Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Nina Simone, Mississippi Goddam, 1964
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“I want to say that something extraordinary happened in Mississippi. I think in Mississippi, among those people, my people, I learned the meaning of love. And I tell you, the kind of love that we shared then is the kind of love we need to reintroduce to our families, our children must know that we love them… [we must] create institutions where they can see their history and no compromising lies about what [we] went through.”*
Beah Richards, Pan African Film and Arts Festival Award Ceremony, 2000
A friend of mine went to see the film Selma and fell asleep. When she awoke, the credits were rolling and her row in the theater had emptied. An older black woman gave her a sympathetic smile as Lynn sat up in her seat. Remembering where she was, she collected her purse and her shame, and walked through the lobby doors into the bright winter sunshine. Lynn had already seen Selma once, and liked it. But with the exception of one or two scenes, she hadn’t been particularly moved by the film the first time, and, thinking she must have missed something, went to see it again.
She shared with me her frustration when she called the next day and explained what happened. We laughed, and agreed that she must have just been tired from work. It couldn’t have been the film; not with the reviews we’d read, the unequivocal praise, the subject matter and the Oscar nomination. I didn’t understand the genius in her falling asleep until I’d seen Selma myself.
I watch Selma in a theater on Broadway with what feels like four thousand kids. They arrive in an eager stampede and are ushered to the balcony; the rest descend like locusts onto the main floor, clambering over each other to find a seat. A balding white teacher whom they refer to as Dr. Wilson guides them to the front of the theater, while a young black woman with long braids and a clipboard scans the rows, checking heads and taking inventory. It is nine-thirty, and although it is very early in the morning and mid-week, it can be a perfect time to see a movie. In addition to being less expensive, which always helps, one can avoid the chatter, the cell-phones, the battle for seats and general craziness that weekend movie-going entails in New York City.
I choose to sit in the middle row, a few seats away from an older black woman who is tucked up under a heavy orange coat that she raises high above her knees, like a tent. When I excuse myself, moving past her to go back into the lobby, she lets out a tiny shout, startling us both, and then apologizes for her reaction. “Sorry, I didn’t see you coming, baby. Just try and give me a little warning next time.”
Having not been to the movies in months, I decide on popcorn. I know I shouldn’t eat junk this early in the morning, but movies somehow don’t feel complete without it. I discover at the concession stand that a large popcorn and large drink in 2015 are fourteen dollars. Fourteen dollars. And someone has the nerve to call this the “value combo.” Ready to put my ass on the counter and stage a civil rights movement of a different kind, I reluctantly hand over my credit card with the cautious deliberation of someone buying not junk food, but furniture or a new car. I return to my seat, benumbed and precariously balancing my popcorn, candy, and drink, vowing never to buy food in a movie theater again (which I say every time). I warn my row-mate that I’m back by loudly clearing my throat as I approach. She adjusts her legs with slight annoyance as I walk past her, and again I take my seat.
A theater employee comes forward, a tall, blond man much too eager for nine o’clock in the morning, and asks for our attention. He announces that they are showing the movie without trailers - I’m assuming for the benefit of the kids - and to please enjoy the show. He disappears and we wait. Twenty minutes later, we are still waiting. I’ve eaten most of my popcorn, my stomach feels queasy, and I’m thinking I should have gotten the pretzel bites instead. Another theater employee, a black woman this time (they know better than to send back the white one), announces that they are having trouble with the projector and the movie will start as soon as they can fix it. My Lady of the Orange Coat and I exchange dubious black-conspiracy glances that say, “Yeah, right. I bet this shit isn’t happening at Into the Woods.” The teacher with the braids gives us a worried glance. As the group is getting restless, she says in a stage whisper: “All I know is, they better show something soon. Otherwise I’m in big trouble.”
I’m excited for the kids, and remember fondly what field trips were like in grade school, when even the smallest time away from class was a relief and adventure. The movie theater is infused with their energy, anticipation and exuberance. I watch their teacher, Dr. Wilson, as he tends to them familiarly but methodically, like a flock of sheep. His frown is suspicious yet amused as a group of kids, all black girls, ask if they can go to the bathroom before the movie starts. They know as he does that he can’t refuse them, and there is an implied threat: it will be less of a pain in the ass for him if he lets them leave now than after the movie starts. Facing their clique, Dr. Wilson seems very male and very white, and they, like me, can sense his vulnerability trying to maintain control outside the boundaries of the classroom. He provides me and my popcorn with a drama of a different kind as I watch their scene unfold. Something about his balding head and glasses and his easy rapport with them is endearing, but in the end he’s firm: “Okay, but come right back, because the movie is starting at any minute and I don’t want to have to find you.”
“Thanks Dr. Wilson!” It’s clear from their laughter that they love and trust him. The girls escape together gleefully and run up the aisle, a tiny slice of freedom.
When the lights go down, I brace myself for disaster: cell phones lighting up the theater like fireflies, restless kids running up the aisles wanting to sit somewhere else. With the exception of one boy who attempts to tweet by hiding his cell-phone under his coat and a girl who curls up in her chair to take a juicy nap in the dark (both are dealt with swiftly and efficiently by Ms. Braids and her clipboard) the students are quiet, well-behaved, and fascinated by Selma. They recognize Oprah as Annie Lee Cooper at once and cheer, especially when she knocks the hell out of a racist white cop. They clap enthusiastically when Martin Luther King, Jr. tells off Lyndon B. Johnson. They burst into nervous titters and giggles when King and Coretta Scott listen to the bugged tape recording of Martin getting it on during an extra-marital affair, to which My Lady of the Orange Coat sits upright and screams into the dark theater, “What the hell is so funny about that! That ain’t funny!” and returns to her state of repose. They gasp when people are beaten, particularly the white minister James Reeb, and they clap again, joyously, when the whites and blacks on-screen march together to the song “Glory” by John Legend and Common.
While my experience with the students was similar to Maureen Dowd’s account in her review of Selma for The New York Times, unlike the tone of her piece, I’m very grateful that they were in the theater. Watching Selma with a classroom of students is a little like having children around on Christmas morning: just when you feel yourself being irritated by the materialism and greed of the holiday, there is a child in pajamas, sitting under the tree, opening presents. Even the most cynical Scrooge can find it hard not to feel the magic of the holiday when seen through a child’s eyes.
And while I was ambivalent about my own Selma experience as I was leaving the theater, the kids helped me to appreciate the film. I didn’t feel, at least at first assessment, that they were cheated by what they saw. Obviously they had been entertained, and probably learned something, too. And I was happy that these kids were having a conversation about civil rights, Dr. King, and the march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder: did they have any idea what was missing from the film, what aspects of the Civil Rights Movement were not up on the screen?
A voice inside me says, It doesn’t matter what was left out of Selma or why. One should be grateful that black children have a movie at the multiplex that doesn’t expose them yet again to Hollywood’s pathological vision of black life and its low estimation of our culture; the senseless violence, sexual salaciousness, and grotesque sambo comedies that are so de rigueur, we rarely protest them anymore. We just wait for them to leave the theater until the next batch comes along - and they always come along. We watch the terrible films anyway and even take our kids, glad to see something black up on the screen and glad, at the very least, that a black person has a job in America, participating in our own degradation, all in the name of entertainment.
Most children who watch Selma will find inspiration in the film and its representation of Dr. King and the movement. The source material is inspiring by itself, regardless of how it is rendered. But as a legacy for children, black boys in particular will be particularly encouraged by the film – beautiful, strategic, varied and bold, black men rule the world of Selma. Black women, on the other hand, stand back from the main action - sentinel, dignified but detached, like the nurses in white who line the aisles of Southern black churches during the service. It was when I considered what black girls might take away from Selma, and the stories that aren’t being told in the film, that I began to get angry.
When I get home, I call Lynn and we talk about Selma for two hours. We acknowledge that it is a reasonably good film, that it probably deserves its Oscar nomination and, considering the competition it is up against, maybe even a win. We talk about the progress of black filmmakers, and the historical importance of a black female director’s having a film about civil rights nominated for a best picture Oscar in 2015.
However, when we dig deeper into what is missing in Selma, and the fact that because of its omissions the film is, in fact, not only problematic at times, but boring, our conversation feels like heresy and betrayal. Our nervous laughter brings up cultural childhood memories of sitting in church; a girl’s gloved hand whispering secrets in a boy’s ear hungry for gossip. We are black kids in our Sunday best, trying to stop giggling as a look from Mama and Daddy warns of a punishment waiting for us when we get home. Or, in my other fantasy, Lynn and I are private agents in trench coats, meeting at the pier late at night, collars flipped up against the cold and wondering if our conversation has been overheard, if we can trust the other. Why do we feel so guilty criticizing Selma?
The reverence we are supposed to bring to the movie feels religious and stifling. Critical thought is not required by some, and, in a few circles, is even discouraged. By this narrow estimation, one’s opinion of the film shouldn’t be based on whether Selma is actually a good movie or not, but on the sacredness of its subject matter, which, I suspect, is moving people despite what is on the actual screen.
The delight of discovering a kindred reaction encourages our foolishness on the phone – “You felt that way, too? I thought it was just me.” None of our friends will admit to disliking Selma; they won’t even approach that conversation. While our critiques may be slightly different, Lynn and I agree on one thing: you probably shouldn’t write at length about this.
As I say goodnight to her, the term that comes to mind is “respectability politics.” It’s not a phrase I’m overly familiar with, but I know it somehow applies to Selma. And that’s part of the problem with Selma - respectability. It’s a respectable effort, at a respectable length, made respectfully by people we respect, about a subject that everyone knows deserves great respect. And respectability is precisely why Lynn fell asleep. Selma is Presbyterian when it should be Pentecostal. And like The Butler and The Help, it is indicative of a revisionist tone about black culture that is becoming increasing troubling in our society, and has implications about what is happening to our art, to the interpretation of our history, and to the stories we tell our children. Respectability politics leads to the eradication of the blues song.
The politics of respectability may make us feel dignified as we watch beautiful people and beautiful images on the movie screen, and our beautiful films may win all the beautiful awards - but respectability was only one part of the Civil Rights Movement. It was a movement made of citizens who weren’t usually considered respectable or beautiful by society: poor people, sharecroppers, janitors, maids, students, Jews, black women and black men. A respectable movement, yes, and one with dignity: but it was also a movement that was violent, sweaty, funky, terrifying, angry, joyous, sanctified, dangerous, raging, heroic, loving, and deeply, deeply brave. It was churches filled with clapped hands, enthusiastic cries, shouting praise, and singing, singing, singing . The soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement is a freedom song led by a black woman’s voice, it is the activist song of Bernice Johnson Reagon singing, “Aint Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” and Fanny Lou Hamer singing, “Go Tell It On the Mountain”, and it’s that voice, that black woman’s image and legacy, that is nowhere to be found in Selma.
The Oscars are over, Selma did not win Best Picture, yet it is obvious that its legacy will be greater than any award show or prize given on a single night. Selma takes its place in the pantheon of Civil Rights films; and, given the way it was specifically marketed to children, and the DVD which is due to be released in May of this year, it is easy to imagine the thousands of classrooms around the country where schoolkids will watch it for generations to come. (At exactly two hours, it’s the ideal “double period” film - perfect to park kids in front of while escaping to the teachers’ lounge.)
And while I am encouraged by the fact that Selma can’t help but inspire conversation about, and an appreciation for, that time in history and the courage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I feel frustrated and angry that it had the opportunity to tell an important truth about black resistance during the Civil Rights Movement, specifically black female resistance, and failed. Even more exasperating is that this failure comes at a time when we most need positive images of black women, and black women of a certain age, who are being denigrated more than ever on television and in film. The images we need should be easy to find in a movie about the Civil Rights Movement, a movement led by black women, young and old - yet in Selma their leadership just isn’t there.
Writing critically about Selma is hard and painful; prestigious historical filmmaking like this often comes with a built-in guilt trip. Emotions about the movement itself and the movie become blurred, and one can easily fall into the trap of thinking that by disliking it, you don’t appreciate civil rights, Dr. King, and, if you’re black, your race and your own history. The praise for the film has been close to unanimous, yet at times I question whether it is the film, or the undeniable heroism of the period, which is actually moving people. And, like many of us, I also share the frustration that Ava Duvernay, whose picture was considered for best picture status, wasn’t nominated for best director; that its lead actor, David Oyelowo, given the competition, wasn’t nominated as well. But Lynn and I agree: one can be frustrated with the politics surrounding the film and still be able to criticize the actual work itself. At this particularly despairing time of race relations in our country, most of us are starving for inspiration; Selma gets by on a pass because, shrewdly released during Black History Month and Dr. King’s birthday, we are already sentimentalized – we’ll take what we can get.
It would be ungenerous not to acknowledge the ways in which the film has inspired: at the Oscar ceremony, John Legend, after performing the theme song “Glory”, quoted Nina Simone, “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the time in which we live.” He reminded the viewing audience of thirty-six million people that “Selma is now…the Voting Rights Act that they fought for fifty years ago is being compromised today.” Common, who rapped on the song, recalling the bridge from Selma to Montgomery: “This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation. But now it’s a symbol for change. The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and social status.” It’s a beautiful and necessary message.
Yet when I consider the children who will see Selma for years to come, I know that it has to be challenged, at least in an effort to help young viewers make sense of what they are seeing on the screen. I am writing with the hope that they will appreciate that the Civil Rights Movement was richer, funkier, blacker than Selma reveals and that black women weren’t just bystanders, but its lifeblood.
Pop culture is powerful. It is so powerful, in fact, that in the PBS documentary, “Frontline: Secret State of North Korea”, Jeong, a man who smuggles American films into the country, testifies: “The one thing that changes people’s mindsets is popular culture. It probably has the most important role in bringing out democracy in North Korea.”
We have so many pop culture images coming at us, often there isn’t time to deconstruct what we are seeing before the next one comes along. It is easy to be overwhelmed. As for the very young, their filters aren’t strong enough to appreciate the toxicity to which they are often being exposed. They are constant receptors, believing what we tell them about life, their sexuality, their bodies, race, women, American history.
Writing about Selma led me to examine respectability politics, a term which may be used differently in other contexts, but here defines the dynamic we engage in as African-Americans to appear “acceptable”, often at a cost to our cultural truths and our historical legacy. (Author Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham first used the term in her book Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880—1920.) When I began this piece, I had no idea that an exploration of respectability would include sections deconstructing Beyoncé, Madonna, Bill Cosby, Azealia Banks, Julianne Moore, Oprah, Ledisi, Mo’Nique. Respectability led to an examination of black popular culture, and finally the question: how does a movie that purports to be about a blues people, Selma, get made almost entirely without the blues song?
There are definitely those who will always feel uncomfortable publicly disliking a film like Selma. But staying silent demands the questions: whom are we protecting if we don’t speak, whom are we betraying if we do, and why? Oprah and Brad Pitt, two of the film’s producers, certainly don’t need anyone’s protection, least of all mine; and the film’s director, Ava Duvernay, has just secured a new directorial project with Oprah’s network. I had to ask myself, is praising Selma without hesitation (and there are aspects to be praised) betraying my female family members who themselves participated in the Movement? What about their legacy?
My discomfort in criticizing Selma, in an unexpected, indirect way, forced me to consider how I have been trained from a very early age to keep secrets, to cover for authority, not to trust my intuition when something feels wrong, to go into depression and doubt when what I am feeling is anger. I’ve had a lifetime of training in respectability politics, particularly when it comes to issues of race, sexual orientation, gender, and sexual and familial abuse and violence. In other words, I know how to lie. I finally made a decision that respectability politics wouldn’t win this time or allow me to participate in what constitutes in some circles a giant cover-up of what is wrong with Selma – and, despite its merits, there is something wrong with it. If we can’t change it, we can at least name it. And sometimes we have to sit at the table of truth, even when it’s set for a party of one.
Pauline Kael, in her review of Shoah for the New Yorker in 1985, asked for the readers’ forbearance as she criticized the nine-hour Holocaust film and offered “a dissenting view of a film that is widely regarded as a masterpiece.” Kael, who was herself Jewish, wrote, “Probably everyone will agree that the subject of a movie should not place it beyond criticism.” Her negative view of the film inspired rage in some readers and was seen by many as a serious betrayal. She helps me to appreciate the source of my hesitation as a black writer reviewing Selma, and after a second viewing, why I am all the more convinced that it should be deconstructed, heresy or not.
When I tell Lynn that I am going to write about Selma, we return to a discussion of the film, and black American art. “We can’t just put anything out there,” she says “We have a responsibility. The black artists that came before us had high standards.” Whether she intends it or not, her words are as much a warning to me as a reproach of the film. Recalling our black artists, and those standards, leads me back to the work of actress, poet and activist Beah Richards, whose words have provided me with great inspiration in my life. In a critique of a film in which I feel black women’s voices are diminished, it felt right somehow that throughout this piece a black woman’s voice is heard.
“He was a minister, a preacher they called them. My father was a poet, he was a good poet. He sang his sermons, he sang them! There was a truth. It has a ring, they say, that makes the hair stand on end, or the goosebumps jump up, or the chill run down the spine. He had that magic.”*
Beah Richards, Beah, A Black Woman Speaks
Obviously it would be an unfair expectation for Selma to tell every story of the era in its two-hour running time. But for some reason the film is unwilling to release any of the deep sensuality of the Civil Rights Movement. What is missing is its exuberance, the energy that, through singing and preaching, carried activists through the most outrageous acts of violence, cruel epithets and brutal persecutions.
I wonder if the children who watch the film will understand the movement’s deep spiritual power. How people got “happy” on the poetry of King’s words and the music in them, the blissful, energizing state created by preachers like Ralph Abernathy, who used the traditional black preaching style to warm up the crowd before King brought his unique brand of Southern black sermonizing and philosophical oratory. Abernathy said of the time: “The fear left, the fear that had shackled us across the years, all left suddenly, when we were in that church together.”
Will they understand the depth of the racist pathology in our country under Jim Crow; that in some parts of the South, public lynchings were attended by whole families, with children present? The photographs of the period reveal a black body burned beyond recognition surrounded by smiling white faces; lynchings were social events. Those who attended would send postcards to relatives with the lynched body in the background, the charred remains stored in bags outside local shops, fingers and toes broken off as souvenirs, a reminder to all blacks, but particularly black business owners or activists: this is what will happen to those of you who challenge Jim Crow. It’s a truly horrifying history, and it’s ours. It is also essential if you want to know the depth of courage in the Movement, what we were up against.
Will they realize that women and men who organized the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama (often considered the “cradle of the Confederacy”) came close to shutting the city down with their courageous decision to boycott? That Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in the same year that Emmett Till was mutilated and his killers went free, exonerated by an all-white jury because disenfranchised blacks couldn’t serve on juries? Till’s killers later admitted to the crime in interviews, making a mockery of justice and further enraging people all over the country, and in Montgomery. In a city so segregated there were even black taxis and white taxis, it was time for irrevocable change. Will they understand that the bus boycott in Montgomery was able to occur as quickly as it did after Parks’ arrest only because the Women’s Political Council was already organized and was able to reach 40,000 people in two days? Rev. Martin Luther King, a new minister in the area (which was one of the reasons he was selected), twenty-six years old and relatively unknown, was asked to lead the new Montgomery Improvement Association and head the boycott. King reluctantly said yes; if no one else wanted the job, he would lead them.
The buses rode empty as blacks walked through Montgomery, not just a few blocks, but miles, in every kind of weather, to and from work. Donie Jones said of the time, “[We walked] seven or eight miles a day. Maybe even more than that.”** The organizers were sued by the state for protesting, bricks were thrown through their windows, and the Ku Klux Klan walked the streets. Yet the protesters walked for over a year and probably could have walked for longer, lit from inside with a power that comes only from spiritual determination, vision and the possibility of real change, for themselves, their children and grandchildren. The daily evening mass meetings were a source of great inspiration. Coretta King said of the time: “The mass meetings usually were attended by the maids and cooks and janitors and people who really used the buses a lot and they would be there singing and praying for hours sometimes before the program actually started.”**
The women of the boycott were often domestic workers who rode the bus each day to the suburbs for the white women they worked for. Carpooling began when sympathetic whites, and white women who would rather defy the boycott than give up their maids, began to give rides from designated sites. When the city of Montgomery finally capitulated, blacks took the bus anywhere and everywhere they wanted, sat up at the front by the driver, enjoying the new freedom, the new respect. It was intoxicating. Black folks had organized against a racist institution and city, and won!
As he emerged as one of its leaders, a great deal of responsibility rested on the shoulders of Dr. King. But the movement was more than one man and his personal responsibility to a cause. The film Selma is ponderous with the weight of a leader who is aware he may be assassinated at any time, and an audience who knows he eventually will be. King in Selma walks heavily, his brow furrowed as he deliberates about each decision or anticipated persecution. There is a gravitas to Oyelowo’s performance and a silence at its core. But the often dreary, doomsday tone of the film feels premature or made in hindsight. The film has too many scenes in which King has a pained look on his face when talking, as if from indigestion.
While it was certainly true that King faced threats all the time, footage from the period also reveals a smiling man, serious and intentioned, but with coquettish, deer-like eyes and a winning persuasiveness - his charm, like his vision, was infectious. King was sexy, he was fabulous in the pulpit, and the movement was electrified by his presence. He “sang” his sermons. Rufus Lewis, from the Montgomery Improvement Association, spoke of Dr. King’s great gift: “It is very hard for an ordinary person to describe Reverend King’s speaking ability…He could make you feel what he was saying as well as hear what he was saying. He was sincere and dedicated. And he could lift you out your seat. You couldn’t just be quiet…It was such a stirring thing, that it would affect you. It would go right through you.”*
Selma has one beautiful scene that reveals Martin’s great persuasive power. After the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, Martin visits Jackson’s grandfather as he attends the body in the morgue. When King arrives, we see what he must have meant to an entire generation of blacks; there is a sense of wonder in the grandfather, he is roused from his grief as if an angel had appeared. Jackson’s mother, on the other hand, is not in this scene, nor does she get her moment with King as the mother of the deceased.
The film offers us Martin Luther King, Jr. as a strategist, but I miss King the theologian, and his message of Christian fellowship, of loving one’s enemies despite their brutality towards you. King was criticized by many as not being radical enough; but the charity in his message was deeply radical. It had a mesmerizing effect, and many people, black and white, were overpowered simply by the sheer beauty of his words and of the movement itself. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said of Dr. King, “[He] spoke with a new voice. That you must love, you must not hate the people who hate or who act like they hate you…and the best thing to make out of your enemy is a friend. It had a very profound effect upon, not only blacks, but whites at this time.”**
When I ask a friend where King’s actual words are in Selma, since the film’s speeches are unrecognizable to the ear, she informs me that King’s estate licensed the option of his film biography to Steven Spielberg, which includes the rights to King’s speeches, including “I Have A Dream,” and basically all aspects of his “life”. For this reason, the “I Have A Dream” speeches and other King speeches are regularly taken down from YouTube because of copyright infringement. In other words, she says, a white man in Hollywood and a movie company own “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” – possibly after an auction for the rights. I find a chair and sit down.
