ideas that people have about young black men originate with Keef and his videos? Come on. Those stereotypes and ideas predate Keef by several generations. The cultural work of racism that set the stage for dehumanizing black people has its roots in the 19th century. Keef really didn’t make this world; he’s inherited it and we are all culpable for this.
If you are taking to the media or the pulpit to skewer Keef, you are wasting your time. It is easy to rant and much more difficult to propose constructive solutions for the social problems that give birth to the destructive realities that Keef raps about and that he lives.
Kevin Coval gets at this in the preface of his new chapbook More Shit Chief Keef Don’t Like:
Every institution in Chicago fails Black youth. Segregated and systematically inequitable, Chicago is a town where white kids exist in an increasingly idyllic new urban utopia, and Black and Latino kids weave and dodge through a war zone. The largest specter in the spectacle and circus that surrounds the city, Chief Keef has become its poster boy and scapegoat. He is a young man who looks and sounds like thousands of young people in Chicago—reared in a culture of nihilism, death, and capitalism. He is a young man who sings the demented measures and results of white supremacy, the legacy and maintenance of grand inequity. Chief Keef sings a tortured and tormented Chicago song. It is a song we need to listen to carefully.
Like some other young black men in Chicago his age, Keef has already been in trouble with the law. He’s been arrested and spent time in jail. He is also unapologetic about these things. Keef is a symptom and product of Chicago’s devastated and blighted inner city communities. This past July, Daniel Shea wrote a profile titled “Chief Keef: Lost Boys,” it’s worth reading.
Keef is just 17 years old and he is basically a commodity at this point. He performs and probably makes much more money for corporations than he does for himself. I don’t know the young man personally but I would bet that he is no different than the other 17 year old black boys that I meet and interact with daily. He is no doubt holding a lot of anger, he is probably funny & mercurial, he might be sullen & sweet, he does a lot of weed and it’s clear that he is brilliant. In other words, Keef is as Kevin points out like “thousands of young people in Chicago.”
And the truth is that thousands of young people in Chicago are being failed on a minute by minute basis. So I won’t waste my time moralizing against Keef. I will instead continue to condemn and to hold accountable the systems and institutions that are supposed to ensure the health and well-being of the thousands of youth like him.
This week has me thinking about Kim Jones (aka Lil Kim) again. A young woman I am working with e-mailed a photograph of her and I was left speechless. Kim is unrecognizable to me. I have always been fascinated by her and have written about her a couple of times on this blog here and here.
The legend of Lil’ Kim begins with her “discovery” by Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G) on the streets of Bed-Sty in Brooklyn. She released her debut album titled “Hardcore” in 1996. In interviews, she has said: “Lil’ Kim is what I use to get money, a character I use to sell my records.” Yet one wonders if this is truly the case. What is the distance between the character of Lil’ Kim and Kimberly Jones? One thing is certain: she is a complex person, full of contradictions. It is perhaps this, above all, that makes her so interesting & relevant to me.