Lay off Michelle Obama: Why white feminists need to lean back by Brittney Cooper

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Credit: Mark Sullivan/WireImage.com

In a column at Politico last week entitled “Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama Became a Feminist Nightmare,” Michelle Cottle cast First Lady Obama as a feminist failure, declaring that though “somebody will shatter the conventional first lady mold,” it “won’t be Michelle Obama.”

My message to white feminists is simple: Lean back. Way back. And take your paws off Michelle Obama. Black women have never been the model for mainstream American womanhood, and to act as though she takes something away from the (white) feminist movement is intellectually disingenuous and historically dishonest. Your molds were never designed to contain the likes of a Michelle Obama in the first place. And feminism’s biggest nightmare isn’t Michelle Obama; it is white feminists’ consistent inability to not be racist.

Continue reading @ Salon

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Patsey’s Screams

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photo c/o premier.fr

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is an important film that is also difficult to watch. Film critic Armond White describes it as a “horror show” that will encourage “howls of discomfort.” But as uncomfortable as those two-plus hours are, they only graze the surface of the horrors of lived slavery. Asked about the “hard to watch” label by LA Times’s Steven Zeitchik, McQueen said in no uncertain terms, “The truth can sometimes be hard to watch. […] But if we want to understand where we’re going, we have to understand our past.” At the same time, I remain wary of how spectacular displays of black pain impact viewing audiences. (Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection proves ever-timely, relevant and useful for viewing such explicit representations of bodily trauma.) Will confronting the slave past by seeing it represented make us feel self-congratulatory in what too many have misidentified as a “postracial” era? Or will witnessing representations of slavery embolden us to confront the imperial, racial, and sexual violence of the present: the “afterlife of slavery?”

As I turned away from some of the film’s explicit scenes, I became aware of its attention to sound as well. Averting my eyes didn’t blot out the simulation of whip cracks; a mother’s incessant wailing following the sale of her children; or Patsey’s (played brilliantly by Lupita Nyong’o) tortured screams. I thought about Frederick Douglass’s Aunt Hester, whose “heart-rending shrieks” would wake him up at dawn. Harriet Jacobs renders more subtle registers of hearing in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. She mentions the “stinging scorching words” of a sexually predatory master and the nighttime whispers of a jealous mistress as some of the quotidian terrors of slavery she endured.

Through sound, song, and dance turned moan and scream and back to song again, McQueen’s film captures the affective memories of slavery. One of the most emotional scenes—at least for me—takes place at the burial of a slave who has fallen dead from overwork in the cotton fields. The slave community sends their brother “home” with “Roll Jordan Roll,” “I want to go to heaven when I die.” The camera closes in on Solomon’s/Platt’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) pained expression. For the first time, “Platt,” who is usually playing the fiddle, joins his voice with the robust cries of others. The kidnapped “free” man becomes resigned to his fate as a slave and turns his hope for freedom toward the afterlife. As a complement to the violence of whipping and plantation labor, that act of singing—like the scenes when the mistress forces the slaves to dance for her entertainment—broadens the “truth” of slavery by bringing the aural and the emotional facets of the institution to bear on the physical toil and abuse.

The affective sway of 12 Years a Slave doesn’t dim the unrelenting cruelty displayed on the screen though. To some extent, it heightens it. Solomon’s hopelessness is alleviated by his rescue, but the mournful refrain of “Roll Jordan Roll” haunts viewers as we contemplate Patsey’s fate. Patsey—who makes corn husk dolls after picking cotton clean; who begs for death to escape the sadistic clutches of a sexually depraved master; who, just for a moment, loses herself in the music and dances to her own tune; whose back is skinned clean because she wanted to bathe with soap—is not rescued by a Canadian carpenter or a gun-toting Django-like avenger. Patsey’s tragic fate, for some, may belie enslaved women’s various modes of resistance. At the same time, the film refuses to allow us to “look away” from the tortured gaze of one who is left behind. By making Patsey’s the last image of slavery we see, McQueen’s film reframes the history of slavery through a female gendered lens that makes the trials of black girlhood and womanhood as essential to our remembrances as the more often recounted narratives of stolen manhood.

A Few Questions

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The neon yellow steps with words like Gender, Race and Feminist announced in bold black halted my hurried walk to the subway. It isn’t often that we see or say such words in public. I was especially struck by the question on the bottom step: Is RACE a feminist issue? Only when “feminist” is code word for “white feminist” does such a question arise. Black and other “women of color” feminists already live that answer.