While I’m sure this is business as usual for Hollywood movie-making, it feels deeply, deeply wrong. The idea that the children who leave Selma and want to construct a civil rights history of their own online will be blocked, deprived of his images, and left, if they only see the film, with a screenwriter’s approximation of his speeches, makes me sick. In addition to the outrage I feel towards Hollywood, and King’s surviving family, I also feel protective of Martin. I want someone who loves him to create his life on screen, someone who understands the culture he comes from, whom he belongs to (all of us), and specifically what he meant to us as black people. I want him accessible to the children of whom he spoke in “I Have A Dream”, the students in the theaters across America watching Selma – not King on an auction block, sold to the highest bidder.
“The legacy of Mississippi was to give me as much of the culture from which I sprung, our ancestors, that culture that let you know that you are self-created!”*
Beah Richards, Beah, A Black Woman Speaks
If you’ve ever been on a film shoot, or made a film, you know that movies don’t happen by accident. They are very deliberate creations that can be in development for decades before the camera rolls. Films require, no matter whose actual name is in the credits, decisions made by sometimes hundreds of people over the course of months. It is someone’s job, for example, to decide how Coretta King’s hair will be styled when she visits King in jail, what color lipstick, if any, she will wear. It’s someone’s job to decide on the lighting for King’s visit to Johnson in the Oval Office, finding the right desk of the period, the right cars for a scene outside a hotel, which music to play when the marchers are attacked. Knowing how much deliberation goes into making a film, and particularly a historical one, I am confounded by some of Selma’s choices.
The film tells us, for example, in a series of typed tickertapes across the screen, that Diane Nash is a “female agitator” but I don’t see any agitating going on in her scenes. As Selma portrays her, Nash has the primness of a débutante waiting to be escorted to a cotillion, or pledging a sorority; hardly the young woman who led the student desegregation of lunch counters in Nashville and who, right beside Congressman John Lewis, co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Historian David Halberstam described Nash as "…bright, focused, utterly fearless, with an unerring instinct for the correct tactical move at each increment of the crisis; as a leader, her instincts had been flawless, and she was the kind of person who pushed those around her to be at their best, or be gone from the movement." Nash had the guts to openly ask Ben West, the mayor of Nashville, a question, and not as a politician, but as a man: “Do you feel that it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of his race or color?” West, unexpectedly, answered honestly and said yes, as a man, he believed segregation was wrong. Three weeks after West’s statement, black people were served for the first time at Nashville’s lunch counters.
John Lewis’ character is developed in the film and he shares an extended scene in a car with King, revealing how much Martin has meant to him as an activist. The script, unfortunately, throws Nash only a handful of lines, and has her hovering on the periphery of the action - it's a walk-on part. She never gets her scene with Martin. The actress attempts the sassy, determined look of young activism but this doesn’t even begin to get the job done - this Diane Nash looks as if any real activism would mess up her hair or muss her dress. Nash’s character in the film reminds me of commercials in which a housewife hovers over her husband and his friends, asking if they need more beer while they watch the Superbowl; they patronize her, grateful as long as she doesn’t stand in front of the TV set.
Halfway through the movie, in a critical strategy scene about poll tax and voter registration, Nash is in the room with the men but isn’t given a single line. (The other black women serve food, including a black maid in complete black uniform with apron serving hors d’oeuvres. Whose house in the South is this?) Nash is indulged by the movie for a while and then finally disappears completely as a character. Diane Nash, very much alive and in her late seventies, has been gracious enough to compliment the film in interviews, but the filmmaker’s choice enrages any viewer who knows the actual history. It’s not right. Black girls, and boys, miss an opportunity to see a Diane Nash they can admire and be inspired by, a true hero of the movement, as opposed to a character in the film many of the children probably assumed was somebody’s girlfriend who decided she wanted to come along for the ride.
Lorraine Toussaint is supposed to be Amelia Boynton. I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t know who Boynton was before I saw Selma, and I was still waiting to find out when the credits rolled. Amelia Boynton worked directly with Dr. King; she opened her home and office to the movement and was key in strategizing marches and protests for voting rights. The movie never reveals to us that in 1964 Boynton ran for Congress from Alabama, and was the first female African-American ever to do so, the first female of any race to run on the Democratic Party ticket in Alabama. When Boynton’s activism led to her own arrest in Selma, 105 local teachers (black school teachers in the South commanded almost the same respect as religious leaders) marched to the courthouse to protest and demand her release. This isn’t in the film. From the first frame in which she appears in Selma, Boynton seems frightened, behind cat-eye glasses. She never relaxes throughout the movie, and certainly never leads. The action around her character has all the intensity of a fire safety announcement made at a school assembly. Toussaint showed us in the last season of Orange is the New Black what kind of power she has as a performer; as the character Vee, sexual, violent and powerful, Toussaint burned a hole through the screen. On Being Mary Jane, Toussaint shows us a completely different black woman in Aunt Toni, whom she described in a B.E.T interview as unapologetic, a woman who always has something cooking on the stove: “[one] can find sanctuary in her house and in her heart.” Clearly an intelligent actress, Toussaint’s Boynton and her meekness in Selma has to be a directorial choice, or the character as conceived in the script.
Boynton is given a natty little scene in which she attempts to reassure and inspire Coretta King - woman to woman – sharing what gives her strength to go on. The scene could have been truly inspiring, but Boynton is given what sounds dangerously close to one of those clichéd “We come from kings and queens” speeches that many blacks, and certainly whites, are tired of hearing by now; and even Toussaint seems uninspired when she says it. They could be sharing a cornbread recipe. Boynton appears later in the film after being brutalized in the Selma march. She sits in the back, and we recognize her by her glasses, not her character. Beat down and in a brace or sling, she is told by the men that they will avenge what happened to her, and she nods. That’s the extent of her activism in the film. The brief conversation between Boynton and Coretta is the only scene in the entire film in which two adult women talk to each other without men. The scene isn’t shaped for their dynamism or female power; the camera idles as if it would rather be somewhere else, and we are conscious the men are busy dealing with the real business at hand. We never get any scenes of female strategizing.
The only time a woman holds the camera’s attention is in an extended scene between Martin and Coretta King. Coretta doesn’t have a particular analysis of the movement or authority; she folds towels, she’s beautiful, and she’s afraid for and protective of her husband. Later in the film, when her marriage is in question, she is given an extended monologue in which she confronts Martin on his infidelity and describes her sacrifices for the movement, including the regular death threats to her children. She doesn’t, however, read Martin the riot act for possibly ruining all that they’ve worked for together all these years (as you know Hillary read Bill after Monica), or for putting their family at risk of extortion. What Coretta wants to know about their future and the future of the movement is - and it sounds like a whine - “Do you still love me?” and “Do you love any of the others?”
Our sympathies are not with her in this scene, but with Martin, who looks shell-shocked and pathetic. The way the scene is staged, he’s not sitting across from her, two partners in crisis, but a boy in the principal’s office, in trouble for dropping water balloons from the roof. Since all we have seen throughout the film is how hard Martin has been working, and since the movie would never show him doing anything “naughty” to justify her anger or arouse ours, Coretta’s attack seems unfair. The subtext is, yes, maybe he cheated, but she’s greedy and out of touch for wanting more of him right now when she clearly knows the pressure he’s under and what is at stake. It doesn’t help that her words are written, and the scene staged, as if the actress were still auditioning for the part. The audience resents her on two counts: for being petty, and for slowing down the movie.
Coretta King does get a tiny moment of grit when she confronts Malcolm X about a speech he is planning to give in Selma (a speech we never get to hear!), but her power is later undermined when she comes to tell Martin about Malcolm’s intentions and he accuses her of selling him out because she is “enamored” with (translation, “hot for”) Malcolm. It’s an ugly accusation in another unnecessary scene, and further evidence that the movie has no idea what to do with its female characters.
When the film ends, we get little written updates on the male characters in the film, those we care about and a few we don’t: Cadger Lee, John Lewis and Andrew Young go onto greater glory, obstructers of justice like George Wallace and Sheriff Jim Clark “get theirs”. Diane Nash and Amelia Boynton (very much alive at 76 and 103 respectfully) are not given any updates. What Selma does tell us about its female characters is that Coretta Scott King continued to work in her husband’s memory, fighting for his holiday, and that she never remarried, as if that were a source of pride for her résumé, a badge of honor. At this point the movie’s chauvinism has gone over the top. As in cultures in which women are expected to throw themselves onto their husbands’ funeral pyres to prove their devotion, I suppose we are to admire Coretta King, not as a leader in her own right, but as a widow who never dated again. What does Coretta Scott King’s love-life have to do with her activism? What are the values being expressed to little girls watching the movie about their own achievements and how they are to relate to boys, and, when they grow up, to men? By implication, what is the film saying about women like Jackie Kennedy - did she betray her husband after he was assassinated, when she became Mrs. Onassis? What does any of this have to do with what happened in Selma in 1965? What the fuck is going on with this movie?
This is usually the point in the conversation where someone says, “Well if you didn’t like Selma, why the hell don’t you make your own Civil Rights film?”
Perhaps they are right. Yet this tendency to call people out as “haters” in order to protect creative work, although seeming loyal at first, is too often used as a bullying tactic to suppress critical thought.
I have a memory of watching The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1997. Debbie Allen was one of the guests, the topic was Steven Spielberg’s film, Amistad. A black woman in the audience was holding the mike and offered a criticism of the film (back in the days when Oprah let the audience speak), a criticism I also shared at the time. She was the only one, as I recall, with a dissenting view, and on Oprah’s show, that was particularly brave. Oprah and Debbie Allen, who was a producer of the film, looked at the woman like she was crazy, and eventually, humiliated, she sat down. There was an “Oh well, you just can’t get it right, somebody’s always going to complain about something” tone to their response to her (the 1997 version of “haters gon’ hate”) as they dismissed her criticism completely.
The woman’s being shamed stayed with me, along with the question: where do our loyalties lie, especially when we become famous? Did Allen and Winfrey feel solidarity towards another black woman who was questioning how black history was being presented and/or distorted by Hollywood, or were they protecting their dear friend Steven Spielberg (who directed Winfrey in The Color Purple), as a member of the “celebrity club”? And while the film definitely had its moments, I don’t recall being ultimately convinced by Amistad. As with Selma, I have no immediate emotional recall of the film as I do with Lou Gossett in Roots or Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. I see white men in wigs shouting at each other in a courtroom while black people watch the proceedings, heads turning back and forth as lawyers decide their fate in a political pingpong match. But mostly I remember Djimon Hounsou standing at the bow of a ship, his chiseled black physique underneath a white robe against a deep blue sky. The movie’s theme suggests an exploration of slavery, while its cinematography dreams of Calvin Klein.
Then there was the “controversy” when Selma opened that some reviewers were disturbed by the film’s portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson. This particularly bothered Maureen Dowd from The New York Times, and she quoted the director Ava Duvernay as being sassy in her response to critics: “This is art; this is a movie; this is a film. I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian.”
I find Duvernay’s words interesting more for my argument than Dowd’s. The Johnson controversy is a bit of a red herring: I’m confident Johnson’s legacy after Selma, even if liberties were taken, will remain intact. Johnson comes off as the big white baddie who, as in The Wonderful World of Disney movies of my childhood, turns around and does the right thing at the 11th hour, and all the kids in the theater clap. Johnson’s role in history was more nuanced than that, and he needn’t have been portrayed as such a white lunkhead, but we see him make an effort while feeling frustrated with King’s intractability. Johnson’s character should be seen more as an archetype. He isn’t just one president negotiating with the crazy racist governor of a Southern state during the Civil Rights Movement, as the movie depicts him dealing with George Wallace, he’s all of them: he is Eisenhower in 1957 dealing with Governor Orval Forbus, who refused to allow the “Little Rock Nine” teenagers to attend Central High School. Eisenhower ended up sending in paratroopers with bayonets to protect the children from the mobs. Johnson in the film is Eisenhower again dealing with Governor Lindsay Almond, Jr. who used Forbus’ tactics to shut down Virginia schools. He is John F. Kennedy confronting Governor Ross “I’m-a Mississippi-segregationist-and-I’m-proud-of-it” Barnett, a lawyer well versed in the constitution who personally blocked James Meredith from attending the University of Mississippi. Barnett’s resistance led to riots, and thirty-five marshals were shot and two people killed. He is John Kennedy, four years before the Selma March, challenging Governor Patterson of Alabama, who staunchly refused to properly protect the interstate freedom riders, which led to massive acts of violence, and forced Robert Kennedy to order U.S. Marshals into the state. The portrayal of Johnson is the least of Selma’s problems - at least he gets plenty of screen time. Dowd, however, does make one point in her review that’s instructive: “Artful falsehood,” she writes, “is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it.”
What’s much more offensive than the “unfair” treatment of a president, is the way the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee is portrayed as a bunch of bratty kids who all but stamp their feet and say to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, “We were here first!” In her article, “Selma, the Movie: ‘White’ Washing History”, Candy Gonzalez, a student activist at the time and member of SNCC, reminds us that James Forman was actually older than King, although in the film he and Lewis are treated like naive little whippersnappers, in over their heads and jealous when the “big boys” come to town. King greets SNCC with great condescension in Selma, telling them he admires their "grassroots" work and their attempts to "shift black consciousness" but "what we do is negotiate, demonstrate, resist, and a big part of that is raising white consciousness, and in particular the consciousness of whichever white man happens to be sitting in the oval office." Paul Webb's King gives them lessons in respectability. Selma then has Forman, who shifts from disagreeable and sullen in early scenes to ultimately rageful, say to Lewis: “I don’t give a rat’s ass about that man! He’s your hero.” It is a fact of history that there were genuine tensions between the two groups, and rightly so, but they never lost sight of their shared goal. Forman said of the time, “We felt that there should be an …organization of indigenous leadership from the community, whereas the SCLC took the position that Martin was the charismatic leader who was mainly responsible for raising money, and they raised most of the money off of his leadership. This difference in leadership then led to differences in styles of work. We wanted a movement that would survive the loss of our lives, therefore the necessity to build a broad based movement and not just [have] a charismatic leader.” **
Scripts, of course, must be dramatized, but the conflict between SNCC and SCLC requires nuance if we are to understand the ideological differences that occurred within the movement. James Forman, another of our civil rights heroes, deserves lines more complex than, “I don’t give a rat’s ass.” The movie is parsimonious when it comes to sharing the credit for civil-rights organizing. (And some of the people who might protest their depictions are now deceased – Forman died in 2005.) In the end, King seems to have more adversaries, white and black, than he does allies. And while he gets by with a little help from his friends, Selma is basically Dr. King as a two-hour one-man show.
Selma needs more time, more characters. The pacing is slow, but by the end the two hours feel slight. It is an unspoken rule of historical film that you are usually given two and a half hours, occasionally three, depending on the subject, to tell the story. At two hours, Selma could have given us another half hour at least for the critical elements missing from the film, although it may not have appealed to the 11-and 12-year-olds the movie is clearly meant for. Even an extra fifteen minutes would have helped. They could have borrowed it from Boyhood. Lord knows I spent close to three hours watching the paint dry in that film. (Yngwie Momjeans on Twitter wrote: “I finally saw Boyhood tonight. Even more amazing than the twelve years it took to make the film is the seventeen years it took to watch it.”)
What we want from Duvernay is more context. Early in the film, she shows us the bombing of the four girls in Birmingham, Alabama, a terrorist act on American soil. This took place in 1963, two years before the Selma marches, which means the film is not afraid to take liberties with timelines. Even a series of images at the beginning that might include, of course, the iconic image of Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine surrounded by a white mob, alone and unprotected (Eckford didn’t get the call that morning that said where the students were meeting and ended up arriving by herself), would inspire. In black sunglasses, and clutching her books as she walks to school, Eckford moves with determined grace though a sea of hateful screams and threats that threaten to engulf her.
Amari Allah, in his critique of the film, “To Be Seen and Not Heard: A Review of Selma” asks, “If the richest Black woman in America, and one of the most prominent Black female directors in America can’t even create a film which features the struggles of Black women in…the civil rights movement…can there be hope?” No one will ever convince me that Selma, even in stills, can’t make the time to show us a few of the prominent women of the movement: Ella Baker, human rights activist and organizer whom historian Barbara Ransby called "one of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement;” Daisy Bates (Head of the Arkansas NAACP and champion for the Little Rock Nine); Rosa Parks, now legendary; Autherine Lucy (First African American enrolled at the University of Alabama); Constance Baker Motley (Lawyer for NAACP Legal Defense Fund), Prathia Hall (her signature phrase “I have a dream” may have inspired King’s speech); Dorothy Height (President of the Naitonal Council of Negro Women and key organizer of The March on Washington). And that’s just a few. Even a remembrance at the end of the film, although insufficient, would have been something.
And Diane Nash is still kicking ass: On March 7, 2015, the anniversary of Selma’s “Bloody Sunday”, she refused to participate in the symbolic march across the bridge because former president George W. Bush attended. “I think the Selma movement was about non-violence and peace and democracy. And George Bush stands for just the opposite: For violence and war and stolen elections, and his administration … had people tortured. So I thought that this was not an appropriate event for him.” Selma demands that we explore the question: does having a black director and a black producer on a film necessarily ensure that we’ve escaped the dismissive gaze that usually defines how black culture, and specifically black women’s contributions are treated in the media?
In the special case of Nash and Boynton, who are depicted in the film, what Selma does to their legacies is particularly egregious: we are being told revisionist stories about people we may be meeting as historical figures for the first time. We have to re-learn, or unlearn what we didn’t know in the first place. It’s a double assault.
Soon after Selma opened there was a “town hall” on Twitter for the film. A friend of mine participated. When someone confronted the role of women in the film, I am told the response was that Selma tells the truth: men were the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. End of discussion. And there is nothing in Selma that would have disabused anyone of this notion.
Which is why the absence in Selma of a black woman organizing, leading, or inspiring protesters by singing in a church, in a march, or in a jail cell is so disturbing. The sole singing in the movie is a badly directed scene where Martin calls Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night because he needs to hear the “The Lord's voice”. It’s a beautiful idea, that when Martin King is at his lowest and afraid, he leans on the strength of a black woman. The film has Mahalia sit up in bed, her hair wrapped in a doo rag and, to the annoyance of her husband sleeping behind her, break into song right there in the bedroom beside him. At this point, the movie seems to be confused – we’re told we’re looking at the singer Ledisi as Mahalia Jackson, but the rag in her hair recalls Cicely Tyson in Sounder, Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind, even Tupac in Juice. (This being Hollywood, where women sleep with their makeup, we could at least have had something closer to the Mahalia hair, realistic or not. Mahalia was always glamorous for God.)
Before we even realize this is Mahalia Jackson, we wonder if the woman in bed is one of King’s sexual assignations being awoken for a late night civil-rights booty call. The scene is over before it starts and Ledisi’s vocals are interrupted with another of those tacky typed FBI sentences cutting across the screen. The viewer aches for the extra few minutes it would have taken for Mahalia to say, “Martin, just let me put on my robe and make some coffee, honey,” as she runs downstairs to sing the song from her kitchen; I would even have settled for her standing in the bathtub. The performance of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” in the film doesn’t give us enough of a sense of why Martin would call Mahalia the “voice of God”, but Ledisi’s recording on the soundtrack album definitely does. I am left with a sense of foreboding after this scene. The sloppy way it handles Mahalia, another of our heroes of the time, reveals what the film has to say about civil-rights music in general and black women’s contribution in particular.
A lot might have been forgiven if the film had had even one rollicking church scene, one moment of spiritual ecstasy and release where a viewer could say, ‘This is it. This is the spirit of the movement I recognize.” There are many black gospel singers who could have given us that performance if asked. Activist and civil rights singer Bernice Johnson Reagon said of the time: “The mass meetings always started with these freedom songs. Most of the meeting was singing. Songs were the bed of everything, and I'd never seen or felt songs do that.”** Frederick Leonard, one of the freedom riders sentenced to sixty days in prison, recalled, “We were only allowed one book, that was the Bible. So we did a lot of singing, praying too, but a lot of singing. And those folks just couldn’t understand how we could be happy, singing….We could hear the women on the other side, and they’d sing to us and we’d sing to them.”**
During the first bridge scene in which marchers are beaten, we hear Martha Bass and the Howard Smith Majestics choir singing, “Walk with Me”. It is a great rendition of the song and closer to what’s required, but it feels “produced”, canned, not raw, and with the sound turned down so low we can barely hear it until the very end of the scene. We are distracted from Bass’ voice by the brutal violence we are witnessing. (It's deeply problematic and morally dubious for a movie only to be exciting when something violent happens. The audience feels guilty for being "turned on" by it, yet they haven't been turned on by anything else.) While some may be moved by where the song is placed in the film, it has a funereal quality --gospel used as a soundtrack to tragedy and victimization rather than black resistance, or as praise song. Reagon recalls the songs were sometimes so powerful that even the police would beg them to stop. “And you would just know that your word was being heard, and you felt joy.”
What we need is actually to see a black woman singing. We need to see what the song does when it moves through her body, and how the congregation responds to her voice, the way it does, for example, in the call and response found in Mahalia’s (live) version of “How I Got Over”. Play the song right now. You’ll know the rush that only comes from the alchemy of a black singer or preacher and congregation working each other into a state of exultation, as the song is coaxed from the vocalist. Gospel songs in black churches if done right are always duets. And we need to see a church sister or the closeted gay organist (yes, I went there) accompanying her, playing those chords on an upright piano, working that goddamn foot pedal. (Thank you, Jesus.) Mahalia sings, “I rose this morning! I rose this morning! I feel like shouting! I feel like shouting!” And you stand up in your pew because you can’t not stand up, and you clap, and lift a praise hand, you wave your handkerchief, you are crying, and you feel like shouting! And you feel like marching. And no matter what you’ve been through, and you’ve been through it all, somehow, miraculously, in this moment, you don’t feel no ways tired. And you’ll march again tomorrow and the day after, and the day after that if you have to. And you’ll go to jail if you have to. And you’ll face the dogs and the hoses turned on you if you have to, and have hot coffee poured over your head at a lunch counter if you have to. But one thing is assured: Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around. And that was the power of Martin, and Mahalia, and the spirituality at the core of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s all in the song.
The black church we see on the screen in Selma is reserved, respectable. No one gets up from the pews, definitely no shouting is going on. The silence is almost Catholic. The tickertape tells us that Martin came to Selma and "incited" the people there, but it is offensive to assume that Martin found docile blacks in Selma when he arrived, people who in the movie congregation politely nod their heads and provide the requisite “Yes sirs” and “Amens”, but aren’t energized in the least. One would imagine that the fact of their lives as blacks in the South would have incited them enough by the time Martin arrived, and the SNCC had already been there organizing for years. We see the quiet marchers filled with quiet dignity and we watch blacks get knocked upside the head by cops on horses, we see their self-satisfaction as everyone marches at the end, but we never get the uplift, the real sunshine of the Movement. In the jail scenes, we barely even get a light bulb, much less a protest song. And no one in the film sings at Jimmie Jackson’s funeral. At his funeral. Who the hell are these black people?
