On The Help, Viola Davis, And "Black Art" Vs. "Negro Respectability"

Tomorrow night, the Oscars take place, and film adaptation of The Help is expected to sweep the Oscars. I’ve already written about what I think about The Help, a movie I had hoped would go quietly into that good night. Instead, it’s ignited many debates about the lack of roles for Black actresses, Black art, and once again, class in the Black community, even if no one wants to call it “class.”

I don’t dispute that, if things are tough for light- and medium-brown-skinned African American actresses in Hollywood, they are terrible for darker-skinned sisters, for colorism is still alive and dropping its stinking poop all through American society.

I know that things are tough for Viola Davis to get a role. You’re not going to hear me disagree with that. But I am going to say that, “I can’t get a role” really translates into “I’m having a hard time paying my bills.” And so, those of us Black folks who have loudly criticized The Help have been cast as Bourgie Villains who stand between a Sister and her money.

And that’s not all. Not only do we Bourgie Villains want to keep a Sister from paying bills, we’re also embarrassed by her playing a maid on screen.

And that’s where I get mad.

See, my mama worked as a nanny back in college during the summers. And further, my granny–her mother–worked as a maid. And I took a job as a nanny once in college as well, but after I discovered that the White lady who hired me not only wanted me to see about her child but also, clean her 4000 square foot home (which was under construction and producing sawdust every ten minutes) while the little girl was sleeping, and I refused to do all that for five dollars an hour, I got fired. This is a true story.

We’re coming to the close of Black History Month, so let me say that this sort of Black class debate has taken place in many realms of Black American life for over one hundred years. For example, W.E.B. DuBois was about what I will call Negro Respectability, an African American remix of the European concept of “The Politics of Respectability.” Essentially, the “The Talented Tenth” theory set forth by DuBois was just an extension of his championing Negro Respectability.

And of course, inherent in those remixed “Politics of Respectability” notions were the following:  marriage is good; homosexuality is bad (if even acknowledged); patriarchy—the man as head of the family, etc.— is good; higher education is required; and above all, Negroes must exhibit gentile behavior that does not “transgress” the social norms at that time for upwardly mobile behavior. And they had to do all that while wearing tailored, tweed suits.

Booker T. Washington, on the other hand, was the Black Working Class champion. In my opinion, his views evidenced a different, “red dirt” form of Negro Respectability, one that was about the survival of Black folks who didn’t have access to higher education and so, they couldn’t dress up in tweed suits and teach at Historically Black Colleges.

Publicly, Washington was an apologist for segregation and cautioned Black political patience and Black hard work; he did not believe in pushing for racial equality. His famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech set off the first Official Black Beef in the history of America—between W.E.B. DuBois and Washington—and from that point, it was on between the Black Working Class and the Black Middle Class/Black Bourgeoisie.

Depending upon whom you ask, one of these Brothers emerged victorious.  Of course, DuBois won the intellectual battle. There is still plenty of shade thrown Washington’s way by African American scholars and academics, but Down South when I grew up, plenty working class Black mothers were still giving their male children “Booker T” for their two first names, too. That ought to tell you something right there, so really, it’s a tie.

There were contradictions in both men. W.E.B. DuBois was all for Negro Respectability to the point where he “fudged” parts of his early life when writing about them. Now, it’s clear that he was not heir to a great family legacy, but rather born in very humble circumstances, essentially fatherless and raised in a 19th century version of the “hood.”

Though publicly, Booker T. Washington was about digging in field dirt and skinning and grinning to white racists, the man built an institution of higher learning for the descendants of slaves—Tuskegee Institute which still stands today, now Tuskegee University—in the middle of racially terrorist Alabama, and unknown to his White benefactors, he was testing segregation laws in the court through his lawyers.

And so, things have never been clear about class in Black America and where  Black folks stand. For example, I’m conservative when it comes to certain things—like public language, public dress, belief in God, and manners—and very radical when it comes to others—like feminism, sex, anti-homophobia, kindness, and art.

Sidebar: Yes, I said, “Sex.”  But what I mean by “sex” is none of your business. That’s my conservative side coming back out.

As an artist—a writer—who has violated the “politics of respectability” in the service of my own art, I’m all for transgressing acceptable notions of behavior. I’ve talked about being a domestic violence survivor. I’ve talked about being a rape survivor. Heck, I even named my own father as my molester in print, much to my mother’s and family’s chagrin.