The other questions, while still relevant, also seemed to issue forth from a “second wave” white feminist perspective. “You can’t reduce 21st century feminism to 1970s slogans,” my friend Tricia Matthew intoned as we stood and wondered aloud about the questions those steps posed.

After Googling the artist Suzanne Lacy, I found out that the steps were a prelude to conversations that took place on October 19 on steps and stoops along Park Place in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Creative Time and the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art presented Lacy’s Between the Door and the Street, a public performance that brought together hundreds of feminist activists. Attired in arresting black and yellow, the activists facilitated discussions about contemporary gender issues.

Audience-member/participant Salamishah Tillet, professor and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, Inc. suggests in her piece for The Nation that the organic conversations that sprung up on the stoops and in the streets were a productive model of feminism-in-action: “By encouraging us to eavesdrop on these discussions, Lacy sought to break the fourth wall — the imaginary wall at the front of a traditional theater stage that separates the actors from the audience — as well as challenge the historical record of feminism as racially exclusive and single-issue focused.”

I’d like to imagine that those stoop conversations generated new sets of questions that reflect the diversity of those who were assembled there. What questions about gender and feminism should we be asking today?

High on Love

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad Forest Whitaker stretched his acting chops in The Butler and am looking forward to seeing Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave. I think all facets of American history and black people’s central place in it deserve to be represented. It’s especially important to remember those things that many would choose to forget.

And yet, the recent slate of black films about black trauma and servitude has made me slightly war weary. “Somebody, anybody make a film about middle class black folks doing ordinary things!” I even find myself counting down the days to the premier of The Best Man Holiday.

This past week, the film gods finally intervened. Shaka King’s feature debut Newlyweeds was showing at The Charles. I hadn’t heard about the film and even if I had, I’m not sure I would’ve paid money to see a “stoner dramedy,” not even one praised by Sundance. The promise of a Wire reunion whet my curiosity though: the film’s executive producer is Gbenga Akinnagbe (The Wire’s “Chris Partlow”) and Isiah Whitlock Jr. (“Senator Clay ‘sheeeeet’ Davis”) and Hassan Johnson (“Wee-Bey”) have parts in the film. Plus, it’s shot in Bed-Stuy!

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But even more than my desire to nostalgize over Brooklyn, my need to see something black and clever and funny drove me to the theater. And I’m glad it did. Newlyweeds is much more than a stoner film. And while it’s hilarious, it also has an undercurrent of melancholy. Amari Cheatom (“Lyle”) and lovely newcomer Trae Harris (“Nina”) are high on love and weed. Eventually their enjoyment of the latter threatens their relationship and their futures. It manages to be a cautionary tale without turning into an afterschool special. But most of all, it’s refreshing. It’s not a typical “black film,” a stagey romance, or your usual stoner comedy. The combination of King’s keen imagination and dark sense of humor; Harris and Cheatom’s unaffected performances; and Daniel Patterson’s gorgeous cinematography make it a must-see, especially for black indie lovers.

 

ESPN’s ‘Venus Vs.’ Explores Venus Williams’s Equal-Pay Legacy by Allison Samuels

venus_williams_1996Venus Williams may be absent from Wimbledon this year, but her influence on the tournament remains—and as more than just a bellwether for sister Serena’s success.

The new ESPN film Venus Vs., which airs July 2 on the sports network, is likely to cement the tennis superstar’s legacy as a trailblazer and a heroine for women’s rights. Venus Vs. documents the long battle for equal wages among the sexes in tennis that began with Billie Jean King and was later championed by Venus.

Director Ava DuVernay suggested the Venus-themed documentary to ESPN last year after researching Williams’s relentless efforts to attain equal pay at Wimbledon. “I’d heard about it but didn’t know all of the details,’’ said DuVernay. “It’s really a fascinating story.’’

Continue reading @ The Daily Beast

Rachel Jeantel

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Credit: Reuters/Jacob Langston/Pool

The last person to speak to Trayvon Martin alive may be the most talked about ‘colored girl’ of the week. The moment Rachel Jeantel took the stand in the murder trial of George Zimmerman, media and spectators weighed in on her intelligence and appearance.