Finally, Selma ends with John Legend and Common’s “Glory”. I might have enjoyed the song and thought it was interesting to have two black men’s voices by the end of film if there had been a single extended vocal performance from a black female singer or group of singers in the entire film. But by the end of the movie I’m feeling impatient and I find the Legend song annoying – all we’ve heard for two hours are black men’s voices. The song feels strident to me in the theater (less so at the Oscars) and the rap recalls Run DMC’s “Proud To Be Black” which at least mentions Harriet Tubman: “Now Harriet Tubman, was born a slave, she was a tiny black woman when she was raised, she was livin’ to be givin’ there's a lot that she gave, there's not a slave, in this day and age, I'm proud to be black!”
“Glory” feels pushy, Oscar-baity, as if it’s going to liberate you whether you want it to or not. As it plays over the marching scenes, I can’t help but think, No wonder the kids respond to it: it’s like a music video of footage from the time - MTV’s version of the Civil Rights Movement. It continues through the credits and, feeling harassed, I start to go home, but stay for the end of the credits. It is when the attendant is going through the aisles sweeping up kicked-over buckets of popcorn and unfinished sodas that the theater, empty, is suddenly flooded with the sound of an authentic recording from the period, of clapping and singing and finally, finally, a black woman’s voice. The song is “This Little Light of Mine” recorded in what unmistakably sounds like a black church.
It’s quite extraordinary the difference, what the music recalls – the history it brings and the pure emotion. Listening to it I am almost moved to tears. The music is restorative. It’s a relief that it was included. But it is also a goddamn shame there is no one around to hear it.
“The struggle has gotten so deep, and it’s gotten so fierce, and it’s gotten so compelling…and it’s so wonderful, everybody feels alive, and everyone feels…I AM. I am alive, I am a person…I can make a difference in my life…You don’t notice how it hurts, even when they hit you with a club, you don’t notice, you’re so in the I AM thing…that it doesn’t make any difference, your rage is so under control, you know you’ve got them running, and you know they’re beaten. You know they’re beaten! And it’s such a victorious, wonderful feeling. That was a triumphant day.”*
Beah Richards, Beah, A Black Woman Speaks
I discovered the blues song in high school. There had been blues played in our house growing up, my mother would sometimes pour herself a drink and listen alone to her favorite blues, Lightnin’ Hopkins singing, “Ida Mae”. But on my own, I found a record in the library called Roots of the Blues. I checked it out over and over again, and listened to early blues, prison work songs, and lining hymns and prayers, as the preacher sang the sermon in a call and response with the congregation. The music had been recorded by a man named Alan Lomax. There was one song that I found particularly moving: Lomax had taken a Louisiana blues song about police brutality and edited it with a man singing on a rubber plantation in Senegal. One could imagine the two men hollering to each other across the sea, across history, one in Africa, one in America. It was amazing to me: they sang in different languages, yet their voices were similar, the despair, the longing. My experience of the music was very private – I assumed the last thing my 10th-grade friends wanted to hear were blues work songs sung to “Berta” about old Parchman penitentiary and how I have to “work or leave”. But the music spoke to something in me.
Years later, I arrived at one of my first jobs in New York as an editorial assistant. Still new to the building where I worked, I was walking down the hall to the bathroom when I heard the voice of the Senegalese singer and the American blues singer, the two men singing in a call and response that I knew from late-night listening in my bedroom in Michigan. I felt haunted: nobody, nobody knew that music but me. I went around the corner, incredulous, and found a young, very thin white man with dark hair, about my age, sipping a cup of coffee at his desk. He was Alan Lomax’s assistant, this was his office. I tried to tell the assistant my story, and he listened with interest, smiled, and went back to his editing. Mr. Lomax, a large, blustery man with a scraggly beard and a purposeful walk, passed me in the hall several times, and being twenty-three, and an assistant, I don’t recall ever saying much to him except a hello, possibly a thank you. If we did have a brief conversation, it was hurried, I’m sure, as it was impossible to convey to him what the music he recorded meant to me.
Recently, some of Lomax’s methods of acquiring his music have been called into question. I will not defend him, but I am grateful for that album, because that was my initiation into the power of the blues song. As an enslaved people from Africa, we lost everything, everything when we came to America, even our language. But the one thing they couldn’t take away from us was that song.
After another conversation with Lynn, I am finally able to locate what is truly missing from Selma: the texture and rhythms of black Southern life. Respectability politics drives underground the truth about black life and the blues tradition. And I’m not sure who’s to blame for the omissions – the Southern culturalisms, the “blackisms” that should be there and aren’t. For example, the sense of Southern heat in Selma - no one in the film ever seems hot or sweaty or complains about how hot it is. Heat is important to the Civil Rights Movement and to the South, the tensions that lie under the surface and the racial shit that can jump off in an instant when people are too damn hot (Spike Lee understood this dynamic well, although it was Brooklyn during the summer of 1989, in Do The Right Thing), what it means to sit in a warm jail with no air circulating and ten, twenty, thirty other people, what it means to walk mile after mile even when you’re hot and you’d rather ride the bus, but there is a boycott. Nobody in Selma looks like they might be funky, nobody has hair grease glistening in the hot sun in the styles of the early Sixties, no one adjusts a blouse or a bra that is cutting into their fat, or cools themselves with a fan from Ferguson’s funeral home. Selma is the deep South by way of Seattle.
The blackness I’m looking for is difficult to explain except through one’s own experience. And because blackness has been commodified, appropriated, and ridiculed at the same time, it is sometimes hard to tell what is true and what is an “imitation of life.” Blackness is in the songs of Johnny Guitar Watson. I would listen to his music with my grandmother when I was four, and I loved it when he would say before his blues solos, “Come here, Guitar”. It is everything written by Curtis Mayfield. As a child, I loved the imagination of George Clinton and the part-gospel, part science-fiction world he created with Parliament and Funkadelic, the playfulness of Aqua Boogie and of Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk: “Never learned to swim, Can’t comprehend of the strokes.” Dr. Funkenstein told those of us who wanted our P-Funk uncut, you may not be loved here in America for your blackness, but there is a planet where you can enjoy your funk, where you can appreciate your African-ness, where you can love your big butt (the 70s funk version of Baby Suggs’ sermon in the clearing in Toni Morrison’s Beloved). The mothership would take us there. The Staple Singers sang “I’ll Take You There.” Earth, Wind and Fire spun red and orange colors in the sky and gave us a different kind of African celebration. It’s the first minute of Sly Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay”, arguably the greatest blues song ever written, and the muted rage embedded in his “There’s A Riot Going On”, it’s the black textures of Alisa Peoples singing “Everything we do is right on time” in Yarbrough and People’s “Don’t Stop the Music”. It’s Donny Hathaway, our tender, lion-hearted tenor: “I’ve been so many places in my life and time.” The irony of the blues song is that it presents itself through a lens of despair, but it is really a song of hope.
These aren’t all songs or artists of the Civil Rights era, but they are of black culture. And they are part of our culture all over the world. I don’t know what is at the top of the charts in India or Iceland at the moment, but I know I can be at the airport in Christchurch or Bremen or Porto and hear Aretha Franklin asking for respect. Now some of that may be American imperialism, and the way our pop culture is perceived around the world. But it is something else: everyone loves Motown. And the spirit nand triumph over despair in the black American soul singer’s voice has captivated the world, or so many people wouldn’t try and imitate it. Aretha singing “Climbing Higher Mountains” in her father’s church in Detroit is what is missing in Selma. Rejoicing. Black people, when in our right minds (and we were in our right minds during the Civil Rights Movement) rejoice. People walk proudly in the film, they smile encouraging and are friendly. But no one rejoices in Selma. How can they? Rejoicing is the gratitude and faith one feels during or after experiencing and transcending great pain, and there is very little pain in Selma.
The writer of Selma is a white Brit named Paul Webb, David Oyelewo is also British, as is Carmen Ejogo who plays Coretta King. Paul Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson is British. In Twelve Years A Slave, a film about the experience of Solomon Northup and the American slave trade, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon and Lupita Nyong’o as Patsy are also British. (A friend joked, “We’re being colonized again.”) They are all very talented people, and the actors have studied hard and learned the American accents and inflections, but one wonders if Webb, for example, can truly understand the cultural aspects of his script that can’t be Googled or read in history books. Can learning an accent ensure that all the cultural layers are there? Aren’t there any black American actors available for these black American roles? Why do we keep “outsourcing” our black historical films? (The Harriet Tubman Story cast in the Philippines is next.)
This may also seem unfair; obviously directors can hire whomever they like. But as an African-American movie goer, constantly looking to be reflected truthfully in Hollywood films, I find that our history continues to be distorted. There is no way around the fact that the absence of a certain kind of black experience in Selma makes one suspect that it may be deliberately being withheld. The question is why? Would backwater, collard-green-growing, salt-pork-flavoring, chitlins-eating, church-rafter shouting, sharecropping, barefoot, cotton-picking’ “ignorant” blacks be too loud, too country, and ultimately too alienating for the larger respectable demographic that the movie wants to attract: white viewers who feel guilty about slavery, blacks who are ashamed of having been enslaved? The dynamic recalls the relationship between Private C.J. Memphis and Sergeant Vernon Waters in Charles Fuller’s work A Soldier’s Play, later made into the film A Soldier’s Story. Memphis, in the film a dark man, is bullied and tortured by the light-skinned Waters, who hates C.J. for being, in his mind, an unapologetic “Uncle Tom”, a geechee, the uneducated black that respectable colored people know they have to keep in the closet – or wait until we all get “to the mountaintop”, where they can finally push him off. What reaches the screen in Selma is black life filtered through race and respectability politics, a civil rights movie without music, or even a recognizable black church, which is no civil rights movie at all.
We watch movies thinking they are “entertainment” and not, as they too often also are, sources of propaganda, instructions on who we should be and how we should live. Showing a black audience, and particularly an audience of black children, a film about who they are in Hollywood’s cultural imagination rather than who they really are, and where they came from, and then calling that “history”, has major political and cultural ramifications. We watch as our contribution to art, to music, to history and American culture are revised, diminished and perhaps even obliterated altogether, and as we are told that blacks won the Civil Rights Movement by basically acting like white people; white people who then turned on the TV and said, “We have to give them their freedom. They’re just like us after all.”
The problem with respectability politics is that we are told that in order to participate in society fully and get what is rightfully ours (a black body that is able to exist on the earth without the threat of exploitation or terror), we have to deny that which makes us unique, our African heritage, that which is culturally true and has sustained us. We have to become white. We chase a carrot of “whiteness” which instinctively we know we’ll never catch. On our way to embracing true capitalist power, and in an attempt to erase the stigma of having been enslaved, we negotiate truth, we compromise our story, we mess around and lose our relationship to the blues song, our ancestral legacy - and sometimes even our minds. Complicit in the giant cover-up, we betray poor blacks, black women and black queers because poverty, sexual powerlessness, victimization and queerness are sources of great shame, and God knows we can’t deal with any more shame. True “whiteness”, as a societal construct, is the complete absence of shame. So we sacrifice our black saviors and heroes to the machine, denying their contribution for a patriarchal “win”, while still continuing to receive the full thrust of America’s racist contempt and violence. As he lies dying, Sergeant Waters in A Soldier’s Play has a moment of revelation, having sacrificed his entire life to whiteness and driven another black man to suicide. He concludes: “They hate you anyway.”
“Can I speak to you before you go to Hollywood?”
Labelle, “Pressure Cookin’”, 1973
“Black Feminism isn’t white feminism in blackface.”
Audre Lorde, Conversations with Audre Lorde
After seeing Selma for a second time the next day, I sneak into Still Alice. I am not aware of it when I sit down, but, in ways that surprise me when it is over, Still Alice helps me better to understand Selma. I glance around and observe the theater is full for early afternoon and I’m the only black man. As the lights go down and the movie begins, I realize that the two movies couldn’t be more different on the surface. Still Alice stars Julianne Moore as a college professor who finds out she has early-onset Alzheimer’s. The story is about how she and her family cope with her disease. Julianne Moore, as expected, is mesmerizing. Alec Baldwin, as her husband, is not. (Baldwin, a talented actor, seems to be in everything, but his raging to the press about New York City is now legendary and hangs around him now as a grumpy aura. Suspension of disbelief has always been required in the movies, and while I can accept green ogres marrying princesses and bug-eyed aliens phoning home, Baldwin as a Columbia research scientist being courted by the Mayo Clinic….just, no.)
The supporting performances are adequate and Still Alice has its moments, but the movie is exasperating. Moore brings something subversive to all her performances, and is capable of showing us something funky, damaged and slightly mad in all her characters, while the camera tries to capture her like a butterfly, luxuriating in her white womanhood. The film’s inert, recessive energy gives the title a second meaning: Still Alice should be called Still Life and doesn’t give Moore any real scenes where she can blast off - there is no rage except by implication. Still Alice is about how polite white people can be to each other while facing a crisis. There are a few “I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I” quibbles between the adult siblings about their mother’s care which feel lifted from cruder material, like The Brady Bunch, but there is no real pain in these scenes. When things get really rough, everyone smiles through tears as they soldier on, asking each other to pass the salt – heartbroken but polite. Moore disintegrates as the disease progresses, eventually and voluptuously falling apart.
In his New Yorker article “The Counterfeit Acting Style”, Richard Brody compares Julianne Moore in Still Alice to Jennifer Aniston in Cake. He writes, “Despite the torments endured by the protagonists, both movies are grotesquely tasteful. Their genteel restraint in desperate situations is part of their playing to the gallery—to a gallery that includes members of the Academy. Neither actor—and neither movie—ever comes close to letting go.” Brody goes on to consider the absence of melodrama, and while he doesn’t use these words, I think he is saying something about white womanhood and melodrama as a code for “blackness” as it is depicted on the screen. I know Moore has a kinky, subversive side and is attracted to freaks (her Sarah Palin is masterful, a bravura star turn), and Aniston can be game if the role is right, but there is so much repression going on, so much art-house suffering, that it is hard to find the truth in these films.
Moore transcends her material and suggests a ravaged inner landscape for Alice, and her Oscar win is deserved; but I long for an extended scene where she gets to be furious, to throw something, to tell her husband or her doctor or her kids that she hates their guts and to just leave her the fuck alone. She loses her temper over a missing cell-phone, pees on herself, and reads her daughter’s journal, which leads to some tension, but everyone is so understanding and white, no real damage is done. (White women only get to freak out like black people in the movies when they are possessed by the devil. The Exorcist is really the story of a little white girl who, unbeknownst to her mother, has been politicized by Black Radicals. As “the devil” she gets to tell all the main white patriarchal institutions - the medical, psychiatric professions and, most importantly to the film, the Catholic Church, to kiss her black ass.)
The respectability politics of courting Oscar means that we are deprived in Still Alice of almost any scene of consequence or real sensuality (white women were more liberated on screen in the Thirties and Forties). Instead of authentic pain in these art-house frauds we get white people gritting their teeth and angrily making salads for dinner while a piano solo reassures us that despite the horror of the situation on the screen, life, America, and cultural whiteness as we know it, will remain intact when we leave the theater. These movies are deeply boring at their core because there is no risk; we know from the opening frame that nothing, nothing that matters anyway, is really at stake from the first frame to the last.
I ache for a scene like the one after my grandfather’s funeral when I was around eleven or twelve. My great-uncle Terrence suddenly stood up from his chair and shouted, seemingly out of nowhere, “You motherfuckers!” The music on the stereo stopped, the card-playing and the dancing stopped, and in a performance worthy of a Shakespearean actor or Southern black preacher, he wept for his lost brother and, using a can of Budweiser as Hamlet lifts the skull in the graveyard scene, sermonized about how “all you ungrateful niggers” betrayed and used Sidney “his whole goddamn life.” (The Budweiser not only loosened my great-uncle’s tongue but conveniently helped him forget that as far as my grandfather was concerned, he had been the biggest betrayer and user of all.)
Or the funeral of my maternal great-grandmother Vannie Lou. One minute everyone was setting the table and laughing, the next my grandmother screamed, we heard a crash, and everyone came running. My grandmother had caught the Holy Ghost and all the kids stood there helpless and horrified as she bucked, attended to by her sisters. They held her arms as the grief literally took over her body. A dish was smashed at her feet and spilled all over the floor into the hallway. As she spoke in tongues, and someone soothed, “Yes, Jesus”, we formed a circle around her and one of my aunts led us in prayer. Our eyes were closed but I’m sure someone was thinking: “I know May is grieving Big Mama, but did she have to drop the goddamn macaroni and cheese? Shit.”
In other words, a scene that is at once ridiculous, slapstick, painful, recognizable, and real. With the exception of an occasional outburst, I am missing this scene in Still Alice. And frankly, my cynical, black, movie-going mind has been trained not to look for it in most “white” movies anymore. The shock is that I don’t get that scene in Selma either. In fact, the soundtracks to both films in crucial scenes are similar; soothing piano chords with occasional low notes in key scenes to suggest danger, tension which is immediately resolved before we are too uncomfortable. I think of my friend Lynn as the credits roll, and think to tell her that if she’s going to see Still Alice to make sure to take a nap before, otherwise she’ll probably fall asleep in that shit too.
Leaving Still Alice, I am full of questions. As a film, it has the same “spirituality” as Selma – none. In fact, I felt as if I hadn’t gone to a second movie at all, but a continuation of the first. And I know why Still Alice was made with a genteel sensibility, but why Selma? It brings up the question again of what actually qualifies as a “black” movie – just because a film has black people as its subject, has black people in it, or is made by a black company, does that make it black, and should one just automatically assume that it will or should tell the truth about black lives? I considered The Butler, which was dead on arrival - except for a powerful lunch-counter scene and Oprah Winfrey’s surprisingly sexy performance. I watched the credits roll in that film and wondered when it was going to start. And I sat completely bewildered by what I was watching in The Help, which, as I’ve written before, was pure science fiction - it couldn’t have been more unrealistic if a giant army of mutant black ants had descended on the town demanding their civil rights. Are these movies made for black audiences to recognize themselves, or are they simply white movies in blackface?
Conscious contemporary filmmaking can be done: Fruitvale Station, an extraordinary film, wasn’t recognized by the Academy Awards nor did it get the attention it deserved, but if someone wants to know about police brutality in America and the murder of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California in 2009, they can watch Fruitvale Station and find truth in Ryan Coogler’s script and film, and Michael B. Jordan’s and Octavia Spencer’s beautiful performances.
With the occasional exception, the movies made about us would be laughable if they weren’t so offensive and tragic. The Help was about a black maid during the Civil Rights Movement who served her white employer a chocolate-feces pie as a form of revenge for being denied the opportunity to go to the toilet. Get On Up, the recent biopic of James Brown, is also “fecal-centric” and begins with a white woman on the toilet. James, one of our greatest entertainers and promoters of black self-love in “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”, arrives with a shotgun, and demands to know which member of the white group holding a conference in his rental office space took a dump in his private bathroom. He shoots a hole in the ceiling, and trembling and crying the woman admits that she was the one. James, feeling sorry for her, has a tender conversation as he changes his mind and actually applauds her for boldly taking care of herself, despite the risks she faced. (I guess he’s right? Taking a shit in a black man’s bathroom while he sits in the parking lot with a shotgun could be risky.) James then expounds on how he’s also taken bold risks in his life and begins to tell her about his career. As I watch the film, I have an out-of-body experience: this just can’t be happening. I call Lynn when I get home and tell her. Her first words are, “Stop lying. I don’t believe you.”
In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a black female character suggestive of Angela Davis or Assata Shakur loudly belches at the table without excusing herself, to the disgust of her hosts. Whether you agree with Davis’ politics or not, I think it is safe to say that, having been born in the South in Birmingham, she knows the customs and rituals of Southern life and how to behave in someone’s home. The movie suggests black radicals may talk revolution and change, but at the dinner table with old folks, they are nasty and lack class. Oprah, as the Butler’s wife, responds by telling her son, a Black Panther type (played by David Oyelowo) to “get that trifling bitch out of my house.” Angela Davis as a trifling bitch? And what is going on with black gastric functions and our liberation stories on the Hollywood screen? And yet, despite its disregard, disrespect and its treachery, we still want their Oscar. Oscar gives black filmmakers respectability, even though, it has been argued, we are usually rewarded for films about black pathology.
On the phone with Lynn the following week, I tell her that falling asleep in Selma might have been the most honest reaction one could have to the film. Her body told a truth that her mind, weighed down with the politics of respectability, would not. Because the fact is if there had been one black female leader’s shout for justice, one gospel number raising the roof off a church, one crowd of men and women clapping and singing “I’m On My Way (to Freedom Land)” in jail, my friend would definitely have woken up in that theater. In Selma, whether in the audience or behind the camera, one thing was clear: she wasn’t the only one who was asleep.
I sat chained in that slave ship just like you I stood on that auction block and was inspected and sold just like you I bore the lash and sustained the pain. . I knew the mockery and the shame, and picked my bail of cotton just like you. Escaped with the hounds on my heels just like you. . . And did my share of the fighting too. How dare you set a boundary for me. How dare you!
Beah Richards from her play, One is A Crowd
Janell gets on the elevator with clean laundry, mostly underwear, piled high in her hands. Her perfume instantly fills the small space. The laundry is crushed against her when we hug and a peach thong falls on the floor, followed by a pair of red lace panties. She feigns embarrassment, and we both laugh. Janell and I haven’t seen each other in months. When I last ran into her she had black roots growing up under blond hair, and now her hair is an auburn color with reddish highlights. She’s wearing hoop earrings, lavender sweat pants to match her nails and a tank top that features her ample and shapely buttocks and breasts. Whether she’s thinner or heavier, it’s obvious she’s an athlete with a beautiful black body. While we’re talking, she accidentally drops her keys and I bend down and pick them up for her slowly. I look her in the eye. “Now, I know you did that just to get me a little closer to your coochie.”
“Of course, why else?” I love our relationship, that we can tease each other. We’ve traded sex stories and tips, I know what she’s into, she knows my history. There’s nothing like the bond between two freaks. And I admire her: the business she owns, how she’s raising her daughter and a stepson, her honesty with her husband about her bi-sexuality. She’s fought for her life, literally; I know about the violence she experienced growing up, and the gun she carried for a year to protect herself from a violent ex-boyfriend who stalked her.
I tell her about Selma and my reaction to the film. She admits to not having seen the movie yet, but tells me about a performance she attended weeks ago, an Afro-Cuban music and dance celebration. It’s respectability politics in action. “I was so angry at one point, I wanted to scream out,” she says. She describes how incredible the music was, everyone rocking in their seats, “and when it came time for the dancing, the male dancers were really able to go there, I mean just really get down in there, and it was awesome. Beautiful muscular brothers.