If anyone knows what it feels like to transgress acceptable behavior, I do.

Yet, my transgressions have occurred for a reason, and not to dissolve or exhibit my own pain.  I had counseling for the pain.  I write about my pain in my art not to examine the different kinds of lint in my own belly button, but to hopefully connect and heal a new generation of women, like Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez and Lucille Clifton did for me.

But transgression in art should be in service of something important and higher. Not in service of your financial hustle. Or in service of your ego. Or even, in service of the problems you had with your daddy who you still love like nobody knows and understands (even you).  If not, all you are accomplishing with your transgression is enacting a public tantrum and running with scissors.

So what does this all have to do with Viola Davis and The Help?

As a middle class/Black bourgeoisie African American woman, I would love to see more depictions of Black people like me on the silver screen, depictions that don’t make fun of or demonize Black middle class people, as we are wont to witness these days a la Tyler Perry.

That said, I’m a mixed class Black kid (and I’ve written about this before, too). Yes, my daddy was Black Bourgeoisie, but my mama was from the red dirt cotton fields of Georgia, and I’d also like to see more complex depictions of poor and working class Black folks, too.

For example, it would have been nice to have seen one Black man in The Help who stood up for a Black woman instead only a Brother like Minny’s abusive husband, or another who left Abilene to fend for herself in the middle of the street during a burgeoning race riot.

I grew up with working class Black men who would die for the dignity and honor of a Black woman, like my uncles. I believe my mother’s story of the time that a White man came to the house one day and cursed in front of my grandmother. When he wouldn’t apologize, my papa Charlie told his son to get his gun.  This was in the late 1940s when such an act in central Georgia could get him and possibly his entire family killed. And by the way, that White man got in his car and drove on home.

And I saw working class Black women, like my granny, who would cuss somebody like a sailor if they pissed her off, but only Monday through Saturday.  (She was the cusser in the family, not Grandpa Charlie.) On Sunday, she was a dressed up, do-right acting, child of God.

But yes, I saw some in the outside community—who shall remain nameless—who would beat a woman in the middle of the street and mothers who abandoned their children to go Up North.  I’ve seen much. I’d like to see that same “much” in films about working class Black people. I’d like to see some complexity.

I’m not upset with a “Black maid movie.” I’ve seen a few I’ve loved, including A Long Walk Home starring Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg. But that movie featured a Black woman who had a rich life outside of her White folk’s kitchens. The Help does not. And I do not believe that Viola Davis, a Black woman born in the early 1960s who is classically trained at Julliard, can believe what she said at the NAACP Image Awards, that Kathryn Stockett (the author of the book the movie is based on) told “the truth.” Or that she wrote “art.”

Child, please.

What bothers me most, is that Viola Davis is singing that well-worn spiritual of “I’m A Black Artist And I Have A Right To Work” in order to shut down criticism of her acting in The Help, like with Tavis Smiley  on his show. And now, her “artistic choices” are being defended as transgressing Black Middle-Class values by others, instead of keeping on the real question.

And I’ll ask it: Why is it that we Black folks must keep seeing these flat, one-dimensional depictions of Black people–supposedly ourselves– in the movies? Is this really the best Hollywood can do?

Sure, I enjoy having a reasonably good FICO score as much as the next Sister. But it’s not that I need to see heroes or doctors or lawyers or Tuskegee Airmen as opposed to drug dealers or absent fathers or crack addicted sex-workers–or maids.

No, what I need is to see some real Black folks and real stories–whomever is on the screen.

Sidebar: And while we’re at talking about what I need, I could do without that sweeping, emotionally manipulative soundtrack that reminds me of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in concert whenever I see Black folks on screen, too. Geez Louise in Heaven.

I’m not trying to knock Viola Davis’s hustle, but in the final analysis, it is a hustle. Or maybe, in the final analysis, it’s not a hustle, depending on which Black person in whichever socio-economic class that you ask.

But you cannot tell me in the ultimate final analysis that The Help is complex, good Black art simply because a complex Black artist acted in it.  Sometimes, complex artists of whatever complexion make bad art. (I know I have.) And you cannot tell me that The Help is the best movie that any filmmaker, Black or White, could have made on working class Black life.

I think that both W.E.B. and Booker T. would agree with me on that.