Cultural critics Mychal Denzel Smith, Brittney Cooper and Jelani Cobb unpack the class, gender, racial, and aesthetic politics that underline many of the responses to Jeantel’s presence:

“Rachel’s testimony is an emotional reminder of just what happened. A teenage boy was killed. His family and friends were left to mourn. For some of them, the pain is still fresh. The man responsible walked free for more than a month. There’s a possibility he could be found not guilty.” Continue reading @ The Nation

“These kinds of terms – combat, aggression, anger – stalk Black women, especially Black women who are dark-skinned and plus-sized like Rachel, at every turn seeking to discredit the validity of our experiences and render invisible our traumas. By painting Rachel Jeantel as the aggressor, as the one prone to telling lies and spreading untruths, it became easy for the white male defense attorney to treat this 19 year old, working-class, Black girl, a witness to the murder of her friend, as hostile, as a threat, as the one who needed to be regulated and contained and put in her place.” Continue reading @ Salon.com

“Social-media commentary on Jeantel began nearly as soon as she began to testify. Crass assessments of her weight, looks, and intelligence from some white observers competed with a cocktail of vicarious shame, embarrassment, and disdain from some black ones. If the trial has become a referendum on racial attitudes, Jeantel’s testimony served as a reminder that none of us have the moral high ground. Of the abundant ironies that this case has generated, perhaps the most telling are the commonalities that emerged while she was in the courtroom: it brings out the worst in all of us.” Continue reading @ The New Yorker

Straightening Our Hair by bell hooks (1988)

hotcombOn Saturday mornings we would gather in the kitchen to get our hair fixed, that is straightened. Smells of burning grease and hair, mingled with the scent of our freshly washed bodies, with collard greens cooking on the stove, with fried fish. We did not go to the hairdresser. Mama fixed our hair. Six daughters—there was no way we could have afforded hairdressers. In those days, this process of straightening black women’s hair with a hot comb (invented by Madame C. J. Walker) was not connected in my mind with the effort to look white, to live out standards of beauty set by white supremacy. It was connected solely with rites of initiation into womanhood. To arrive at that point where one’s hair could be straightened was to move from being perceived as child (whose hair could be neatly combed and braided) to being almost a woman. It was this moment of transition my sisters and I longed for.

Continue reading this flashback article at Z Magazine

More Than Just HAIR

bighairMy hair tells a story that often coincides with different phases of my life. I remember tearing up when I sat between the knees of mama or an aunt bent on conquering my course hair and corralling it into pigtails. I bent back ears to save them from getting burned by pressing combs. I even consented to the dreaded jheri curl that promised to loosen my much tighter coils.

After graduating college, I took scissors to my own head. Relaxers had made me feel everything but relaxed. I relinquished the mental and financial burden of straightening my hair and shaved it all off. And I must admit, it felt freeing. At the time I could still hear Audre Lorde’s voice booming in my ear, “Is your hair still political? Tell me when it starts to burn!” And while I didn’t walk the streets with my fist in the air wearing a floor-length dashiki, the act meant something.

This was well before the “transitioning movement” converted sistas to two-strand twists when tracks became too rough. This was before black girls could walk into beauty supply stores and find an entire hair apothecary devoted to kinky, wavy, springy, zigzag hair and every pattern in between. I was–at least I felt I was–a part of an unpopular tribe of sistas fielding questioning looks and personal comments about my closely cropped and later homemade locked hair.

100_0410During my many adventures in black hair styles, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked to touch my hair. More than a few have had the audacity to do it without my permission. When I refused one white woman’s request to feel my locks, she asked why, as if she were entitled to invade my personal space.

youcantouchmyhairSo I understand the passionate responses to the Un’ruly.com “You Can Touch My Hair” exhibit that happened this past weekend in New York’s Union Square. Some have equated the interactive public art display to a petting zoo and the real live “exhibits” to “primitives” or “animals.” The exhibit reminded me of Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit …, a series of satirical “cage performances” that conjured the western world’s history of exhibiting its colonized Others. One of the things that made Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s exhibit so powerful is that it collapsed the positions of spectacle and spectator. The audience’s responses to seeing caged humans on display was as important as the performance itself.

Un’ruly’s founder Antonia Opiah stated that the goal of the exhibit was to create dialogue. But I’d be interested in turning the gaze onto those who were eager to touch black hair, whether out of curiosity or admiration. What prompts someone to want to touch a stranger’s hair? What assumptions does that touch confirm or debunk? Granted, some hair-touchers were other black folk. As Michaela Angela Davis explained on HuffPost Live, many black people are curious about each others diverse hair textures. Black folk also tend to let other black people into our intimate space since we take as a given our shared sense of belonging.