“Then it was time for the women to do their solos, and just as they were getting started, they would stop, and go back into this smiling, happy two-step dancing to please and reassure the audience. And it happened over and over again. I was like, what the hell are they doing? Then they did this running thing in place, and I thought this shit is about as African as me on the treadmill watching CNN. I felt so cheated, you know our history’s not like that.”
She was thoughtful for a moment, taping a lavender nail against her silver chain. “It was so strange. Like the Cuban part of the concert was fine, but when the African part came that was too vulgar, too real, we couldn’t be trusted with that, especially if it came through these black women. Now you know those sisters can move.” Janell sets her laundry down on the window ledge and rolls her hips in a circle, pumping her hands in front her, going down with one hand on the floor, then the other. We’re in our hallway in Harlem, but her movement has taken us across continents. “Those hips, those thighs, and that’s on stage, can you imagine what it was like back in the village in Africa? We didn’t get any of that shit that night. None of it. I asked Tony when we left: were they afraid the audience was going to walk out because the women got as funky and sweaty as the men did? And who the fuck cares if they did, I still would have been there. It's amazing, they are so willing to show us all these lies about who we really are, but the shit we need to see is kept under lock and key. What is so scary to people about a black woman dancing, revealing her sexuality and her power?”
The politics of respectability is killing us. It means, for example, that we still can’t have an honest conversation about rape and Bill Cosby. After writing about him in December of last year, I received private e-mails from women sharing personal stories of assault; women who may never speak out after seeing how other survivors have been treated in the public eye. While the number of women who have come forward has increased to more than thirty since that writing, Cosby and his defenders still maintain his innocence. It is clear that no matter how high the numbers get, some people will never see Cosby as guilty because he was a superstar in the Eighties – it’s that simple. I imagine with regret the children who watch us as we continue to call all the women liars, despite the number of accusations. And I know there is a daughter, a sister, a niece or nephew who wants to tell someone about a “Bill Cosby” in their neighborhood, their school, or their house, a child who wants to report abuse that is happening right now, but who has learned that the politics of respectability ensures that no matter what a person does to harm others, if he is a star or successful, everything will be forgiven or forgotten. (To children, especially the very young, all fathers, uncles, teachers, coaches, ministers, priests, scout leaders, neighbors and most adults are “stars”.)
Bill Cosby’s achievements made black people “respectable” for years – his show was all about respectability. We can’t bear to imagine him as a criminal; his reputation’s remaining intact continues to protect us from the shame of racism, while allowing us to demonize the poor. Meanwhile, those not protected by respectability in our culture (all children, poor people, women dealing with domestic violence or rape, sex-workers, the homeless, the mentally ill, the institutionalized, the old and infirm, drug-users, offenders in the prison system) learn quickly that they will not be believed if they tell on respectable people, and that they may be dismissed, arrested, institutionalized or even killed when they reveal what is happening or has happened to them, when they truly ask for help.
When, during a discussion in May 2014 at the New School in New York City called “Are You Still A Slave: Liberating The Black Body,” bell hooks, black feminist scholar and writer, called Beyoncé a terrorist, the politics of respectability meant that many rushed to Beyoncé’s defense on social media. Hooks challenged Beyoncé’s image and its negative impact on women and girls, specifically an image of Beyoncé on the cover of Time Magazine.
“One could deconstruct [the image] for days,” hooks said, “-first she’s looking kind of like a deer in headlights, and she’s wearing the little panty and bra set that some of us wore when we were ten or twelve, and I’m thinking, isn’t this interesting that she’s being…held up as one of the most important people in our nation, in the world…what is that cover meant to say about the black female body?”
The image suggested victim status, Beyoncé dressed in clothes more appropriate for a little girl and seen through the “predator’s gaze” – the lens through which we are accustomed to viewing a black woman’s body. (hooks maintains that this gaze is also evident in the way we see the character Patsy, the enslaved black woman who is tortured in the film 12 Years A Slave.) Janet Mock, transgender author of Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, reminds hooks that Beyoncé has reached a level of fame where she controls her wardrobe and all her images, and bell points out that this means that Beyoncé is complicit in what is being done to her, and to us. Filmmaker Shola Lynch, also on the panel, tells a story about completing the trailer for her film Free Angela, based on the life of Angela Davis, and the relationship her four-year-old daughter has to her film. Normally, waking up in the morning and feeling that her hair is too big, poofy or sticking out, after viewing the trailer she says with pride, “I have Angela Davis hair.” The anecdote is a powerful story of imagining and how girls are encouraged - or not – to see themselves as beautiful. Later in the Q & A, a woman shares her desperation that her daughter is self-harming, has an eating disorder, and is isolating. The mother admits to hacking into her daughter’s computer to find out what is influencing her choices. She discovers her daughter has been obsessively watching “America’s Top Model.”
I am grateful for bell hooks’ life-sustaining work as she continues to invite us in every context to decolonize our minds and imagine ourselves outside a racist sexist patriarchal construct. Yet some people heard, “Beyoncé is a terrorist” and shut down completely. And because it is our beautiful Beyoncé - talented and successful and so, so, rich - we are afraid to listen, we hold our hands to our ears and shut out what we don’t want to hear. Some of us will do anything within our power, in fact, to protect a wealthy superstar. But what we won’t do is deconstruct how their images harm us and our children, how an artist may be used to oppress others, specifically blacks and women, while helping to maintain the status quo.
I have been fascinated by the relationship that “Mrs. Carter” has with her husband Jay-Z as presented in the media, disturbing images last year featuring Beyoncé with her face under what looks like a cross between a ski mask and a burka, arms around her husband in a pose suggesting subjugation and control. The posters, visible from subway platforms and bus stops, advertised their “On The Run” tour. Who is running from whom? Young black girls pass by the images on their way to school every day, watching their idol, the most successful black female pop singer in the world, looking as if she were under Sharia law. Children swallow the campaign wholesale, not appreciating the irony. And it has to be ironic, because anyone who knows Beyoncé’s brand knows she is a powerhouse, or at least her “Sasha Fierce” image would lead you to believe that she is. The suggestion is that there isn’t anything Beyoncé can’t do and that “Girls run the world”. (They don’t seem, however, to run elevators, as Beyoncé stood by inexplicably and watched her sister Solange beat her husband’s ass in August of last year.)
In Beyoncé’s song “Drunk In Love” she sings, “I’ve been drinking, I’ve been drinking, I get all filthy when that liquor get into me. I’ve been thinking, I’ve been thinking, why can’t I keep my fingers off it, baby?” The song sounds at first like a sizzling affirmation of sexuality, a mating ritual – hot and pumping, with a great beat. Beyoncé’s supporters often discuss the sexual and personal empowerment they get from her work, and it is an argument that can’t be dismissed. If the song had stayed in that lane, if Beyoncé had a man pinned up against the wall, suggesting what she wanted to do with him, it might have been interesting. (I’m not advocating the raping of men by women, but consensual sex, in which Beyoncé is aggressive, and the man is turned on by her obvious power.) As happens so often in music videos, we are so entranced, mesmerized by the images that flash by, we no longer focus on what is actually being said to us, what we are actually hearing spoken. Beyoncé makes it clear in “Drunk in Love” that she is ready for sex, which is great. It’s the sex she gets in the song that is deeply disturbing. When Mr. Carter, JZ, enters the song, he raps;
“Hold up, stumble all in the house tryna backup all that mouth, That you had all in the car, talking 'bout you the baddest bitch thus far Talking 'bout you be reppin' that verb, wanna see all that shit I heard Know I sling Clint Eastwood, hope you can handle this curve . . . Foreplay in the foyer, fucked up my Warhol Slid the panties right to the side Ain't got the time to take drawers off, on site Catch a charge I might, beat the box up like Mike In '97 I bite, I'm Ike, Turner, turn up
Baby no I don't play, now eat the cake, Annie Mae Said, "Eat the cake, Annie Mae!"
The rap is not only breathtakingly irresponsible, it’s grotesque coming out of the factory of someone who claims to be a feminist and an empowerer of women, or who others claim to be so. It’s also a slap in the face of anyone who has believed in Beyoncé as a free agent, an “Independent Woman,” as she sang in Destiny’s Child, and who has been inspired by her as an artist. Because, when it really comes down to it, as the song suggests, a real man can overpower her, take her in hand whenever he wants, and all that empowerment she’s worked for and projected, what we believed in, just slips away.
We know the man rapping to her is her husband, but the tone of the rap suggests a rape scenario, with the aggressive language of a man perpetrating sexual violence against a woman he feels has humiliated him, either by being more successful than he is, or by standing up to him in the past. There is a sense of retribution in his words for having been wronged before. We recognize it as the punishment a powerful woman deserves. (Mister, in the film The Color Purple, advising his son Harpo how to handle his wife, the outspoken Sophia: “She needs to be taken down a peg or two.”)
JZ raps “backup all that mouth, ‘bout you the baddest bitch thus far”, as in, “I’ll show you who’s the boss.” He continues, “I sling like Eastwood.” I don’t know the size of Clint Eastwood’s penis (JZ doesn’t rap slinging like Uncle Miltie or Colin Farrell), so this is clearly a Dirty Harry/gun reference as that is the iconic Eastwood role and what he remains best known for, at least in a rap context. The Eastwood reference, and what he is “packing”, suggest more violence in the song, sex by force. JZ then tells us he “slides the panties right to the side, ain't got the time to take the drawers off”. These lines, which focus on Beyoncé’s clothing and not on her body, allow us as listeners to dehumanize her even further. She’s no longer in the song except as an object. One can imagine her being held against the wall, possibly against her will. (We don’t know how “drunk” she is, but we don’t hear her voice in the rap moaning with pleasure or responding. She may be unconscious.) The man in the song is in complete control, as he tells us he is going to “beat the box up like Mike” – further objectifying her, she is no longer a name but “the box”, and the reference is to Mike Tyson, of course, a convicted rapist. JZ tells us “he don’t play.” This suggests the sex between them isn’t playful or interactive – she was talking shit earlier and now this is what she gets. And finally, we get the reference to Ike Turner, his violence against Tina Turner which is well known in pop culture, and the phrase from the 1991 film What’s Love Got to Do With It: “Eat the Cake, Anna Mae, Eat the Cake.” And this is the song that won the 2015 Grammy for best R & B performance. Boy, we are some sick motherfuckers.
(The line “Eat the Cake, Anna Mae” is a reference to the scene in the film when the band stops at a restaurant to get something to eat. Ike humiliates Tina Turner in public by insisting she eat some cake after she has told him several times she doesn’t want any. He finally smashes the cake in her face. Tina throws a cup of ice water at him. When one of the back-up singers, Jackie, confronts Ike as he reaches for Tina, “Leave her alone, Ike”, he slaps her across the room. Jackie screams at Ike, “Im outta here! You only got to hit me but once!” When Tina says, “It’s all right, Jackie,” Jackie replies, “It’s not all right to let a motherfucker pound on you. If you had any sense you’d get out of here. You’re a dead woman if you stay here.” When Jackie leaves, Ike, unfazed by the violent scenario, says, “Anna, just sit down and eat some cake…Anna Mae, this cake real good.” The remaining band member, exhausted with Ike’s antics, says to Tina, “Anna Mae, just take the cake, please.” The scene is at once absurd, horrifying and painful. Jackie never returns, but Anne Mae is subjected to further brutality by Ike as she continues, on the terms of the movie, to “Eat the Cake.”)
It is fascinating that Beyoncé would betray Tina Turner’s story, which, because of Tina’s courage, has inspired so many of us who have been in abusive relationships. Not to mention a rock and soul performer to whom she owes quite a bit for borrowing the “Tina Turner” image, for her pioneering work in rock, and for whom she has even performed in tribute. Turner had the courage to write about her history as a survivor. And no matter what one thinks of the film, or the fact that it has taken its place in pop-culture references and jokes, the scenes of violence as played by Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, are devastating to watch.
The “Eat the Cake, Anna Mae” scene can be laughed off by some as over the top and cartoonish, but there is nothing funny in an earlier scene when Ike hits Tina for the first time. After slapping her off the couch and punching her, he drags her screaming through the house while the children watch. This film may trigger memories of childhood powerlessness and terror for those of us who grew up with domestic violence. Later, Ike rapes Tina standing up in a sound booth, a harrowing scene which is the perfect complement to the description in “Drunk in Love”. When I hear the line, “Eat the Cake, Anna Mae, Eat the Cake” used to make a pop song hip and edgy, I feel bewildered and outraged by Beyoncé and JZ. I think about artists’ responsibility towards the people who enjoy their music. And for all the Anna Maes out there, beaten by their male partners, the last thing their perpetrators need is this soundtrack of encouragement. Teenage boys formulate their ideas about what kind of relationships they will have with women from pop culture, teen girls learn what is acceptable for them to allow from their male partners. The song becomes a “hit”, and because its danceable, it’s hot. For those who argue it’s just a song, just a video, it has more than 260 million hits on You Tube, 260 million families - sons, daughters. The obvious is ignored: Beyoncé’s and JZ’s star power and music are being used and, are potentially responsible for, violence against women.
When I went online to see the reactions of others to the song, I found essays and comments not only defending Beyoncé and “Eat the Cake”, but praising her for it; one woman even expressed her gratitude for the song and wrote that the reference to Tina Turner and the film made her feel sexually liberated. We may never have an honest talk about Beyoncé’s legacy, because whatever one feels about her image, let’s face it: from H & M’s sweatshops carrying her image, to JZ and Barney’s “Shopping While Black” scandal, she and her husband are stunning capitalists, and to some that’s all that matters. The conversation, the cultural critique, their responsibility to society and the young people they influence, end with their résumés and their bank accounts. As with trickle-down Reaganomics, we assume that because they’ve “made it” so have the rest of us. And if we can’t make it, we can shoot up on their lives and ignore our own. But we will never challenge the Carters publicly or insist that some sacred things deserve respect – like Tina Turner and her pain. We deal with the fallout – the legacy of what they have created and how it affects our children, while they go into the studio to make the next song, oblivious, and richer. That’s why bell hooks can call Beyoncé a terrorist, and with a song like this, she’s right; terrorists harm to further their own agenda with no regard for the consequences.
Tina Turner is a stage name, one that Ike Turner created. But Anna Mae Bullock is the name of a black woman from Nutbush, Tennessee, who knows the sharecropping fields, the red dirt, and the power of the black church where she sang as a child. A southern past that still haunts her enough that she turned down the role of Shug Avery in The Color Purple, unwilling to return to the pain of growing up in the South, and the horrors that are alluded to in Beyoncé’s song. We genuflect at the altar of fame, and respectability politics wins again, not holding a “successful” artist and her husband accountable for their music, while mocking and driving a black woman’s authentic history and blues song underground.
Respectability politics demanded that we keep quiet about President Obama in the first election, and that we support him in the second; regardless of whether he had a specific plan to deal with poverty, or unemployment, or the concerns of people of color in America. We gave him a pass, because of what his winning would mean to us historically – and figured we’d deal with the specifics later. What we might not have counted on was the fact that having a black president in office would make it even more difficult to talk about racism and social inequality in America than with a white one; as many are unable to ask themselves, is it possible for a black president to further a racist agenda? As black people, we were so busy choosing Obama in the first election, we never stopped to consider whether he had chosen us.
The politics of respectability meant that when Barack Obama first started running for president there were several images of his very dark, very African father. But as the campaign progressed and Obama began really beating Hillary in the polls, when many of us realized for the first time, “Wait a minute, we might really win this shit”, his dark, little, African father became a small dot in the rearview mirror of the metaphorical campaign bus, left on the side of the road and told to walk the rest of the way. The emphasis, at least in the ads I remember most vividly, was on his single mother, white, and the rows and rows of cornfields in her native Kansas. The strategy was obvious, of course. Many of us didn’t like it but we wanted to win. The name Obama was weird enough, why add an African father to the mix?
We figured that Obama’s team knew what they were doing and we trusted them – they’d come this far and obviously convinced white people that Barack Obama was that special electable black – Colin Powell black. What I couldn’t understand was the strange way that Obama would reference Martin Luther King, Jr. in speeches, the way he would never say his name. He would refer over and over to a “young preacher from Georgia” and quote King’s speeches. Wow, a young preacher from Georgia, that might be one of 300,000 people, could you be a little more specific? We all knew who he was talking about anyway, so why couldn’t he say King’s name? I realized that as with his black father, someone on his team must have told him that naming Martin Luther King, Jr. was too radical for some whites, would be too polarizing, and would make him seem, especially after the Weather Underground “scandal”, like a black activist. I remember thinking at the time, He’s not quoting Malcolm X, for Christ’s sake, but Martin, our Martin, with a national holiday, streets named after him, and who, with a heavy helping of nostalgia added to his legacy, has now been branded and sentimentalized past anger, sexuality, political threat or danger. What was the big deal about saying Martin’s name?
The way the campaign dealt with Dr. King’s legacy was a major red flag. Because if you can’t say Dr. King’s name, then you won’t be able to talk about the issues that were important to him, particularly before he was assassinated - the stand he took against the Vietnam war, and his fight for workers’ rights as he marched with the sanitation workers in Chicago, where Obama was once a senator. We may have a president who can never truly address poverty or talk about the poor, because poverty has a black face in this country, at least in the minds of its citizens, and blackness, to a certain extent, damages the Obama brand.
There are “codes” that we use to perpetuate inequality. It’s the reason why individuals come and go for millennia, but institutional racism, sexism stay. These codes tell us who should be in power, whose life is worth saving, who should self-destruct. I’ve had these codes work on me, as a black man, as a gay man. Very few of us really know how to de-program ourselves, or when the codes are working on us. We get mad when someone tries to wake us up. When bell hooks calls Beyoncé a terrorist, people are bewildered; they don’t appreciate the way our system works. “Eat the Cake, Anna Mae” is the code that makes it clear: no matter how much money and “power” Beyoncé has as an individual black woman, she isn’t advocating real change, and never will. There is no real liberation or shift of patriarchal power in her creations, nothing truly subversive will ever be found in her work.
We fall for it over and over again, selling out our truth for respectability, for a “win”, without deconstructing what winning actually means to us anymore, and specifically to us as black Americans. If winning is all there is to it, then technically slaveholders “won” by making a ton of money off us. The economy was great and the living was easy.
Winning means that we applaud Halle Berry’s Oscar in 2002 but we don’t deconstruct the film she won it for. What does it mean to win the Oscar if we find the character she played in Monster’s Ball a reprehensible stereotype, talking about fried chicken, fat black children, homemade curtains, and black pain, then ripping her blouse open and revealing her breasts –all in the same monologue? Oscar finds a way to fix our asses, though: we win the shit then we never work again. (See Gooding, Cuba – Snow Dogs.) The last Halle Berry movie I saw was The Call and the only reason I went was to watch the wig she wore. The wig was amazing, the movie wasn’t. Queen Latifah’s Bringing Down the House did very well at the box office, and unquestionably helped to cement Latifah’s rising star. I wrote about the film in 2004, and my opinion hasn’t changed: Bringing Down the House is a regressive, ugly wart of a creation, and had nothing honest to say about black women’s lives, or anyone’s life for that matter in 2003. Joan Plowright sings what she calls a negro spritual entitled, “Mama, Is Massa Gonna Sell Us Tomorrow” while Queen Latifah waits on her in a maid’s uniform. At the end, the film breaks the sacred law of romantic comedy; Latifah doesn’t run off and marry Steve Martin, her co-star, but ends the film with Eugene Levy, the pervert who’s been after her for the entire movie. This was called a comedy. It is horrifying to consider filmmaker Shola Lynch’s beautiful daughter ever seeing this film and what it says about a black woman’s sexuality, or hearing “Drunk in Love” on the radio with her friends. Bringing Down the House grossed over 100 million dollars at the box office. So I guess we won something.
Someone who hasn’t “won” recently is the actress Mo’Nique, absolutely not respectable, to which she admits wholeheartedly. Mo’Nique gave an interview to The Hollywood Reporter, in an article entitled “Mo’Nique: I Was Blackballed After Winning An Oscar”. The blackball seems to be coming, specifically, from her director in Precious, Lee Daniels, who told her over the phone that she wasn’t working because Hollywood had turned its back because of her difficult behavior. Mo’Nique responded in an interview with Don Lemon, who had also interviewed Daniels days before: “The phone was ringing and the scripts were coming…the offers just didn’t make sense…offers that made me say, Guys, I can’t accept that, because if I accept that and I won the award, what are my sisters being offered that didn’t win the award or [weren’t] nominated and what does it say to the little girl who’s not here yet, that if we continue to accept these low offers [how] do we make it different and make a change?” Mo’Nique’s comments affirm the legacy of black women in Hollywood, past and future, for which she feels a responsibility. She speaks about her latest project, an independent film, and the importance of generating one’s own projects. Mo’Nique appreciates the standards of the black artists who have come before her. She wore gardenias in her hair when she won the Academy award, in remembrance of Hattie McDaniel.
Whatever Mo’Nique did or didn’t do that enraged the studio or Daniels should be forgiven after the extraordinarily brave performance she gave in Precious. Mo’Nique showed us something about incest, childhood sexual abuse, and mothers and daughters, never seen before or since. She exposed her soul – I’m not sure even Meryl Streep has ever gone that far. Mo’Nique and Daniels revealed to us a mother we all know exists, but never talk about – a mother who knows her child is being sexually abused, and not only doesn’t stop it, but is jealous, and resents the child for “allowing it to happen.” It was so naked and beautiful, in fact, that it might have made some of us uncomfortable and even angry for what it dug up in us about our own families. Mo’Nique’s Oscar may get rusted one day and fade, but her performance is a tribute to the blues song, and she can stand with other blues women with dignity; Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday, Big Mama Thornton. Louis Armstrong said, “What we play is life.”
Black capitalism, black wealth and black political power are at a fascinating place in our history. Some of us are finally getting the respectability we’ve always wanted. But with power comes responsibility, and the question: what does it mean for the black American to win in a capitalist society that won by enslaving us? And as the black politician, performer, star is moved into the limelight, what happens to their relationship to themselves and to their community? Can the community win as it did during the Civil Rights Movement, or only the individual? The poster for Selma has an image of Martin Luther King, Jr., his back to us, facing off against a row of police officers. The picture is provocative, arresting and, in the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, dead wrong. But it is true to the idea of King as ultimate liberator and to the idea of being able to do it on your own, King as a model of self-empowerment. There are so many Dr. Kings to choose from. It suddenly occurred to me after a third viewing of the film and from an ideological standpoint: that isn’t Martin Luther King facing the crowd on the poster. That’s Oprah.
