Anita: Still Speaking Truth to Power

Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, a beautiful new documentary by Academy Award-winning director Freida Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision), is a history lessonImage for some audiences and a site of memory for others.

Millennial girls and women who didn’t witness firsthand the spectacle of sex and race during the 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court get to bear witness to Anita Hill’s testimony, an act that changed American perceptions of workplace sexual harassment.

Continue reading at Ms.blog

Advertisements

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is Flawless

The BeyHive has been swarming about since Thursday’s surprise album drop. What Melissa Harris-Perry has deemed Bey’s “Feminist Manifesto” has also gotten a good deal of attention. While I’ll save my discussion of the nuances of “liberal” and “radical” feminism(s) for a later post, I am excited that “Flawless,” Beyoncé’s sonic interpretation of feminism can introduce folks that might not have read or even heard of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to the writer’s brilliant voice and work.

Yoncé cites the writer’s critique of gender inequality and the expectations that girls must marry. But the line that stuck out to me from Adichie’s talk deals with the power of anger:

I am angry. Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change. But, in addition to being angry, I am also hopeful because I believe deeply in the ability of human beings to make and remake themselves for the better.

Flawless!

Patsey’s Screams

Image

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

Image

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?

“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”

Image

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.

Image

 

 

Betty Friedan and black women: Is it time for a second look? by Michelle Bernard

Image

Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” turned 50 this week.  At the time of its publication, “Singletons” (circa 1963 defined as an unmarried woman) did not have a legal right to birth control. Married women did not have equal access to credit.  In some states, married women could not get a job without the permission of their husbands.  Occupational segregation was the norm.  The wage gap was more like a wage canyon.  Sexual harassment of women in the workplace was not yet legally actionable.  Abortion was illegal.  Every state in the nation required “fault-based” grounds for divorce.  Spousal rape was not a crime in most states.

All of this changed for all American women in the wake of Friedan’s tome.  Second wave feminism was born.  The National Organization for Women was founded.  The call for equality and women’s rights would resound in every cell of the American body politic.

All American women owe Friedan a debt of gratitude.

Yet, despite all of the above, as an African American woman, I can say that I have never met a black woman who admits to having read “The Feminine Mystique.”  I have never heard a black woman of a certain age recite with the nostalgia what I refer to as “the Friedan anthem” – “The Problem with No Name.”

Continue reading at The Washington Post