Most of the angry reactions to the performance come from black women who feel that we are always on exhibit under the white gaze. Black women have long grown weary of being exploited, exoticized, and Othered. cover_avocado

Plus, what does the act of touching accomplish? In The Erotic Life of Racism, Sharon Patricia Holland discusses the potential of the touch to either overcome or solidify difference. Touch can reinforce the boundary between the “human” and “nonhuman” (thing that is touched) or make legible interracial intimacies that have gone unacknowledged (104). In the time of slavery, blacks and whites lived in close proximity, but seldom did what my friend and colleague Lynn Makau calls “peculiar intimacies” develop into a fuller acknowledgement of shared humanity and belonging between blacks and whites.

Similarly I doubt that granting strangers permission to touch our hair in a so-called “postracial” era will shock people into recognizing black women’s humanity. Perhaps the performance will spark questions about the who gets to look at and touch whom and engender ways of disrupting those power dynamics.

Network TV Is Broken. So How Does Shonda Rhimes Keep Making Hits? by Willa Paskin

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Shonda Rhimes (Credit: Reuters/Fred Prouser)

“I love that the gay White House chief of staff is threatening to pretend the first lady is a closeted lesbian,” Shonda Rhimes said to a roomful of writers. “It is so wrong. In the best way.” Ten of the writers — seven men, three women, five plaid button-down shirts and two pairs of outsize hipster glasses frames — were sitting in her bright Hollywood office, pens in hand, scripts in laps, going through notes for the 20th episode of “Scandal,” Rhimes’s gonzo political melodrama, which is about to finish its second season on ABC.

Continue reading @ The New York Times

“We do not believe what they say”: Viola Davis at Texas Southern U

We do not worship them

We do not worship what they have made.

We do not trust them                                                                                                            

We do not believe what they say.  

                                       — Alice Walker “Each One, Pull One”

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Photo Credit: Chron.com

Viola Davis’ recent talk at TSU made me think back to Walker’s “Each One, Pull One,” especially the line “We do not believe what they say.” In a conversation with Deborah Duncan, Davis told the audience that in order to redefine herself, she had to go through a period of dispelling “everything everybody ever told her about being a black woman, because it was a lie” (Davis; emphasis mine).

Davis’ words resonated with all of us whom white supremacist-classist-racist-homophobic-sexist culture tells we aren’t good enough, we will never be pretty enough, we are too dark, too feminine, too skinny, too fat, too masculine, not “man” enough, not the right “kind” of black.

The fifth-born of six children, Davis grew up in abject poverty in Central Falls, Rhode Island. In spite of the rats that scurried across her cold floors, “big dreams were born in that house,” Davis recalled.

ImageDavis was introduced to the “craft” after seeing Cicely Tyson star in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. In Tyson, Davis said she saw a woman who looked like her mom. By providing that source of identification, Davis said Tyson “gave [her] permission to accept [herself].”

Achieving self-acceptance has been critical for sustaining herself as one of a handful of dark-skinned black actresses in Hollywood. Davis spoke candidly about the narrow scope of roles afforded black actresses in general and those who are dark-skinned in particular. While her fans (including this one) would like to see her play a love interest or rock a sexy role, none of us could name a dark-skinned sista in her 40s recently cast in a love story.

ImageDavis also spoke candidly about not wanting to play a maid. Asked if she knew the impact The Help would have, Davis exclaimed, “Yes! I knew–and not necessarily in good ways–I knew all of it! I knew white women would love it and the black community would be outraged. I was very conflicted about taking that job because I’m constantly aware of my responsibility to the African American community.” Davis said she ultimately accepted the role because it was one of the best scripts she got. She also welcomed the challenge to play a character who wasn’t “beautiful” or “flashy” and to make that character “work.”

The success of The Help has opened more doors for Davis. Her and her husband Julius Tennon (pictured above) are working on a biopic of the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who was an alumna of TSU. Davis, who will play Jordan, said she looks forward to transforming into someone who was so “iconic” and “an American hero.” I look forward to Davis transforming the iconic hero into a complex human who not only championed political causes and broke down doors but also loved, erred, felt pain, and showed vulnerability.

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