“You have to believe. You have to believe. And you must not betray your people. You must not. You must fight for them! They fought for you. And I mean it was heavy. It was some shit. But you can win. You ain’t gonna be no millionaire. But you can win!”*
Beah Richards, Beah, A Black Woman Speaks
Oprah has had such an ideological impact on our culture that she is more than just a celebrity talk show host or entrepreneur at this point, she is a philosophical way of life. As Author Fran Libovitz said, “Oprah is the greatest influence on the adult population…she’s like a religion.” As I consider the projects that have her name attached, including Selma, and her commitment as a motivator, I realize that Oprah may even be a verb: “I’m oprahing my work space this weekend, I’m going to have to oprah that and get back to you.” In the chapter on Oprah, “Oprah Winfrey, the Cathartic, Charismatic Capitalist” from her book Divas on Screen: Black Women in Film, Mia Mask writes about what she calls The Oprah Effect and specifically her cultural authority over “the consumption of novels, the reception of films, and the dissemination of self-help techniques making her the most influential book-seller in the United States and possibly the world.”
There is a theme to the work she encourages, the books she chooses for her club, the film projects she develops, and that is self-empowerment through personal responsibility. Oprah has entertained and inspired millions with her work. By most people’s standards she is an American hero, and without her influence, Selma might not have been made or given the attention a project about the Civil Rights Movement deserves.
In the opening scene of Selma, which is beautifully acted and never matched by any scene later in the film, Oprah plays Annie Lee Cooper. Because there are no other compelling black female characters allowed to show anger besides Oprah’s, including Coretta King, Oprah is the whole show. It’s an unfortunate choice, because she could have played a supporting role in a group of other strong women as she did in The Women of Brewster Place - one sustained note in a powerful chorus. But without a strong Diane Nash or Amelia Boynton on the screen, Oprah’s scenes stand out. When she balls up her fists Sofia-style “Get my children out of here!” her performance becomes a parody of her earlier work in The Color Purple. Unfortunately, since Selma is such a recessive, quiet movie to begin with, this scene, which has authentic Civil Rights feistiness, ends up jumping out at the viewer like King Kong Eats Tokyo.
In his National Review essay on Selma, “For Whites Only”, Armond White writes, “One of The Color Purple’s many memorable moments showed Oprah Winfrey as the prideful heavyset black Southern woman Sofia being slapped by a white sheriff and socking back; she ends up pistol-whipped, knocked out in the middle of a dusty street, the wind blowing her dress to pathetically expose her underwear. Spielberg’s image of underwear and an uncovered large brown thigh coexists with national memory of those formally-dressed black Americans who were beaten and hosed-down and attacked by dogs while petitioning. It’s what film scholars would call a synecdoche, symbolizing something deeper than Sofia’s wounded flesh and insulted pride; calling upon one’s own shame and inspiring compassion.” While that image from The Color Purple suggested both racist brutality and the sexual violation of black women in the South, the scene in Selma of Annie Lee Cooper taken down by the police produces no emotional response. In a subsequent scene, we are shown a picture of Oprah as Cooper from this scene on the cover of President Johnson’s morning newspaper. The campy image destroys any chance for Annie Lee Cooper to develop as a character outside the Oprah oeuvre. (The headline looks as if it should read “Oprah Winfrey In Civil Rights Movie Resists Cops.”) It doesn’t matter anyway because we never see Cooper again in the movie except in the crowd scenes. Screenwriter Paul Webb is so stingy, he doesn’t even give Cooper a line like “We did it, y’all!” when the march reaches Montgomery. This is a shame after the amazing opening, when she is the one we see denied the right to register to vote. I think Oprah should get her money back.
There is the point, when discussing Oprah and Selma, where actual history, and history meant to entertain, bleed into each other. And we can sometimes make the mistake that an actor playing a role shares the politics, or the moral compass, of the character we admire on-screen. (I certainly did with Jon Voight in Coming Home.) Things really get out of hand, however, when Oprah uses her cultural authority to criticize the young people who are part of the BlackLivesMatter campaign and Ferguson resistance, suggesting in her comments that their efforts are unfocused. Oprah said to People magazine in January 2015: “What I'm looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, 'This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we're willing to do to get it.'"
Selma, and Oprah’s role as a producer of the film, are used in this instance not to inspire, but to shame a new generation of activists fighting inequality, police brutality and racist terror. Oprah uses the platform for her own aggrandizement, while promoting a film that is already questionable in its approach to the role of women. This is particularly problematic when one considers that the BlackLivesMatter campaign, now a phenomenon, was created by three black queer women: Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.
Oprah’s criticism is confounding when we know from the actual testimonials of student activists during the Sixties that there were occasions when things were messy, when they didn’t have a plan, and one went where the work was needed. How can Oprah tell young activists what their movement should look like, what gives her permission? Oprah, as movie producer and actress, assumes the authority of a Diane Nash. And yet Diane Nash would never say anything like that to students, as she recalls how important it was during the creation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee that Ella Baker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (which had sponsored SNCC) encouraged them to stay independent of adult organizations and to think for themselves. Diane Nash recalled Baker’s contribution: “Ella Baker was very important giving direction to the student movement. And not giving direction in a way of her making decisions as to what the students should do, but in terms of really seeing how important it was to recognize the fact that the students should set the goals and directions and maintain control of the student movement.”**
The frustration is that Oprah assumes this authority because of her role in Selma, not based on actual organizing experience. Ferguson activists, who were invited by President Obama and Eric Holder to the White House for talks, felt the criticism was ill-timed and unfair, and observed that Oprah had been publicly silent about Ferguson until it was time to promote her film. Oprah has worked hard and earned her place in history, but for a different history. She wasn’t talking to young talk-show hosts or journalists about integrity in news reporting, she was talking to activists, and she assumed this authority because she’d played an activist in a movie that she paid for. The presumption is staggering.
Kitty Kelley’s book on Oprah was the first time and perhaps the only time I read anything on Oprah’s partner Stedman Graham and his staunchly Republican politics. (Yes, that Kitty Kelley.) People can say whatever they want about Miss Kitty, but one thing is clear: as a friend of mine said, “That bitch will get the story, even if she has to climb in a goat’s ass to find it.” The sales figures of the book disappointed because we, its readers (and in Oprah’s case that means the whole world), didn’t want to destroy our myths about her. Kitty did her homework, though, and found Oprah’s family, including her father at his barbershop in East Nashville, Tennessee. Walking up and down the Southern roads, I imagine her, tottering heels, blonde hair and all, as she went to the black South, found the modest homes and the relatives that weren’t “respectable”, ate the greens, pot liquor, and cornbread, and drank sweet tea (the kind that sits out in the sun all day) on the front porch.
Kelly reports in Oprah that Stedman is such a conservative Republican that while he had accompanied Oprah to the White House under George Bush, he avoided attending the White House under the Clintons. This may or may not be true, and Stedman is entitled to his viewpoints, of course, as they are both entitled to their political privacy, although it is assumed Oprah is a Democrat. (James Carville and Mary Matalin seem to make their interpolitical relationship work, but they are an exception, and they’re white; Republicanism means something different to black people, or at least it used to. Matalin’s politics are also clearly in the public eye; I didn’t know about Stedman until I read Kitty.) My point here is that people just assume Oprah’s politics are progressive because she’s a black woman. The fact that she could even have such a long, intimate relationship with a staunch conservative (many of us could imagine ourselves, for example, dating a ripe young yak before we would date Mike Huckabee) may suggest otherwise.
While Oprah isn’t on the far right there must be a place where Stedman’s and her politics meet, including their ideological beliefs about racism and social inequality, and what one’s response should be. And money can alter one’s relationship to that conversation. Oprah Winfrey is a black woman who grew up in the deep South, but she is also a billionaire with a brand to protect. And that brand relies on self-empowerment. It’s hard to sell Change Your Life TV and deconstruct institutional racism at the same time. One of them has to go. It makes ideological sense, therefore, that Oprah would encourage a film about Martin King as a solo dreamer who changes the world rather than show the community he came from and was responsible to. Based on this paradigm, of course the Ferguson protesters are misguided - they haven’t found their Dr. King yet.
In her Bard College lecture “They Made Her Go to Rehab: Mass Incarceration, Addiction and the Changing Face of Punishment”, sociologist Allison R. McKim compares the experiences of women in rehab - those who attend willingly or as a condition of maintaining employment, and those who are mandated to go through the penal system. At one point during her talk, she uses a term I am unfamiliar with "degradation ceremonies" (based on the work of Harold Garfinkel in his article "Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies"), to describe the shaming rituals that some women are put through during the intake process in penal rehab, and how that often differs from non-mandated rehab facilities: having your personal belongings and body searched, taking a de-licing shower in front a staff member. After the lecture, I spoke with McKim briefly about treatment models, my own experience in recovery, and the impact of institutional racism, sexism and trauma on the recovery experience. When I mentioned my critique of Oprah in this piece, she acknowledged that in the recovery work she has observed, “The difficulty with emphasizing the self as the source of all one's problems is that it is shaming and individualizes social oppression. It also invalidates the experience of righteous anger. And righteous anger is often an important and appropriate response to what happened to you.”
I understand from my own experience that taking responsibility for one’s life is ultimately essential for the recovery process. Damage is done, however, when all the responsibility is placed on the individual in the name of “self-empowerment” with no consideration for institutional oppression. In this context, some of Oprah’s shows, in the name of self-empowerment, might be considered “degradation ceremonies” because of the absence of a political critique of institutional social violence, particularly for women who find themselves in the penal system after familial sexual abuse, poverty, or limited opportunities of education, and who are then offered a copy of the self-empowerment book The Secret or The Law of Attraction and asked, “So tell me, why did you create all of this in your life?” I imagine a Civil Rights Movement comprising only self-motivators: everyone at home writing in their journals, lighting candles, meditating under pictures of Dr. Phil, and no one left to march.
And we need a revolution right now, we need change. According to McKim, one in three black men in America will be incarcerated in his lifetime. John Legend, during the Oscars, reminded us that the U.S. is the most incarcerating country in the world, that there are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. I imagine an official inspecting an elementary school with several classrooms, passing by room after room in which three or four children are playing by themselves, and then ending up at the principal’s office where there are over four hundred kids sitting in detention. In a scenario like this, one wouldn’t think of encouraging 400 children to rehabilitate themselves. We’d assume something was wrong with the school and shut it down. Yet we look at the incarcerated population with contempt, wondering whether they will ever be able to be truly rehabilitated, instead of asking who is going to rehabilitate us.
The problem with Selma’s view of “Dr. King Against The World” is not that it isn’t moving for audiences, it’s that as a political strategy it doesn’t work. Oprah can encourage self-determination through achievement and respectability, but she is also savvy enough to know it is much easier for American audiences to hear how blacks can “self-empower” their way out of racism, than to talk about institutional injustice and the role we all play. In the most cynical view, a businesswoman or man can never lead a revolution, personal or otherwise, because righteous anger doesn’t sell products (maybe tee-shirts), and it doesn’t require a “middle-man” - someone selling you a book or a bath gel on your way to healing the “self”. In the Cult of Oprah, not only will you always look to her for guidance, or to her network, or her magazine, or her favorite things to transform you; you may be so distracted that you don’t look to anyone else. We may all get to a town called Self in the end, but, in true capitalist tradition, Oprah owns the tollbooth and the road to get there. Selma encourages us to indulge in a Savior complex, which isn’t great for sitting down with your neighbor and talking revolution or change, but is perfect for a famous TV personality feeding her own personal legacy. I just wish Oprah had been honest and played King herself.
“The Western ideas of fragmentation were unable to alter my father’s sense of wholeness, his sense of unity. I think we were the only family that I remember that called themselves black. Everybody else was colored. And most people were negroes. And I thank him, oh how I thank him for that. I’m so grateful! I’m not afraid of the dark.”*
Beah Richards, Beah, A Black Woman Speaks
I learn a lesson about the politics of respectability the hard way. A friend of mine warns me about the shadow side of Twitter – the way people can gang up on you, its mob rule. Twitter at its best is an amazingly egalitarian way of disseminating information: no need to ask CNN, Fox News or MSNBC whether something is newsworthy or relevant. Movements like Occupy Wall Street and BlackLivesMatter thrive on it. But at its lowest, Twitter has the toxic energy of a group of people outside a club urging two women into a “catfight”, or two boys surrounded on the playground by other children shouting, “Fight, Fight, Fight!”
Within an hour of sending several tweets regarding Beyoncé’s performance at the Grammys, and my anger that Ledisi wasn’t invited to perform “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”, which she originated in the film and on the soundtrack, I am called a “cunt” and told to “shut my dumb dog face ass the fuck up”. What I said exactly: “Beyoncé blonde steals song from dark skinned artist from movie about civil rights. We’re still on the plantation.” As I am fairly new to Twitter, I call a friend, bewildered. I’m feeling my age now, like the older man smiling at younger women across the bar, and who everyone knows shouldn’t be at the club anymore, or someone’s technologically challenged great-grandfather, trying to figure out the gadgets on his new iPhone.
“Those are Beyoncé’s Stans,” my friend explains patiently. “Stans” is from the Eminem song “Stan” – a “stalker fan” who is obsessively dedicated to a star. “She has millions of followers. They are very, very protective of her. They are part of what they call the Beyhive.” The Beyhive? The idea of facing a mob of millions of Stans calling me names is daunting. A woman on Twitter responds to the attack and commiserates with a tone that suggests laughter: “Oh, you didn’t know that if you criticize Queen Bey, the Cult will come after you?” I am also reminded by my friend, “Never underestimate the power of Twitter.” (I decide to go back to Facebook where it’s safe.)
Actually, I wasn’t completely inexperienced with Twitter. Just a few days before, I had witnessed a confrontation between Rosie O’Donnell and several Twitter followers over the work of Eve Ensler that led to accusations of racism and two hashtags created within minutes, #RacistRosie and #BoycottTheView. Much like the historic Chicago Fire of 1871, a conflagration on Twitter can have the whole town in flames before you can even say, “Do I smell smoke around here?” While I can’t defend Rosie’s responses on Twitter and I disagreed with her position overall, what began as a heated exchange in the morning had sealed her fate by late afternoon. Perhaps only a coincidence, but I watched as she announced her resignation from The View later that same day.
I block the man who calls me a cunt, my first block on Twitter, but not before writing that I find it interesting that he would call me that name just because I disagreed with what happened at the Grammys. I am fascinated that after writing about Bill Cosby, I never got one raging tweet like this, nor one truly hateful e-mail from anyone. But within two minutes of criticizing Beyoncé, I am now a cunt. Interesting what we consider sacred, and what and whom we choose to protect.
While it is still somewhat unclear why Beyoncé is singing the song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at the Grammys and Ledisi isn’t, when John Legend and Common finish their rendition of “Glory”, Beyoncé appears, with a group of barefoot dark-skinned black men in white suits standing behind her. Beyoncé sings, but from the very beginning something is off in her performance. Her outfit suggests religious or royal iconography, and she looks like a Christmas ornament. It isn’t clear whether we are watching a gospel performance or a coronation.
I think it is safe to say that most black Americans and more than a few white ones are excited about the rendition of a gospel song. Just saying the words “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” can move some of us to tears, recalling memories of family, of the church, and of a tradition where faith has helped our ancestors survive in this country despite its most egregious persecutions. It is a song of great intimacy. “Precious Lord” doesn’t require the black choir that seems to appear ad nauseam at the Grammys whenever a singer craves instant inspiration or needs some serious vocal help - all that is required for “Precious Lord” is a voice, your pain, and God. Gospel music, while drawing on some of the greatest singers ever recorded, doesn’t necessarily require great singing in church, either - one can be moved by a mediocre performance if the singer’s heart is in the right place. But what it absolutely requires is humility. In other words, with the encouragement that the congregation provides, the historical legacy behind it, and depth of emotion, whether the singer is eight or eighty, it is hard to screw up “Precious Lord.” The only way is to sing it from the ego, bringing attention to oneself and one’s performance, which Beyoncé inexplicably does.
As I watch Beyoncé, I’m hearing soul riffs, I’m watching the control of a professional; but what is missing is the sanctified quality, the sensibility that black singers bring, even if they have crossed over into pop music, of returning to the sacred ground of gospel. Of being responsible to a legacy bigger than oneself. It is hard to concentrate on the song because the outfit is distracting and inappropriate; usually when singing gospel music, one wears something suitable for church. When we should be thinking about her song, we’re watching the way the light glares through the diaphanous dress, catching the slender curve of her hips.
The fashion of the dress is some kind of techno-plantation southern belle garb, like a futuristic Bette Davis in Jezebel or Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind; illuminated slavery chic brought to you by General Electric. With her background of barefoot black men, pants rolled up from “wading in the water”, I feel like I’m watching a new group: Beyoncé and The Emmett Tills. I don’t know why the men are up there if they aren’t singing. There is a strange paradox; she’s working hard and yet, it seems, barely trying. (A gay friend put it more simply: “If you are going to take somebody’s song, and it’s a gospel song, and you’re at the Grammys, then you better serve it - and I’m not talking tea and cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, bitch, I’m talking Sunday morning at Denny’s, two plates on each arm, eggs, hash browns, pancakes, bacon, where’s that hot coffee I asked for, and bring me some goddamn boysenberry syrup.”)
Beyoncé includes rock-star tics and self-aggrandizing gestures that suggest to me she has absolutely no idea where she is. Regardless of what she is doing, the visual message of the Grammys is that with her blonde hair and angelic image, Beyoncé has finally achieved what seemed unattainable for a black person: the purity and whiteness of Christ, as she has now officially become our savior. By being the richest and most successful black artist in the world, and traditionally beautiful, she is afforded a temporary white status. She can have anything she wants in the world (including a white woman’s blonde hair.) She can also take whatever she wants from a black woman simply because she wants it. In slavery it was a black woman’s children for profit, at the Grammys it’s her music. Even John Legend says when asked about the incident later, “We were actually approached by [her]…You don’t really say no to Beyoncé if she asks to perform with you.”
Oprah famously described in interviews how powerful it was the first time she saw Diana Ross on television. She ran through the house trying to find the rest of her family: (“Colored people on TV! Colored People on TV!”). Whatever the specifics of how and why Ledisi was unable to perform at the Grammys or whose call it was, this much is true: there are many of us, young black girls most specifically, who never got to see Ledisi sing that night and who needed her performance. Ledisi is a beautiful black woman, but not in the conventional ways we are conditioned to appreciate in pop culture. At the time the Grammys aired, she had dreadlocks or thick braids, she was heavier than the usual music video standard for women, and as a performer tends to keep most of her clothes on. Her skin is darker than Beyoncé’s; we haven’t seen Ledisi, for example, in a national campaign for a cosmetics company, appearing in ads where she is made to look white, as Beyoncé did for L’Oréal, to some controversy and anger. In a perfect world there is room for Beyoncé and Ledisi, both beautiful black women, on the Grammy stage.
And while I defend Ledisi’s right to perform “Precious Lord”, I need to pause for a moment and say something is going on with Ledisi’s own image and music. Her loyal fans have questioned the more traditional R & B direction of her recent work, a direction that may give her greater exposure in the hip-hop/pop crossover world, but at the cost of losing the unique jazz/blues stylings that built her reputation in the first place. I like Ledisi’s music (Today is my jam), and I want Ledisi to “win”. One just hopes that an overeager or greedy label executive isn’t trying to run her through the Beyoncé car-wash, employing the “hip-hop honey” studio tricks that producers can use in their sleep to make a thousand mediocre female singers sound good. Our children, and specifically our daughters, need to see female stars that appreciate their uniqueness – we can’t all want to be the pretty girls. Renee Zellweger, humiliated for years by jokes about her aging, gets cosmetic surgery and takes the Eastern European/Polish characteristics out of her face; the look that made her face distinctive, and different from thousands of women living in L.A. Zellweger was the anti-hero we were rooting for in Jerry McGuire, and we loved her because she wasn’t the “pretty girl”, but kind, funny, self-conscious and in some way hard to describe, beautiful. Ledisi, if Beyoncéd, may get her Grammy in the end, but for those of us who respect her artistry as a west-coast black neo-soul singer who takes her place next to Rochelle Farrell and Lalah Hathaway, and whose soulful sound and appearance recall a compelling black female history, Ledisi’s role as a blues woman means something to us. Ledisi, pimped out by a record company as the new Beyoncé, compromises her relationship to the blues song.
Ledisi offers a stunning performance on the Selma soundtrack, a beautiful rendition of the traditional gospel song. And she clearly has a love for Mahalia, because she adds a texture to her sound that recalls the singing styles of an earlier era. It would have been transformative to see this in the film, and deeply healing for us to watch it on the Grammy stage. Given the ways we have been devastated by racial violence and police brutality recently, Ledisi’s rendition of “Precious Lord Take My Hand”, possibly performed a cappella, would have been a true balm for the soul.
Instead, she sits in the audience watching her song from the movie performed in front of her. Nominated in the category of Best R & B song for “Like This”, she loses as Beyoncé wins the Grammy for “Drunk in Love” (Eat the Cake, Anna Mae, Eat the Cake.) The day after the Grammys, by way of explanation or apology, Beyoncé releases an eight-minute black-and-white video describing why she chose to sing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at the Grammys. There is no way the video was made overnight after the tidal wave the following day of angry comments on social media, which suggests that Team Beyoncé probably anticipated a backlash. The video feels patently false and manipulative; the black men in the video and in her Grammy performance talk about the song, what it means to be black and male. There are no openly gay men in the video, or conversations about violence against gay men or gay suicide, despite Beyoncé’s gay following. (Queer people who have been overwhelmed by homophobia and queer hatred are on a first-name basis with “Precious Lord”.) Beyoncé sings in the video, and when the song is over, she says “cut” and smiles adorably. It is the winning touch of a performer who knows how to manipulate her audience well; for a gospel audience, however, it confirms what her live performance suggests, that nothing in the song has touched her or recalled anything painful or truthful in her life, despite the incoherent explanations and family history she gives at the beginning of the video. The video works against her in the end, making it even harder to imagine that she really cares about the song as Ledisi does, and that this isn’t just another career move, a corporate takeover.
In case there were any doubt that the Grammys weren’t a fluke, Beyoncé gives another strident, overeager performance at a televised tribute to Stevie Wonder. She’s out to prove something to us, but it isn’t clear what. Entering from the audience, she asks everyone to get up on their feet if they “love Stevie” and the image as we watch at home is everyone rising at her command. Beyoncé has orchestrated her own standing ovation. She resorts to sexual gestures throughout her performance of “Master Blaster” and “Higher Ground”, but they feel forced and misguided. She’s back on sacred territory, and where she should be raindancing she’s twerking. Her fans would have you believe the performance was perfect, because everything she does is perfect. But she feels stranded to me, and as I watch Gladys Knight in the audience clapping enthusiastically for her, I am hating our youth-oriented, success-oriented culture, wondering what Gladys’ “Higher Ground” might have sounded like.
