I’m not much of a Black History Month or Women’s History Month observer as in my life and in my work, black history and women’s history is American history .. is world history … is history as we need to remember and practice it everyday.
I was, however, struck by this thoughtful interview Jenisha Watts did with black feminist activist, writer, scholar bell hooks for Essence.com in observance of Women’s History Month (perhaps it touches on my desire for Essence to become an empowering magazine for black women, but I digress).
bell hooks reiterates the emphasis she has consistently placed in her writing on the need for black women to focus on our mental and physical health: the need for an affective revolution in other words (my words not hers). She cites Precious as a contemporary example of the kinds of “horrendous representations” that black women have to contend with. Though hooks misremembers the book Push (which she refers to as the book “Precious”) and discounts the ways in which the character Precious engages fantasies of whiteness, hooks is right about the need for black women to continually work on self-esteem and strive toward self-determination. This need goes beyond counteracting negative representations with positive ones though. That was the strategy deployed by New Negro intellectuals and litterati at the turn of the twentieth century. These pushes toward “positive representations” tend to be middle class and masculinist means of disciplining the working class, queers, and women in order to present a “respectable” face of blackness to the (white) public.
Granted Precious merits critique (I was more than troubled by the colorism implicit in Daniels’ casting decisions). At the same time, far too many critiques of the film orbit around the “politics of respectability” and the need for black cultural producers to promote “positive” images of black people. Who determines what’s “positive”? Far too often, so-called “positive” or “heroic” images of black people undermine our humanity. They do not account for fallibility, desire, and homogeneity. To be sure, representations of black folks in film and other media are too myopic. If I see an ad for another Tyler Perry film or t.v. show, I might lose it. My problem with the Perricization of black film is not his failure to promote “positive” images of black people but rather his reduction of black characters to stereotypes. Both the touting of idealized images of black people and the reduction of black people to “types” undermine the human complexity of blackness.