It is possible, in fact essential, to deconstruct Beyoncé’s image and also to feel for her. Beyoncé is my sister. And she, who by societal standards has everything - beauty, fame, money, power - is still part of the intricate racist matrix in which we both exist in America, for me as a black gay man and for her as a heterosexual black woman. American racism is a horror story and we all play a part. And like a zombie or a body-snatcher in the movies, sometimes people we love and admire personally may embody the very thing that will destroy us (i.e. use their creativity or power to destroy the blues song, the authentic slave narrative). While images of Beyoncé have been used to race-shame and victimize others, Beyoncé is also victimized by those images as they come through her, are produced by her. Toni Morrison understood this dynamic well in the creation of the character of Maureen Peal in the novel The Bluest Eye. Morrison describes Maureen: “[She was] a high-yellow dream child with long brown hair braided into two lynch ropes that hung down her back. She was rich, at least by our standards, as rich as the richest of the white girls, swaddled in comfort and care.” Frieda and Claudia, two of the novel’s protagonists, are repulsed and attracted to Maureen at the same time. They want to hate her and destroy her, but they also know in their young minds that she is everything the world covets and holds sacred, whether they fully understand why or not. Morrison writes:
“If she was cute- and if anything could be believed, she was- then we were not. We were lesser. Nicer, brighter, but lesser. Dolls we could destroy, but we could not destroy the honey voices of parents and aunts, the obedience in the eyes of our peers, the slippery light in the eyes of our teachers when they encountered the Maureen Peals of the world. Jealousy we understood and thought natural – a desire to have what somebody else had; but envy was a strange new feeling for us. And all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful and not us.”
Pecola, the tragic heroine of the novel, accidentally implies by her reaction to a question Maureen asks that she has seen her father naked – suggesting sexual abuse in her home. Maureen, who seems to have befriended Pecola who earlier was bullied by a group of boys, now turns on her. Pecola withdraws into herself. The four girls exist in a racist, sexist universe that is inexplicable to them, that isolates them, a universe which prefers one over the other, which decides one is worthy over the other, but in the end, leaves them damaged by the fact that they must compete - for money, air, sunshine, adult approval, love. In this context, where they are encouraged to be antagonistic and suspicious of one another, they can’t unify, they can’t trust each other, and, most tragically, they can’t protect Pecola. Pecola who desperately needs a black girl to see her, and a black woman’s help. She eventually implodes when her father’s sexual violation and her conditioned racist self-hate pushes her to a place of unimaginable trauma and shame; shame, which foreshadowed by this scene, leads her on a search for respectability, for the “whiteness” that will finally protect her (because no one else will), the bluest eye, and, eventually, into madness. Pecola is driven insane, but Morrison’s implication at the end of the novel is that the madness is ours.
In her recent performances, I see in Beyoncé an artist who needs a connection to her community and the approval of the black “church”; real “Amens” and “Hallelujahs”, not the narcissistic reflection of her “subjects” who really don’t see her at all, but who lust after her power. I see someone who wants to make a connection to the blues song. She may realize, and with great horror, that she has been branded as a product to such an extent that she can’t escape that pedestal even if she wants to, that she can only offer us contrivances now; and if we approve those contrivances, we now have to turn our back on the authenticity of the blues song and our own history. Deep, deep down, we know we can’t do that, because it’s all we have. And when you see Beah Richards perform “Paul Robeson Speaks For Me” or “A Black Woman Speaks To White Womanhood” or when Maya Angelou performs, “And Still I Rise” or “Phenomenal Woman”, when we consider Gwendlyn Books, or Langston Hughes or James Baldwin, we realize it is a beautiful black legacy worth protecting, a legacy that must remain unsold. There is a thrill like no other - which is what I feel Beyoncé longs for - a thrill every black artist craves, when the chords of a gospel song begin, and the opening line is heard, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” and somebody turns to somebody in the front pew and whispers, “Now that girl can sang.” And even if the relatively unknown singer is only sixteen in her childhood church in East Orange, New Jersey and named Whitney Houston, there are four hundred years of Black American history in that voice and we have to protect that black woman and that black song, the integrity of it, the honest inspiration of it, if we plan on making it to five hundred.
We miss the point if we focus only on Beyoncé; yes, she rules the world and probably has enough money at this point to buy a developing nation if she wanted. But this is bigger than her. We have to find a way to separate all the parts of the equation and not get confused (and they want us confused). We must be able to appreciate Beyoncé as the beautiful and talented woman she is, and still deconstruct Beyoncé the brand, marketed aggressively and potentially as bad for our health as McDonald’s french fries, Kool 100 cigarettes, or Diet Coke. We must analyze the images that are presented to us and specifically to our children, and what they mean in the context of racist, sexist, patriarchal domination and the capitalist machine. We have to stop our kids when they sing “Drunk in Love” because they heard it on the radio, and talk to them about what they are actually singing. And it isn’t enough to live “whiteness” vicariously through Beyoncé, or become addicted to her lifestyle to avoid feeling the shame of our own. We have to be willing to realize that Beyoncé’s money and fame may gain her access to everything, but that the door remains locked for millions of us, slaves who can’t afford to buy our freedom in the marketplace. The price we are paying for respectability - and we all have to negotiate our price at some point or another - is just too goddamn high.
The following week, Beyoncé’s Grammy controversy seems forgotten. She appears at Kanye West’s fashion show. Soon there will be another album, perhaps she’ll even invite Ledisi to sing a duet one day. That will definitely be good for business. The cynic in me wonders if Beyoncé even cared about “Precious Lord” at all, but snatched Ledisi’s song because she heard too much of the Beyoncé sound on Ledisi’s latest album. (If you’re going to take my music, bitch, I’m going to take yours.) Fucked up for black sisterhood, but fair game when you’re playing Monopoly.
Mama: Son, I come from five generations of people who was slaves and sharecroppers – but ain’t nobody in my family never let nobody pay ‘em no money that was a way of telling us we wasn’t fit to walk the earth. We ain’t never been that poor. We ain’t never been that dead inside.
Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun
“Messing ‘round with the best of them, Digressing with the rest of them, He’s a stranger. . But mother dear still knows his name.
Looking through the glass in case he pass his name, Up and down in style his name is in a file of fame, And they call him Sylvester, . But his mama still knows his name.”
Sly and the Family Stone, Ain’t But the One Way
In her interview on Hot 97’s radio program in December 2014, Azealia Banks discusses what she refers to as “cultural smudging” in the music industry. She is twenty-three. As I am new to Banks’ music, a friend calls the interview a “must-see.” The interviewer Ebro plays her single “212” and asks her about the sexually suggestive lyrics in the song. Ebro: “Were you talking about eating coochie, eating vag on that? You was going in. That’s what you do? Do you have girlfriends, have you been in love with a woman?”
Azealia isn’t defensive or fazed. The interview is filmed and we see her in the studio, pouring orange juice into a cup, shrugging. “Sometimes. I like to dip and dab.” When asked by the other hosts on the panel about her last relationship with a woman, and whether she prefers men or women, she admits honestly: “I don’t know yet, but I definitely like to enjoy myself, and enjoy my youth and…everything.” The response is shocking to me in its freshness, its lack of shame. Azealia seems committed to her pleasure, what Audre Lorde was referring to in her essay, “The uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power.” Who is this person?
The conversation turns to the ongoing “feud” between Azealia Banks and the rapper Izzy Azalea. One of the hosts on the panel summarizes the conflict, for people like me who are fairly new to both Azealia and Izzy, or heard about the controversy and didn’t know what it was. Rosenberg explains that some people believe that Izzy, a white rapper from Australia, after Azealia was already established in the hip-hop world, decided she liked her name, and just took it. As other respected artists in the industry have weighed in on Izzy and the issue of cultural appropriation, including the rapper Eve and Jill Scott, it is clear that this isn’t just a beef between rap artists, or a marketing ploy to sell records; there is a cultural precedent for the conflict and deep historic pain. Its roots go back to Elvis, white and Southern, being crowned “The King” while singing in the style of black artists, many of whom died broke and in obscurity, because they couldn’t get their “race records” played on the radio. It is Pat Boone recording the music of Little Richard – slowing down the tempo and homogenizing the sound to sooth white audiences, and getting rich. If the allegations are true about Iggy Azalea, her appropriation of Azealia Banks’ name reaches a whole new level of identity theft in music. Black people’s sound has been stolen since black music was first recorded, but nobody’s been bold enough to steal the sound and the name.
Azealia responds to Ebro: “I feel in this country, whenever it comes to our things, like black issues, or black politics, or black music, or whatever, there is always this like undercurrent of ‘fuck you. Y’all niggers don’t have shit.’ And when they give these Grammys out [to undeserving white artists] all it says to white kids is you’re great, you’re amazing, you can do whatever you put your mind to, and it says to black kids, you don’t have shit, you don’t own shit, not even the shit you created for yourself.”
The conversation moves to cultural appropriation. Azealia interrupts Ebro, and she is insistent: “Now everybody knows the basis of modern capitalism is slave labor, the selling and trading of these slaves, there are huge corporations that are still caking off that slave money, so unless you motherfuckers are ready to talk about what you owe me, whether the number is 7 trillion, or 8 trillion at the very fucking least you owe me the right to my…identity and not exploit that shit and that’s why we are holding on to hip-hop and rap. ” Azealia is crying freely now in the interview, tears streaming down her face. “[Now] I’ve got to be the bitter black bitch because I have something to say about it.”
At one point, she expresses her frustration with Izzy Azalea’s producer, a black rapper named T.I. - she calls him a “shoe-shining coon.” Later, towards the end of the interview, the conversation turns back to appropriation. Ebro comments on black art in American culture, “and the fact that it’s not valued, even though the contribution of it basically built much of the music that we love in America today. And what Iggy Azalea represents and the fact that she and others, because of their skin color, have been able to appropriate black music that was created by black people and have tremendous amounts of success.”
“They’re trying to erase us.” Azealia is again moved to tears. “All of our books, our scriptures, all of the things that we are supposed to know about ourselves are gone, completely fucking gone, never to be seen again. All those things that created the world are ours.” Azealia describes the African contribution to early civilization. “You read your social studies textbook and all you see are stories of you under some white person’s foot or you and a white person and you are failing.” (While Azealia Banks and bell hooks may not have met or know one another, on one thing they are in agreement: movies like 12 Years A Slave.) “I don’t want to see no more stories about slaves, no more white people whipping nobody in movies because my black story is deeper than[that]… so this little thing called hip-hop that I’ve created for myself, that I’m holding onto with my dear fucking life, I feel that it is being snatched away from me.”
As I’ve come to appreciate her music, I’ve also realized that Azealia, at times, can be hard to defend. Recently she has been embroiled in a new controversy over her use of the word “faggot” in her lyrics. (Being possibly queer-identified herself may complicate things, but doesn’t excuse her.) I watch another Twitter controversy unfold as someone asks the singer - and in some circles legend - Erykah Badu if she ever listens to Azealia. She responds that she “tried”. Azealia, furious, comes out swinging, calls her jealous and tweets about “older artists” and “aging”. Badu could have been gracious and silent if she didn’t like Azealia’s music. The reason why this matters is that while Azealia comes off as arrogant and unappreciative of Badu’s legacy, she is aware that she is being “othered” through the “codes”. “I tried” puts Azealia outside the circle, potentially shaming her for being queer. I’m not saying Azealia is gay, but by openly discussing her same-sex relationship on the radio, heterosexism dictates that anything that isn’t 100% straight is automatically queer, and therefore suspect . The politics of respectability, and particularly the black respectability politics often encountered in the male-centric, heteronormative, heterosexist world of neo-soul, works the same way. Not everyone, of course, should or will appreciate or understand Banks’ music. But “I tried” is shady code for someone who is being put outside the circle by someone more established. I’m fighting for Azealia because she is our wild woman, our blues woman, our “Shug Avery”, our Sula, and while the edges may be rough, I am grateful for them, for the boldness. Respectability politics means we are losing our queers, our freaks. And while we need her to be responsible and not reckless, we need her voice, her anger, her pain and her art.
To find out who Iggy Azalea is, I watch her video D.R.U.G.S. At one point Azalea, white, raps “I’m a slavemaster” and pantomimes a flick of her wrist to suggest a whip in her hand. I can hear my mother: “Who is this little heifer?” It is incredible that Azalea could have even one black fan, and that she hasn’t been deported after that racist display, but on the contrary: she has been nominated this year for a Grammy. In “Pussy” she raps in what looks like a poor black community. Black women’s mouths are featured salaciously through the song, licking their lips, their eyes hidden behind plastic sunglasses. Black men wear tee-shirts that say “drugs not hugs”, a reverse of the recovery phrase, even though we know how crack has devastated the black community, particularly black children. Most disturbing of all is the use of a black male child in the video, who rides a hobby horse, and is never far from Iggy’s reach - he’s a stage prop and oddly sexualized in his relationship to her – he’s her little man. Azalea’s videographers, Azalea, T.I., or the child’s parents, seem to feel no compunction about the child’s being beside her as she sings “pussy” over and over in the song. Clearly, black children are not protected in Azalea’s world. The black women are so dissociated they take no responsibility or possession of the child, and after a while, as one becomes acclimated to the tone of the video, he doesn’t even seem like a child anymore (later he hangs around her neck like a monkey).
YouTube then offers me the link to Taylor Swift’s video for “Shake it Off”, which features a group of black women gyrating in a row with Taylor on the floor underneath them. The video seems to be about what it means to find out where you fit in. The black women are added to the song the way you add an exotic spice to a bland dish. Taylor Swift dances amongst the women but in true segregationist form we never see any interaction with them or these women imposing on Swift’s reality. “Blackness” in Taylor Swift’s world is a lipstick you try on when you’re at the mall with your friends: you purse your lips and say, “What do you think?”, they consider it and shake their heads; “It’s not really you”, you wipe it off with a tissue, thank the saleswoman, and you all go to Cinnabon. And you never think of that shade again. We don’t perceive these women as having lives or individual identities – Taylor Swift is the sole proprietor of identity. In her hip-hop get up, all hardness and chains, she gets to have all the street credit of ghetto life for her fans, with none of the risk or horror, the poverty or the experience of racism that also comes with the “street”.
Madonna has built her career on cultural smudging, but she’s a special case. In her essays, “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister” and “Power to the Pussy”, bell hooks writes critically about Madonna, deconstructing her cultural appropriation and the racist images and captions found in her book Sex. She describes the betrayal she felt as someone who saw the early Madonna as “a vision of freedom, evoking a sense of promise and possibility…intense, into pleasure, yet disciplined”, then watched her take her place in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. In “Plantation Mistress” she writes, “Yet when the chips are down, the image Madonna most exploits is that of the quintessential ‘white girl.’ To maintain that image she must always position herself as an outsider in relation to black culture. It is that position of outsider that enables her to colonize and appropriate black experience for her own opportunistic ends even as she attempts to mask her acts of racist aggression as affirmation…Madonna never articulates the cultural debt she owes black females.”
After her last two disappointing albums, Madonna went back to her “roots” with a new song “Living For Love” which she performed at the 2015 Grammys. The song recalls “Like A Prayer” from 1989, and both songs share the distinguishable voice of a black woman, not just singing background vocals, but very close to the lead vocal line. This black woman singing at the Grammys is seen for exactly one second in the recorded footage and is placed with the two other background singers. Yet she carries the blues in the song, and gives it “black authenticity”. Madonna struts across the stage in blonde locks, wearing a cape, the theme of the performance and the video being Spanish Matador. The dancing “bulls” which Madonna “slays” and who share the main stage with her are black men– we can tell they are black by their shirtless bodies, but they are dehumanized by the bizarre glitter masks that cover their faces. (They resemble the black man that Kathy Bates, as real-life serial killer Madame LaLaurie on American Horror story, tortures and turns into a minotaur.)
If that isn’t enough, near the end a black choir in red robes comes onstage, much like the choir on “Like A Prayer”. In her Grammy performance Madonna encourages the audience to get out of their seats, sing with her, and “Live For Love”. By the end, her dancers hoist her above their heads and she is lifted to glory – “Love’s gonna life me up.” In the video, however, Madonna kills them all and stands over her vanquished bulls, the blonde goddess, triumphant admist the carnage. A quotation by Friederich Nietszche appears on the screen: “Man is the cruelest animal. At tragedies, bullfights and crucifixions he has felt best on earth; and when he invented hell for himself, that was his very heaven.”
It is unclear after viewing - as it often is in Madonna’s work – whether this is a message against brutality, or a call to arms; a video of a feminist in control, not allowing men dominate her, and “winning”, or a rich white woman, exercising her plantation power over the bodies of men of color. The genius of Madonna is that either way, she excites someone, sells records, and becomes richer.
Madonna possibly the shrewdest businesswoman the pop world has ever known, creates a tribute to white surpremacist capitalist patriarchy in the video for “Living For Love” that is fierce enough to mesmerize the gay children, give her political credit for hiring black dancers, and suggest her loyalty to the blues song. One could argue that Madonna, having grown up outside Detroit, isn’t a total cultural smudger, and that her proximity to Motown influenced her music growing up and her relationship to black culture. Earlier on in her career, and with the photo art on her early albums, many wondered if Madonna, Italian and French Canadian, was actually light-skinned black or even Latino. I remember “Borderline” and “Burning Up” were played on black radio stations, too. In “Power to the Pussy”, Hooks notes, “Despite her personal history as a dark ethnic from an immigrant background, Madonna’s mega-success is tied to her representation as a blond. By assuming the mantle of Marilyn Monroe, she publicly revealed her longing to leave behind the experience of her ethnic and bodily history to inhabit the cultural space of the white feminine ideal.”
Madonna dips into the black jar when she needs inspiration, to invigorate her fan base, and especially when her career is in deep trouble. She almost gets away with it, enjoying “blackness” when it suits her, while perpetuating images of white supremacy and engaging “backstage” as a businesswoman in what is perceived by some as class warfare and ruthless capitalist power. Not only is she not held accountable for this, she’s admired for it. Madonna, feminist capitalist race smudger, has something for everyone; everyone - as long as they pay.
Madonna acknowledged in a 2013 interview with the New York Daily News that she survived being raped at knifepoint as a young woman new to the City in the late Seventies. She is admired for being a feminist, despite her work’s being littered with misogynistic lyrics and themes. Hooks, in her essay, recalls a Nightline interview where Madonna “[drew] the line at violence, humiliation and the degradation of women.” Her 2012 album MDNA includes a song called "Gang Bang": “Drive, Bitch. And while you’re at it, die Bitch. Now if you’re gonna act like a bitch, you’re gonna die like a bitch.” (The song is said to be a revenge song for her ex-husband Guy Ritchie, but in the video Madonna sings this line while kissing a woman on the mouth and then shooting her point blank in the chest.) The video and the violence on the MDNA tour were criticized for being timed close to the massacres at Sandy Hook.
Her label, Maverick, also put out the hit song by Prodigy “Smack my bitch up.” The album MDNA, its title both a play on Madonna legacy and another name for the drug Ecstasy, came into controversy when she attended a music festival and asked the audience if they had seen “Molly” (Ecstasy.) Given her large fan base among younger gay men who still too often turn to drugs to deal with the pain of homophobia, her advocacy of the drug is problematic. Part of Madonna’s “Blonde Ambition” seems to be putting messages out there that she would never want her own children exposed to. She asks for a “revolution” at the beginning of “Living for Love” but doesn’t hesitate to use militaristic images, violence against women and racism to juice up her act. Yet because of Madonna’s genius for pop culture, the strength of her brand, and the establishment early in her career of being cool no matter what she does, she’s rarely seen as irresponsible or reactionary by her fans, but always edgy, brave. What is brave about an artist who, at this point in her career, seems willing to do literally anything to gain attention or make money?
On the panel “Are You A Slave: Liberating the Black Female Body”, author Marcy Blackman offers an argument to defend Beyoncé that has been used for Madonna for years: “She’s using the same images that were used against her and us for so many years, and she’s taking control over that and saying, ‘If y’all are going to make money from it so am I.’ There is collusion, perhaps, but there’s also a bit of reclaiming, I think, if she’s the one in control.” bell hooks dismisses this as fantasy, and references Audre Lorde’s oft-quoted, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” “You are not going to destroy this imperialist white supremicist capitalist patriarchy by creating your own version of it. Even if it serves you to make lots and lots of money.” Madonna’s music, at its best, has had the power to unify along the lines of class, race, gender, and sexual orientation. But when she chooses patriarchal domination as a way to express her ”feminine” power, or race as a way to objectify and “other”, we lose the potential of a major artist to her addiction to fame and money.
For years I’ve heard the cultural appropriation jokes about Justin Timberlake: “If that white boy gets any blacker, he’ll have to put a bone though his nose.” In his stand-up, Jesus is Black, Paul Mooney articulates the anger around Timberlake and specifically in relation to 2004’s “Nipplegate” – the scandal with Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Superbowl. Timberlake and Jackson performed his song, “Rock Your Body”, together. Timberlake snatched a piece from Janet’s costume, and revealed her exposed nipple. They tried to maintain that it was an accident even though he didn’t rip a blouse or a bra, he ripped off a piece of fastened leather, obviously fashioned for the stunt. And the last line says, “Cause I got to have you naked by the end of this song.” Mooney asks his audience: “Who was the white man who pulled the tittie out?” When they identify him as Justin Timberlake, Mooney replies, “Justin. That little double agent. Wants to sing, dance, and hip-hop with niggers, but doesn’t want to go to jail with niggers. He [sure] turned white man, didn’t he?” Mooney imitates Timberlake: “‘I’m appalled.’ I said, ‘Oh my God, he is white.’” (Or as a friend of mine says of gentrification: “Wants to be a part of the culture, then calls the police on the culture”.)
Later in the show, when the audience shouts out its gratitude for him, Mooney discourages them, telling them he wants to maintain his reputation as hostile. “I like it the way it is, the way people think of me, ‘Oh, he’s hostile’, I like all that shit…Don’t get too into me…if you get too into ‘em, the white folks, they take them…white people, what we really like, they take. I’ll take you back. Lionel. We were so into Lionel, were we not? Did the white folks take him? They call it ‘the crossover’. Tina. We were so into Ike and Tina. Did they take her? So then she was a rock star. They will do that. They take people. They took Michael. They take people from us. They took James Brown…but they gave him back.”
On a big screen in Trafalgar Square in London there is an advertisement for children’s clothes. The commercial is animation, a group of children dancing in a park. A young white boy in front of the others jumps off his skateboard and begins to breakdance, he does the Wave, he spins, he might have moonwalked – whatever he’s doing, he’s dancing his little ass off while an almost faceless black boy does a two step in the background behind him. I feel the familiar rage, a rage that I can’t imagine the white people I’m with, British or American, can fully identify with. I know where that dance comes from, what it was created from. The white boy in the video is clean-cut with blond hair. And I’m sure there is a clean-cut white boy with blond hair out in the world, maybe even several, who can dance, but that’s not the point. The point is he doesn’t dance beside the black boy, he doesn’t share the dance time with the black boy, he is in front of the black boy, we don’t even see the black boy, he obliterates him. The dance is a cartoon, created from someone’s imagination. I don’t know who made it, but I do know that breakdancing didn’t come from the suburbs of New Haven, Connecticut, and it didn’t come from the black middle class, either – it came from the black inner cities, and, like rap, it is an art-form grown in the soil of rage and poverty and creativity; a dance style that required, in its inception, only pavement and a cardboard box, not the clothes being sold in this advertisement. And if you ask where voguing comes from: the answer from most people in America won’t be the dance clubs, or drag balls held by gay men of color, usually poor, in cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit – you’ll be told that Madonna invented it. If you ask who is the greatest rapper who ever lived, you’ll be told Eminem.
The first time I hear Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” I think it is cute and assume it includes a sample from Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” – a favorite song. Songs with samples, while not quite a remake, can bring a new audience to an artist’s work, particularly one of another generation. Or it can be an uncreative use of an artist’s work – whatever happens the originating artist must be paid. A whole new generation of music, and a genre unto itself, was created in the Eighties and Nineties from the sampling of Sly Stone, George Clinton and James Brown’s creative work in the Sixties and Seventies. Assuming that Gaye was properly credited in the song, I am excited his music will potentially find a new following. (Maybe some fans, after listening to Thicke, will eventually find their way to Gaye’s masterpiece of social commentary, “What’s Going On”.)
Sometime later, the song’s writers Pharrell Williams, rapper T.I. (Izzy Azealea), and Robin Thicke, claim that “their” song is not Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” at all. Their denial is odd to anyone familiar with “Got To Give It Up”; not only does their song contain some of the same “party” sounds in the background, but Thicke sings part of his song in Gaye’s trademark falsetto. More painful than the obvious rip-off is the fact that blacks artists are in on it this time, defending it. “Blurred Lines” couldn’t be more aptly named, and should be made the anthem for cultural appropriation and music theft. Friends of mine refused to dance to it. In addition to its controversy over rights, the song was banned by universities in the U.K. for its disturbing lyrics concerning rape: (You know you want it), and for an explicit video version objectifying (naked) women. In 2013, Rob Scheffield of Rolling Stone called it “the worst song of this year or any other year.”
At the time of this writing, a jury has awarded Gaye’s family seven million dollars in damages, against Pharrell and Thicke, who each made seven million from the song. They still claim no responsibility toward Gaye’s family or legacy. One wonders if Thicke, T.I. and Williams will ever appreciate the debt, the history or the horror behind their betrayal of the blues song – or whether they simply feel they did what they had to do to “win”, to get a Top-Forty hit.
The betrayal wasn’t that Thicke was white; white people can pay tribute to the blues song, and also maintain its legacy. By giving black people proper credit, by paying black artists fair wages and not stealing their royalties, by not denying a black artist her or his rightful place in history, by drawing from the pain of their own experiences and not seeing black experience as “fascinating” or “other”, white people honor the blues song by telling their truth.
And there have been white artists whose respect for the blues song is evident in their work. When I was growing up, white artists were played on Detroit soul radio stations: Lisa Stansfield, Boy George, Tina Marie, Daryl Hall, Michael McDonald. They were welcome because their music was honest; they weren’t trying to be black, they were deeply soulful. Annie Lennox gave a bravura performance at the Grammys, a funky, growly, gut-bucket rendition of “I Put A Spell On You”. You can feel Lennox’s respect for the tradition. Lennox isn’t a cultural smudger. I have been nourished by her work – both as a black man and a gay man. Her freakiness and gender bending in her group Eurhythmics with Dave Stewart was liberating to me as I was defining my sexuality in the Eighties and Nineties. And the thing is, historically black people haven’t discriminated when it comes to who gives us the blues song. My mother couldn’t stand a racist white woman she dealt with at work; but Dolly Parton was like family (something black is definitely going on in Parton’s ‘Jolene’.) I think, more than a little ironically as I watch the television, searching for the blues song from anyone: what is going on when the blackest thing at the 2015 Grammys is Annie Lennox?
Racism could end tomorrow if white people would acknowledge that America is a mixture of European, indigenous and African cultures, and that white people in this country stopped being white the very first time a white baby sucked from an enslaved black woman’s nipple; when the first progeny of master and enslaved took his first baby steps. But we refuse to have an honest conversation about slavery or race. And so it all comes down to our relationship to blackness, to the enslaved African in our historical memory, the boogeyman, the nigger.
White pathology means that white Americans know that blackness is not part of their cultural legacy by some vague association, but integral and essential to who they are. By attempting to destroy the nigger in society, by refusing him money for his work, credit for his art, his equal place at the table, they are destroying a part of themselves. They are attracted to the nigger because he has the answers to the past they are looking for. The problem is, if they truly embrace him as ancestral family, if white America takes the underfunding of schools, and poverty and hunger of black children personally, they can’t exploit them any longer when they grow up, they can’t overwork the nigger for profit. Our black pathology is that we are conditioned to rid ourselves of niggerdom completely in order to become white. We change our hair, our skin, our culture, corrupt our imagination and our children’s perception of themselves to achieve the American Dream. The horror is that by the time we finally achieve “the bluest eye” that we’re conditioned to strive for, we’ve gone insane to get it; we find out that “whiteness”, which never existed anyway, means nothing to us. It’s hollow at the center. Not white people, but whiteness as a construct, as a goal. And we find ourselves on the outside of town, isolated and alone, having abandoned our culture and ourselves to get there. We’ve forgotten our song.
Everything in America (everything!) revolves around our relationship to the nigger or his absence. He haunts episodes of Friends where he is culturally missing, he haunts all Woody Allen movies, and he haunts the Oval Office, even when the president is black. He is the juror who never speaks, as another killer of black men and women is allowed to go free. In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, Sethe’s murdered baby haunts her, won’t stay in the ground, roams the earth. Beloved, dark-skinned on the novel’s paperback cover, a return-to-life bogeywoman, a voodoo woman, nigger, is a symbol of our unspeakable American past. She belongs to and haunts all of us, she has been violated by all of us; and the shock, after all we have taken from her and all we continue to take from her, is that we insist that she remain invisible, we continue to lie about her, or ensure that her story will never be told, even though her story is ours, and the key to our collective understanding, our ultimate healing. She is made a buffoon on TV, she is erased from the Grammys, she is missing almost entirely from Selma, a movie about her movement. Morrison writes, “Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don't know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed.” She is our African mother, sister, daughter, and until we all claim her, as Americans, black and white, until we honor her and her contribution, we will never be able to call ourselves free.
To understand the impact of the Civil Rights Movement on this generation, we have to look at where we've been, where we are. A friend from high school wrote me months ago and asked me to write about what was happened with black women on the television show, Sorority Sisters. Before I had a chance to check it out, another friend called to tell me that Vivica Fox called Kenya Moore a “toxic trick” on The Celebrity Apprentice before she was fired from the show. Something about a stolen cell-phone, menopause. I don’t watch the show, but I know this happening after Fox and Moore ganged up on Keisha Knight Pulliam weeks before for not calling Bill Cosby for money before she was, herself, fired from the show. Pulliam has defended Cosby publicly over the rape allegations, but clearly she was uncomfortable approaching him, even when she was raising money for a charity. Watching the scene in which Kenya Moore upbraids Pulliam as Vivica Fox cries beside her is painful because there is a disturbing subtext: these three black women may suspect why Pulliam didn’t want to call Cosby. Trump says publicly that the taping was done before the Cosby scandal, but that whatever happened, Pulliam should have asked for the money anyway. At the time my friend calls, Pulliam and Fox leave the show, Moore stays. Donald Trump 1: Black solidarity: 0.
It is very easy for me, and perhaps for many of us, to say who gives a damn about Donald Trump, and his show; but pop culture is relentless, especially in this era of the soundbite and social media, the 24-hour news cycle. And like water torture, it’s not just the one story that gets you, it’s one story after another. Individually, the stories may not mean much, but together there is a disturbing throughline to the calls I’m getting from friends: the constant degradation of black women on television.
Larry Wilmore, on his new comedy program “The Nightly Show,” has a panel of famous black men, including Common, for what he calls “The Black Dad Summit.” This is part of his “Keep it 100” segment (100% truthful). Things start innocuously enough until Wilmore says: “We brought up the subject of marriage and how a lot of people just aren’t married any more. Is it because black women are too bossy?” The audience gasps, but Wilmore continues, “Keep it 100.” He then asks on a scale from 1 to 10 how bossy black women are. Two men on the panel nervously refuse to answer the question. Common is finally asked which black women are the bossiest: professional athlete black women, professional singing black women or professional actress black women. Common responds professional singing black women. The men all laugh before Wilmore cuts to the commercial. Black women are humiliated again for being “too strong” and there is a particular assault on black women with careers, as the word “professional” is used over and over. It is distressing that Wilmore would choose to do this segment, knowing that black women have often had to raise their children and work – something honorable rather than a source of shame. These are scars from racism that black men and women share together. And the answer to healing is not to humiliate black women publicly. Wilmore offers the “codes” that make it clear to his white audience that he will abandon black women, his own legacy and every black woman in his family, in order to achieve fame and to “win”.
Wilmore has a sell-out soulmate in Leslie Jones, whose notorious Saturday Night Live skit has to be seen to be believed, and should never be seen. Jones appears in the news section of the show, introduced as SNL’s “image expert”. She is dark-skinned, her hair is natural, and she wears a shirt that could almost be the print of an African dashiki. She is introduced by the SNL news anchor and begins her monologue, a response to Lupita N’yongo’s being named most beautiful person in the world by People Magazine. After congratulating Lupita, she says she is waiting for People to put out their most “useful” list. She asks her host, Colin, whom she refers to as a “delectable Caucasian” to admit if he walked into a club and saw her and Lupita standing at the bar, whom he would pick. He is too shy to respond, so she replies for him: “I know: Lupita. But if you was in the parking lot and three Crips (gang members) is about to whoop your ass, who you gonna pick then?” He tells her, “I would pick you.” “You’re damn right you will.”
Having established herself as a beast who can take on three men at the same time, Jones continues. “The way we view black beauty has changed,” she says. “Look at me, see, I’m single right now. But back in the slave days I would have never been single. I’m six feet tall, and I’m strong, Colin, strong! I mean look at me, I’m a Mandingo.”
Colin nervously asks: “But Leslie, you’re not saying you want to be a slave, right?”
“That is not what I’m saying: I do not want to be a slave. Hell, I don’t like working for you white people right now, and y’all pay me. I’m just saying that back in the slave days my love life would have been way better. Massa would have hooked me up with the best brother on the plantation. And every nine months I’ll be in the corner having a superbaby…every nine months, I’ll be in the corner just popping them out. Shaq, Kobe, Labron, Kimbo Slice, Sinbad. I would be the number one slave draft pick. All of the plantations would want me. I’d be on the TV like Labron announcing which plantation I was going to go, I would be like, I’d like to take my talents to South Carolina. I do believe that there’s going to be a lot of opportunities there for me. Now, I can’t even get a brother to take me out for a cheap dinner. I mean damn, can’t a bitch get a beef bone? Can’t a bitch get a beef bone?”
Colin and Leslie say in union, “Can’t a bitch get a beef bone!”
We’re in hell. Three black women were involved in the writing of this skit, including Jones. It is disturbing in so many ways, it deserves its own essay. I don’t know what is more shocking, the fact that NBC allowed it to air after rehearsal, or that SNL didn’t go off the air the following week. Reading the lines is only part of the assault, there is also the minstrel “cooning” delivery which can only be captured by viewing. And much as I would love to see it disappear without a trace, not giving it an ounce of attention or power, it needs to be transcribed, as a barometer of where we are in America right now, what we feel is okay to say about women, about black people, about black women, and what you can get away with. In true Hollywood fashion, the show must go on, and did.
Black Twitter, however, descended on Jones as if she were Tippie Hendren in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds - chasing, pecking and shitting on her until, bloody, scarred and overwhelmed by the criticism, Jones replied ragefully, “Where is the rape, idiots. I said nothing about rape you fucking morons. I was talking about being matched to another strong brother…” She says that the origin of the skit came from her pain about being single, and that if Chris Rock, Dave Chapelle, or Kanye West handled the same material in their mediums, everyone would say it was brilliant. In a series of tweets, she became angrier and even defensive. “And it saddens me that BLACK PEOPLE bitch and moan about the most stupid shit. I'm a comic it is my job to take things and make them funny…. So here is my announcement black folks, you won't stop me and I’m gonna go even harder and deeper now. Cause it's a shame that we kill each other instead of support each other. This is exactly why black people are where we are now.”
Jones kept her promise. I YouTubed a few more SNL skits starring Jones; in one, Jones is the black Annie, from the musical – she is made to look like Mean Joe Green in a red dress and fright wig. A skit with Chris Rock, about an old, thin, exasperated black man bulldozed by his Mack truck of a wife as they are getting ready for the evening (“If I take a shower too soon, then I get dirty again before it’s time for us to leave”), disintegrates halfway through and is too painful to watch. Jones could be made beautiful, but the show is determined to make her grotesque, clearly with her permission. Jones is a writer and performer and can write and perform whatever she likes. The question is: why has Lorne Michaels, in an attempt to address the criticism of a lack of black actors on the show, chosen this particular black woman to be on television, creating images of black culture for America?
I felt badly when Arsenio Hall’s show got cancelled for a second time, after his network had announced he would return for another season. It felt cruel and I sympathized with him (the brother couldn’t catch a break). All that goodwill disappeared when I saw a sketch he did on his show in 2013. In the sketch, Arsenio acknowledges his staff as “the best on the planet” but says that in his hiring he only made “one big mistake”: he brought his fraternal twin sister, Marsenia, from “Alabama” and made her his head writer. We arrive in the writers’ room. Of the eight writers in the room, all are white and male, with the exception of one black man and one white woman. There are no black women. Marsenia appears in a large house dress with an African-looking print, obese, wearing an “old lady” gray wig and with a large gap between her teeth.
Marsenia doesn’t introduce herself, but walks into the room furious; if they don’t write something funny, “somebody gonna get their ass beat!” She snatches a piece of paper from one of the writers and shouts, “Who in the hell is Lindsey Lopan!” establishing that she can’t read. When the writer corrects her and says, “Lohan”, she takes out her belt and begins to beat him for disobeying her. Marsenia serves lunch, cooked in her crock pot, of “pig knuckles smothered in chitlins”. Everyone looks at the food, disgusted, and the white female writer proclaims she can’t eat it because she is vegetarian. “So was this pig,” Marsenia replies. “Now you got two choices. Either you put that food in your mouth, or I put my foot in your ass.” The black writer in the room grins and says, “I think it tastes great. Good stuff!” We cut to an hour later when Marsenia asks one of the white male writers to scratch her back. When he touches her with hesitation, she says, “No, no, no, up under the shirt.” The audience groans with disgust. “Undo my bra,” Get in there. Stop scratching like a bitch. I got elephant skin, don’t worry.” While Marsenia is relaxing from the back rub, she begins rocking back and forth, and hums in the traditional church house moan. “Make me wanna go to church,” she says, as gospel music plays in the background. An hour later, the white female writer turns around and finds, on the couch, a black man in a pair of shorts, shirtless, eating pig knuckles. When she asks, “Marsenia, who is that man?” Marsenia explains, “Oh, that’s my boyfriend. They fumigatin’ his house right now. I call him Kool-aid because he busts through this every night.” She leans back in ecstasy and the audience groans again at the idea of anyone contemplating sex with someone as grotesque as Marcenia.
I truly didn’t know Arsenio was capable of this. And whoever wrote this skit isn’t completely to blame. Carol Burnett, whose show is still funny to watch after all these years, rejected mean-spirited or sexist skits from her writers, including a racist sketch they came up with about Yoko Ono and John Lennon. In other words, it is possible to say no. Contempt for blackness drove Dave Chapelle away from Hollywood and The Dave Chapelle Show. It’s not that black life can’t be parodied, but in the Marcenia piece there is so much hatred for Southern black culture, and, specifically, black women, that it demands a question: where does this pervasive contempt for black women and their sexuality come from, particularly at this time? Perhaps it reveals a perception that black women are becoming more powerful – a black First Lady in the White House – and constitutes a backlash. Or it may just be business as usual, continuing to perpetuate the “codes” that make it possible to continue to exploit black women, by dehumanizing them in the media. Whatever the reason, one despairs watching a black man throw black women under the bus for “respectability”; especially when his show is still cancelled and that respectability doesn’t even last. They hate you anyway.
What the Jones, Arsenio and Wilmore skits confirm for me is that the blues song is seriously endangered by some of our contemporary black artists. We can never assume again, whether it is T.I. or Leslie Jones or Arsenio, that having a black artist involved in an album, film, or television show will mean that the truth about of black lives will be told. We have a black generation that has embraced capitalist greed like no other. And, unlike the redemptive ending of A Raisin in the Sun, when Walter Lee “comes into his manhood” because his mother has shamed him in front of his own son, reminding him of his ancestral legacy, we have lost the authoritative, balancing, voice of “Mama” in our culture, because of skits like “Marcenia”. Instead, we have a nightmare version of A Raisin in the Sun - no Mamas, no transformation, but an industry of Walter Lees, selling out their history and blues song to whoever will pay them the most. bell hooks considers the cost of liberation in “Are You Still A Slave”: “We know that people don't want to be oppressed, but a lot of times we will remain enslaved because it is just simply easier, it is simply more well paid.”
The consequence of these representations and images is more than just a feeling of embarrassment for the black audience watching themselves humiliated; it is death. As we watch one of these skits after another, black and white audiences experience a process of social conditioning. Under the guise of entertainment we are taught the value of a black life.
University of Chicago professor, author, and activist Cathy Cohen, in her lecture “Do Black Lives Matter, From Michael Brown to C.C. McDonald: On Black Death and LGBTQ Politics” said: “For me, Michael Brown’s death is deeply connected to the killing of Sakia Gunn and the attack on and incarceration of C.C. McDonald… not because of [Brown’s] sexual practice or his identity, or his performance, but instead because [they]…as well as other young folks of color, operate in the world as ‘queer’ subjects, the targets of racial normalizing projects intent on pathologizing them across the dimensions of race, class, gender and sexuality, while normalizing their degradation and marginalization until it becomes what we expect, the norm. Until it becomes something we no longer see or pay attention to.”
We become so inured to black lives’ being treated contemptuously in our entertainment, black women’s being “othered”, that most of us don’t even protest against it, especially when it comes through the vein of comedy. We watch black women degraded on television, black men arrested on “Cops” - shows which our police officers, our juries, and our judges also watch for amusement. We call it “comedy”, which means it somehow isn’t harmful, unaware that these sketches, and other representations like them, influence the medical care that we as African-Americans get and how a doctor may perceive a black body, influence where our children get into preschool, influence the person who steps in front of us in line at the supermarket, influence whether we ask our boss for a raise at work, influence whether we are passed up for a promotion, influence the saleswoman who waits on us when we are buying clothes and the look she gives us as we ask for a fitting room, influence our daughter’s eating disorder and her skin-bleaching, influences the "micro aggressions" that black students experience on all-white college campuses, influence the fate of our son walking at night in a hoodie in a Florida neighborhood that someone decides he doesn’t belong in. Just a skit, just a television show, just a video, and yet hundreds, thousands of de-humanizing images of black men and women. It is impossible to separate what is occurring in the American cultural imagination of black life from what happened on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.
Most of the images and themes we contend with aren’t as blatant as Jones’ SNL skit, but may damage us in ways that are much more complex, bringing out our ambivalence about what we are seeing, as we are nurtured and poisoned by our entertainment at the same time. On Scandal a black woman is sold to the highest bidder, during an episode that aired during Black History Month. We watch as one white man after another, some in passion, some in violation, run their hands through her hair, kiss her neck as she responds with ecstasy, at other times with revulsion. And yet Scandal has impressed many people as a show about a black woman who is independent, runs her life (and everyone else’s), and appears in control. Empowered black woman or the same old mammy stereotype, only dressed in Prada? (Joshua Alston, in his review of the Scandal episode “Where’s The Black Lady?” for the A.V. Club writes, “It’s so entertaining, it takes a while for it to register that Scandal—often the top-rated show among African-Americans—is about a black woman who helps a white Republican president get elected through voter disenfranchisement. Seriously, let that marinate for a minute.”
A friend of mine recently re-watched Diana Ross’ Mahogany when it came on television. I’ve spoken with several black women who loved the film growing up. It was more than just a movie, it was an iconic representation of what was possible for them as black girls. Watching the movie as an adult, my friend felt betrayed by the storyline at the end which she hadn’t remembered from her childhood: Diana’s Tracey Chambers gives up her career as a self-made international model and businesswoman and goes back to Harlem to stand by her man, Billy D. Williams, who is running for office. When considering the earlier part of the film as Tracey rises to the top, making her dreams come true, the ending is infuriating. But one can’t dismiss the movie entirely and how it may have been empowering for girls to see a woman believing in herself. We learn to take what sustains us, and hopefully leave the rest.
Fox’s television show Empire, still early in its run, has already set records for viewership. Empire is about Lucius Lyon, a terminally ill former rap star who runs his own record company, his three sons who may take over the company one day, and Cookie, the ex-wife who went to prison for him, helped him start the company with drug money, and has returned now to get her share. Empire is compulsively watchable, and seems to be presenting a progressive message in the character of the gay son. It has arguably gone farther than any black show on the themes of homosexuality, and is directed by a black gay man, Lee Daniels.
I am on the subway in New York when a group of men speaking a heavy Jamaican patois enter the train. The music in their voices recalls reggae dancehall songs. During college, I traveled to Jamaica as part of a study abroad program. The teacher who traveled with us cautioned the gay men in the group to be very careful going out in Kingston, given the homophobia in the culture, and in the music. I learned to associate that voice with the potential for violence. Now, I overhear one of the men telling the others about watching “his story” on his iPhone. (“My story” is language I am used to hearing from women who enjoy soap operas.) He turns to his friend, surprised. “You never watch Empire?” and begins to give his friend a plot summary. I don’t know this man, or anything about his life or his friends, but they seems heterosexual. I consider what it means that Empire is “his story” and the fact that a large portion of that story is about a gay man standing up to his father’s homophobia. The empathy of the show is definitely with the gay son. Let’s face it: it’s not a great time to be black and homophobic and a TV watcher. All the major “black” shows have gay story lines or sympathetic gay characters - Empire, Scandal, The Haves and The Have Nots, Being Mary Jane. A black lesbian friend of mine has been trying to have an honest conversation with her mother from years about what it means to be a gay woman, but things always dissolve into acrimony and tears. Together, however, they are watching the character Jeffrey on The Haves and The Have Nots deal with his own homophobic mother, as his father David stands up to her, and accepts his son completely with love. The man on the subway leaves the train telling his friend about Jamal on Empire and the revenge on his homophobic father. It is clear from his tone he is laughing with Jamal, not at him. Perhaps the world is changing.
What isn’t changing or progressive on Empire is the use of the dark-skinned black female characters on the show, especially Gaborey Sidibe, an Oscar nominee, who plays Lucius’ assistant. Morbidly obese, and dressed unflatteringly and in at least two episodes with her bra strap outside her blouse, Sidibe is essentially, at least at the time of this writing, a walk-on part. One suspects that her weight is used for comedy because there is no role yet defined to speak of. Cookie’s assistant Portia is offered to the audience for a different kind of laugh as she rolls her eyes, drags her feet when told to get drinks, and is told to fetch things. Cookie, in a pique after an argument with Lucius, throws one of her high heels at him (“Portia, get my damn shoe.”). Portia is given the side-eye by almost everyone in the cast at some point for being uncouth and country and overall a beat off. Most of the time she’s too distracted or dumb to realize she’s the butt of the joke. One wonders, except for comic relief, why the character exists at all; in the real business world, Portia’s incompetence would have gotten her fired after the first episode. There is nothing wrong, inherently, in a character like this. And she may even become an audience favorite; outside the bounds of “respectability” we may get truth and authenticity from a character like Portia. But she shouldn’t have to be humiliated for it. If it is only the darker women who are unsophisticated, marginalized, stupid, carry the suitcases and are used to get laughs, and the light skinned characters are the “honeys”, the “hotties”, the women given diamonds, furs and marriage proposals, we must ask: Do shows like Empire have to trade issues of respectability, progressive in sexual orientation, regressive in race, as they exchange one trick bag for another?
It is disappointing that we are still playing race games in 2015, when some of the greatest truths of black life have come from dark-skinned actresses. There is a clip in Lisa Gay Hamilton's beautiful documentary Beah, A Black Woman Speaks, in which actress Beah Richards, in the last year of her life, guest-stars on the television show The Practice in 2000. Beah is in the advanced stages of emphysema, and as in her documentary, is filmed with an oxygen tube in her nose. Her performance, like the rest of her work, is revelatory, and wins an Emmy, her third. Beah plays a battered woman who later admits to killing her partner in self-defense. The character admits to her daughter during a deposition: “He was at me. I told him before, ‘You take your hand to me again’...And he did, right across my face, like so many times before. Then I saw it there…the board. I didn’t mean to kill him. Just swat him down…I killed your Daddy. I did.”
As Beah weeps in her wheelchair, the power of her art is deeper than an actor’s concentration – it is a commitment to being that flows through her. It is easy to despair that Beah is gone, and wonder if she might have taken the standards for the black artist in America with her. Then Cicely Tyson appears opposite Viola Davis on How To Get Away With Murder. Tyson, at 81, is energized, angry, and ready to work. It completes a necessary cycle, watching these two extraordinary black female performers on the screen. They give a master class in acting and history, and it feeds us. With Lee Daniels, Tyler Perry and Shondra Rhimes in the driver’s seat, we may get stereotypes and things we object to in their projects, but we are also getting the blues song - black characters and situations we haven’t seen on TV before, and black mothers and daughters, perhaps for the first time on television, talking honestly about childhood sexual abuse.
We recognize black cultural life and the blues song instantly when Cicely, as Ophelia, snatches the covers back from her daughter, Annalise, who has locked herself in her room, depressed, for weeks. “Get your butt up out this bed and take a shower…get up!” And then moments later, realizing how much pain her daughter is in, takes Annalise in her arms, kisses her cheek and tells her, “Mama’s here now and everything is going to be all right.” Ophelia is interesting, a real character: she’s capable of being loving, and, at the same time, clearly, an asshole. It is wonderful to see Cicely in the part; she has played all our black heroines and historical figures throughout her career – now she can relax and have some fun.
When we see Tyson and Davis together we may even let out a shout of joy, unaware of how hungry we’ve been for these characters, these actresses together, these mother/daughter scenes. Annalise says to her mother, who insists on calling her by her real name, Anna Mae, “I’m asking you to respect the fact that I changed [my name] and to honor my request.” Ophelia snaps back, “What the hell are you talking about? Respect the fact and honor your request? Who the hell do you think you are, Oprah? I wiped your ass and I will call you anything I want.” I know black people are laughing all over the country at this scene; not at the situation, exactly, but in recognition of truth. (I got a version of that speech when I came out of the closet.) This black mother feels real: she’s not a monster, but she doesn’t have a heart of gold, either, or a big black lap with room for the whole world to sit in.
We discover that Annalise was raped as a girl by her uncle. Later in the episode her mother admits to multiple sexual violations in her own life; by the reverend of her church after choir practice, a man in the home she worked for, and several men she dated. (The reference to Anna Mae has to be a deliberate one by creator Rhimes: “Eat the Cake, Anna Mae, Eat the Cake.”) Anna Mae curls up at her mother’s feet and submits to her by the end of the hour, allowing her to comb through hair that is kept natural against Davis’ dark skin – no wigs in this scene, no weaves. (Some people are calling this the blackest moment ever in the history of network television.) We see the character Anna Mae as a wounded little girl through Viola’s performance, we see the woman she has become to avoid pain, and how much she needs her mother, needs those hands to touch her now. We think of Pecola Breedlove no longer having to search for the bluest eye after all, but tenderly having her hair combed, her truth believed, and pain caressed, finally, by her mother’s hands.
Two weeks before she died, Beah Richards did a final interview for the documentary. She said: “The black actor…has the opportunity to catch the conscience of the audience. If he is portraying a human being he has the opportunity to make them remember.” In a final act of defiance and Civil Rights Movement sass, Beah had her ashes scattered over a Confederate graveyard. She revealed through her work that, with conviction and honesty, the truth about black life and its blues can be revealed. The story Beah tells through her acting is one that is deeply, soulfully, majestically female and black. And we can all rejoice in that song.
“Be mindful that the world that you want to live in, and that you need to live in, needs you to create it. It needs your input. The world needs to hear what you have to say. The last word has not been spoken. The last word has not been spoken.*
Beah Richards, Beah A Black Woman Speaks
In the hallway of our building there is an abandoned bear made of brown construction paper, his arms outstretched as if to receive a hug. A little abused from the snow outside and curled at the edges, I know he belongs to the son of the new neighbors on our floor because Milo’s name is on the back. My partner and I are on our way out for the evening and haven’t much time, but we knock on the door. Susan, his mother, greets us with warmth, releasing into the hallway the smells of an early dinner being prepared. She smiles when she sees the bear and invites us in. We tell her we can’t stay long but wanted to give Milo his artwork. Milo runs around the corner, sees his bear and reaches for it eagerly. It doesn’t seem to matter to him that water from his walk home from pre-school has warped the paper slightly, and one glued-on eye is missing. He holds it with pride and tells us it’s a grizzly bear. Susan reminds him to thank us. It’s the kind of project from school that Moms will put on refrigerators until the end of time.
I met Susan briefly when they first moved in and I’ve seen her in the laundry room once or twice; she has a certain harassed beauty and usually seems to be efficient and in a hurry, but I’ve always found her friendly. She touches Milo’s dark curls briefly before putting a large pan of vegetables into the oven, and apologizes for the state of the apartment and any noise that Milo may have made earlier - there were some tears over having to take a nap.
Susan needn’t apologize; the room is organized despite scattered paper and crayons on the living room floor, and the apartment is warm with her attention and Milo’s enthusiasm at our being there. Four years old and white, he seems fascinated by what I’m assuming is the first interracial gay male couple he’s ever met. In our polite small talk we learn that Susan’s husband often works late, that we grew up and went to college in the same part of the country and are about the same age. We talk about the books she is reading to her son, how she still has the copy of the book Free to Be You and Me that she owned as a child and how much Milo loves the music from the album. She is reading him all our old childhood favorites, including Charlotte’s Web. At the mention of Charlotte, Milo stammers urgently about spiders, cobwebs and pigs, something that mostly makes sense to him. Susan touches his head again affectionately. He is at that very young age where he intrudes into the conversation no matter who is speaking, and we indulge him. We talk about school, and their being in New York City after moving from where her husband taught at a liberal arts college upstate. Milo’s new daycare is great, she confides. The old one was wonderful too in many ways, but there was no diversity, the children were all white. Although she stage-whispers the last part, Milo is also at the age where he seems completely oblivious to the adult conversation around him, and then, suddenly and direct: “Mommy, what does ‘all white’ mean?”
We all exchange a look and smile sympathetically at Susan (“and on that note…”) as we begin to take our leave. It is clear that after finishing dinner, tidying up his latest project and putting him to bed after a bath, there may not be enough time to explain race in America this particular evening. Milo returns to playing with his bear and accepts Susan’s “I’ll explain later, honey” this time. He has no idea, of course, how profound his question is. And Susan may be able to put him off tonight and perhaps the next night if it comes up again. And it will come up again. She probably knows that if she doesn’t answer, he’ll eventually ask someone else, and it may be the wrong someone else.
We say goodnight and leave them to their dinner, but as we hit the cold air outside I think about Susan and mothers and fathers all over America, black and white, who have to answer that first question about race every day. Susan seems firm and alert, a bright mother, and honest; yet I wonder how one prepares children for the reality of race in America without flooding them with cynicism and despair. How does one not transfer one’s own fear to that face so eager for answers, about a subject that continues to be, even in 2015, and for too many of us, deeply heartbreaking?
Milo is young enough to exist in a world enchanted by books and music, a world where Susan stands protectively at the gates. But the day will come when she won’t be able to protect him, where he will venture beyond her reach and have his own relationship to race, to the internet, and popular culture. I consider Milo for a moment, and what boys become.
The next morning a little girl gets into the elevator with her father, Chris. Kayla is a baby, learning to walk and holding her daddy’s hand. She is testing her independence, every step a wobbly accomplishment; at one point she takes a bold leap forward, stumbles and slams back onto her buttocks. She pauses for a moment to meditate on what has just happened, searching her father’s face for a reaction. He smiles and she decides not to cry. When she stands up with the hand he offers her, she presses her face into his leg and holds herself up, eventually examining us. He tells her, “Say hi, Kayla,” she pokes a lip out and then, still unsure, she offers gently: “Hi”.
She is so small in comparison to her father’s leg that she is like someone peeping out coyly from behind a large tree. She holds onto a small purple cup, and I notice that her dark hair has been braided lovingly with small red barrettes. I recall my sister as a baby, and think about Kayla’s father, who looks about Susan’s age, speaking with his daughter about race when she starts school. One day perhaps he will also read her Charlotte’s Web. What will he tell his daughter about race, about boys, how he will prepare her as a black woman? I consider the world she deserves and the world that awaits her.
Kayla and Milo will probably never meet, but I imagine a magical storybook place where they can know one another for even a day before the indoctrination begins, before he takes his place as “white” and she has to defend against being “black”, before all the man/woman gender crap. I wonder if Milo will ever really see her, or she him, without the filter of pre-conditioned fear and hate. I want them to be something new, something braver than the rest of us, in a world where she can know joy as a woman and not be punished for it, or for her fierce independence; where he can become a man, strong, but with the courage to stay lovely, a man who doesn’t have to harm a woman to feel powerful, one who listens. Still, knowing the world they will inherit, and what people become, I can’t help but wonder: will someone call Kayla a “toxic trick” or not listen when she is on a date and says no to sex, will Milo grow up to be macho and violent, goaded into a masculinity that emphasizes bullying to prove who he is to women? Or a man who chooses fear when a black man walks through his neighborhood. If Milo does become that man, will he remember he was once a boy who loved stories of pigs and cobwebs, making grizzly bears from construction paper; once young and innocent enough to question his mother about what whiteness was?
“That’s my daddy. I wish I could tell you his name. His African name. I wish I could tell you who he was. Because he remembered something of who he was. Something of who we were lingered in my family memory. Something of that primordial history, when we came here from the sea, over yonder…My father remembered something. And so did my mother. Not in the language, not in words. But enough to know that we did not live by the same code that other people lived by.”*
Beah Richards, Beah, A Black Woman Speaks
“I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.”
What I remember most about my great-grandmother is the last year of her life. From the moment she woke up in the morning until she fell asleep, she played Mahalia Jackson. You couldn’t walk into her home day or night without hearing Mahalia. I was fascinated by the records with the red Columbia labels, all stacked on her turntable at the same time, three or four deep. Each record would drop with a flat, smacking sound and the needle would jerk, finding its place on the record, and, after a bit of crackling, Mahalia’s voice, accompanied by a piano, would fill the room. All my other relatives kept Al Green, The Staple Singers, Earth, Wind and Fire, and Isaac Hayes in their collections. But these were the only records my great-grandmother had. And perhaps one other: what sounded like “old-timey” stuff to me and my sister; Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s music, which my great-grandmother also craved now and then. Songs like, “When I Come to the End of My Journey (He’ll Understand And Say Well Done)”. When the last record finished, whoever was visiting knew to stack them up and play them all again.
She was a quiet woman in a gray wig who lived in a musty house with plastic-covered furniture in a faraway place called Cincinnati, Ohio, and whom we would see now and then when we visited my grandmother. I didn’t understand why she never got tired of Mahalia’s “Walk in Jerusalem” or “There is a Balm in Gilead”. Sometimes we didn’t even talk when we visited her. My mother would just hold her hand, and Vannie Lou would rock a little in her chair, or they would sit and Mom would pat her hand, share whispered conversations and cry together. My sister and I weren’t allowed to go out and play in the unfamiliar neighborhood, so we explored the old house. And when we got bored, we’d read, or argue, or look for something to eat. But there really wasn’t anything to eat except old people’s food and stale candy in crystal bowls. There wasn’t a TV, not one with enough channels anyway, and all the magazines were old too – Jet magazines from the Sixties, sometimes with Dr. King on the cover. There didn’t seem to be anything in that house but an old woman, stale air, and those Mahalia Jackson albums. Vannie Lou, whom my mother sometimes affectionately called Broadie, would go to sleep each night with those albums playing. When it was time to go and my great-aunt arrived, my mother kissed Broadie’s cheek affectionately as we left. I know that when my great-grandmother died in her chair that same year, Mahalia’s voice was the last voice she heard. That’s why it means something to me that Ledisi paid tribute to that voice in Selma. And though she will never know it, by singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” on the soundtrack album in the style she did, she also paid tribute to many women of that generation, including Mahalia Jackson and my great-grandmother, Vannie Lou Whipple.
When my father died, I went through his papers and read my grandparents’ letters to him when he was at camp, and later in college. He was a Southern boy who went to school in the North, and who was homesick, at times, I’m sure, for fishing with my grandfather in a nearby lake, for my grandfather’s Sunday sermons, and the doting of the older church mothers who could melt any heart with a ‘Come here, baby, and give me some sugar’; the basic protection of black church life that he’d known since he was a child. Growing up in Michigan we would get care packages from my grandmother – the yellow hominy grits, canned salmon, sweating lemon pound cakes wrapped in aluminum foil, boxes that smelled of moth balls and her house in South Carolina and must have given my father a feeling of comfort and familiarity. My grandparents were college-educated, “dignified” and respectable, which is why I was surprised to read the letter in which my grandmother told my father about the rabbit that she and the Reverend accidentally hit and killed with the car on their way from visiting relatives upcountry, how she took it home, and with fresh carrots from the garden made a delicious rabbit stew.
The letters are uneventful and indicative of Southern life; easy conversation in the rhythms which I never really understood growing up in the North that Southern way of saying nothing and everything at the same time; letters about church gossip, about who got a scholarship to school, who didn’t and now had to find a job, who got married, who had a baby, who dropped by after church for Sunday dinner, who won the high school basketball game. And then in the middle of a letter that my grandmother had just enough time to dash off after some church business or before the Saturday night task of picking up and folding church programs for the next day’s service, there it would be: some line about blacks arrested at lunch counters, a visiting preacher talking about civil rights, Dr. King on television. I’d seen all the movies, watched all the TV shows, but suddenly my grandmother’s letters made everything real. The Civil Rights Movement actually happened. I could imagine my grandfather, as a Reverend of his own church in the deep South, shaking Dr. King’s hand, listening beside my grandmother to one of his great sermons.
I recalled a brief conversation I had with my grandmother when I was in junior high school. Visiting my grandparents and bored, I picked up a book in my grandfather’s study that had a section on lynching. The one I was reading about occurred in South Carolina. I knew we had country relatives. We’d visited them once when I was very young - young enough to be mesmerized by chickens running free, a cow somewhere in a field, maybe a pig. My grandmother was cooking when I mentioned what I read, and she said in a hushed voice, even though we were alone in the kitchen, “I know about that family and that man you’re reading about. Your cousins in Antreville don’t live too far from there.” She wiped her hands efficiently on a dishtowel and we were interrupted by a church-related phone call. I regret that I never asked her about it again. But the look on her face and the intensity of her whisper told me more about Southern life than I could have read in a history book.
We live among ghosts. They speak their stories through us, and walk through the houses of our memory. And they beckon for us when it is time to cross over. They are dead now, my great-grandmother, my grandparents, my mother, and now my father, who died in 2007. I knew some of the stories they told but I feel stupid for not asking more about the Civil Rights Movement when they were alive. There is so much more to know and understand about black life in America during those years. I was too young to ask my great-grandmother anything, really. I was only a child when she died. But as an adult man, I’ve often wanted to know her.
I download onto the phone the Mahalia Jackson songs I remember hearing at her house. The music is immediately familiar but somehow not quite the same. I need vinyl. I buy a used copy of one of Mahalia’s albums, on the red Columbia label. When I drop the needle onto the record, the scratches, pops and crackles begin and “Walk in Jerusalem” fills the room. I listen until the end of side one, turn it over and play it through to the last song, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen.” When the album ends, the record goes around and around, scratching and popping and caught at the end of the vinyl, into infinity. The silence at the end of a record before you pick up the needle is a song in itself. The crackling is strangely soothing and I think about my great-grandmother. Sometimes I feel alone in this life, but I know that something of her and my mother, sitting together in her parlor and quietly holding hands, lives forever in this music.
And that’s why it matters that I find my great -grandmother in the movie Selma. Why I need just one scene of black Southern life, of a woman like my grandmother cooking extra food because Mrs. Daniels is sick and shut in, and the women in the church are helping to feed her until she is well. Donald Trump can make all the money he wants, and fire as many black women on his show as he wants, but he’ll never be rich enough to know the dignity of women like my grandmother, sitting by another woman’s bedside and feeding her soup, one trembling spoonful at a time, as part of a community that values a black life.
These women have been memorialized in our black literature and film, women like Maya Angelou’s grandmother Annie Henderson whom readers may recognize from I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Henderson ran her own country store in Stamps, Arkansas for years, protected her own disabled brother from the persecutions of the Ku Klux Klan, and raised Angelou and her brother Bailey, teaching them how to survive the vagaries of a black Southern life. Lena Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun risks the possibility of racial violence against her family when she buys a house in a white neighborhood. Mattie Michael in Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place nurses her friend and surrogate daughter Ceil back to life after the accidental death of Ceil’s own child. And Mrs. Louella Bates Washington Jones takes home and feeds the young boy who attempts to snatch her purse in Langston Hughes’ beautiful short story, “Thank you, Ma’am.”
But I don’t have to describe these women to you or remind you of them. You know them, you’ve met them, they ride the bus every day, they clean your house, they’ve raised white children, they’ve raised their black children and their grandchildren. There is an older black woman who stands as America’s conscience, compelling us to justice. It is her cry, embedded in the black American gospel song, a scream for her children sold from her, whom she knew she would never see again, a black woman who gets up every morning and goes to work, who chooses to love even when the country she faces is aggressive and loveless, continuing to kill her black boys and violate her daughters.
The Civil Rights Movement is one of our great American adventure stories. It’s also a love story. These stories don’t require complicated subplots about infidelity, White House treachery or infighting between activists; they come dramatized, they just need to be allowed to unfold truthfully. The problem with making a film about the Civil Rights Movement without certain essential elements is that later generations won’t understand the truly heroic feat that the movement was, what it meant to lock arms and march, to work in unison - black men and women together. And God knows we need to see these loving scenes of black men and women: we are too often reminded in the media of the pathology of black relationships. We need to know that black men and women can be functional, can rely on each other, and did; that Martin counted on Corretta and Mahalia, that Diane Nash counted on John Lewis, that Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund worked together for Autherine Lucy and James Meredith, that Myrlie Evers had Medgar Evers, and that we couldn’t have made it during the Civil Rights Movement without these stories of love; love of a shared vision.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the March in Selma. In addition to a commemorative march that took place this month, a number of activities have been scheduled in Selma to remind us about its legacy. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Justice Department has released its report on Ferguson and determined that the city engaged in unconstitutional policing, unlawful conduct, racial bias. To hear the report, it sounds exactly like Selma, Alabama, 1965. We have a Republican party so virulent in their racism, that they are willing to commit treasonous acts, threaten our national security, and disgrace the office of the presidency, all in order to humiliate the black Commander-in-Chief. Once upon a time when white folks in political office forgot they weren’t the Ku Klux Klan, we had sitting presidents who called in federal troops to enforce the law. Now, clearly, we’re on our own. Our Civil Rights heroes and our soldiers shouldn’t be allowed to die in vain. It is obvious from what is happening in this country, that black life is still under siege. A movie tells us one man came and got the job done; but history tells a different story.
As I was completing this piece, I reached out to Dr. Nell Braxton Gibson, activist, educator, and author of the Civil Rights memoir Too Proud to Bend. Her account begins with the assassination of Medgar Evers, a close friend of her father’s John Braxton. As Gibson was a student activist herself during the movement - walking on picket lines with her friends, participating in mass demonstrations, registering first-time Black voters, and spending time in jail in Atlanta, all while studying at Spellman College - I asked her about her thoughts on Selma. She liked it, feeling that it was superior to other commercial films that have tried to capture the feeling of that time. Gibson, however, shares my frustration with the depiction of Diane Nash. “She is one of the reasons I was able to see myself as part of the movement…one of the people I most admired in those days. I could not believe how smart and tough she was when dealing with adults like Robert Kennedy - just amazing.”
I recall my experience in the theater watching Selma, and wonder what Gibson, whom I consider a hero, would want children to know about the Civil Rights Movement. “The one thing I think is important for today's children to know is that those of us who participated were ordinary young people just like them, we didn't become heroes until decades later. That they have it within themselves to make remarkable changes in the world.”
Selma will take its place with other Civil Rights Movement films, providing one filmmaker’s vision of that time in American history. Yet despite the film’s success, our great Civil Rights Movement film hasn’t been made. Our great documentary, however, has: Eyes on The Prize. When you watch the black and white footage, the hoses turned on the protesters, the dogs raging, and the joyous singing, the resilience, the determination, you see something so wondrous happening in the human heart that you have to smile, you may have to shout, you may even dance, but you will definitely understand: herein lies the Holy Ghost power that enabled us to risk our lives, to walk on, to march on, to dream a world. And no matter what came after, or where we are today; the fact is, by standing up together, by standing up for each other - we won.
New York City . March 15, 2015
*Quoted from Beah, A Black Woman Speaks, A Film by Lisa Gay Hamilton, 2005
**Quoted from Eyes on the Prize, PBS
Image: Alabama civil rights movement: Selma to Montgomery march: Iakovos, Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy (Monday, March 15, 1965)
Photo: Jack Rabin collection on Alabama civil rights and southern activists, 1941-2004 (bulk 1956-1974) , Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University. Via Flickr and a CC license