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Lucille Clifton: Spell/Woman/Poet

Anybody who knows even a little bit about me knows that Lucille Clifton is my absolute favorite poet in the world. That might have something to do with my loving her so much—as in present tense, even though she joined the ancestors two years ago today. She was my friend and my beloved mentor, a real gift to me in this world and, I believe, in the next.

But it’s one of those strange things. Do I love Miss Lucille (as I called her) so much because her poems were so good or are the poems so good because I love her so much? Or, would I have loved her anyway, even without the poems?

I don’t know and guess what?  The thought of living in a world where Lucille Clifton did not create poems for me to read is a frightening brain moment. So let’s move on before I linger there.

I celebrate Miss Lucille three times a year now. I celebrate her on February 13, the day she passed on to the ancestors who lived with her in her spirit and in her poems, and that is understandably a really sad day for me. But then, I celebrate her again on Mother’s Day, because she had six of her own children whom she adored and I considered her a second mother. And then, I celebrate her one more time on June 27, her birthday, which is seriously happy occasion, of course.

I just love to celebrate Miss Lucille—and celebrate with her!

Those who know her poetry know that I’m referencing one of her two most famous poems when I say “celebrate.” Here’s a link for those of you who don’t know that poem. Read it and–I hope–become deeper in your soul. There’s audio, too! 

And here some other great Miss Lucille extras:

A biography of her on the Poetry Foundation website.

“Homage to my hips”, her other most famous poem. All sisters with glorious, big booties need to read this poem at least once a year.

Here’s a podcast I did almost two years ago with a circle of Black women to celebrate Miss Lucille’s birthday. This is a special podcast, including Miss Lucille’s firstborn child, Sidney, and National Book Award winner Nikki Finney. (When you click the link, go to “Episode 8” to begin listening!)

And here’s a wonderful video of Miss Lucille and Quincy Troupe, one of the great poets of the Black Arts Movement, and just a Down By Law Cool Brother as well.

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Lucille Clifton with Quincy Troupe, Conversation, 21 May 1996 from Lannan Foundation on Vimeo.

.Enjoy! And celebrate. Miss Lucille is up in Heaven poeming with the ancestors and having a good old time with her husband, Mr. Fred, and two of her children who passed before her.

And she’s eating hot dogs, which she absolutely loved. And I just know she is looking very cute in a really colorful blouse, because she sure could wear an outfit. I miss her so much, still, but I hope if I’m good down here, I’ll be able to join her one day in Heaven. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, for real.

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Why I'm No Longer A Black Poet

Robert Hayden

“Why I’m No Longer A Black Poet”

………by Reginald Dwayne Betts, ………PR Guest Blogger

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Forgetting is the gift to folks who don’t mind circling the same wagon, year after year, decade after decade. It seems that is the case for black poetry in America, this circling of the wagon, a perpetual seeking of place and definition. How one manages racial identity in these fifty states has become something that can always be mined for content and controversy.

I’m thinking about Robert Hayden and about his position on the infamous question, “Am I a poet, or am I a black poet?”—that “to be or not to be” used to bludgeon African-American men and women who write in America.  It’s what prompted the 1966 Black Writers Conference at Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee; it was an historic gathering of writers, civil rights workers, and others to discuss the image of the Negro in literature.

At the Conference, the poet Robert Hayden remarked, “Let’s quit saying we’re black writers writing to black folks—it has been given importance it should not have.” His remarks preceded those of Melvin Tolson, who famously went on to proclaim, “I’m a black poet, an African American poet, a Negro poet. I’m no accident – and I don’t give a tinker’s damn what you think.”

This contentious encounter is all recorded in the June 1966 issue of Black Digest, and if you aren’t careful, after reading the account of this encounter, you might walk away thinking that Hayden’s and Tolson’s poetics were a world apart. But read a bit of Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia and you will find Tolson doing what Hayden did time and again: write about black folks with a serious sense of wordplay, with panache. Tolson’s poetry makes this public spat over the question all the more interesting, and all the more redundant.

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Melvin Tolson

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The backstory to this is everything Robert Hayden’s writing has taught me: Nat Turner, the Amistad Mutiny, all those figures from the (Detroit) Paradise Valley series, Bessie Smith, the meticulous emotional turmoil that was the Middle Passage, Paul Robeson – all names and historical moments that are but a sample of what I found early on in his verse. I think that I benefited from having read Hayden before I had any real idea that I wanted to be a poet, because at that time I read him alongside Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Lucy Terry and countless others, including the anonymous authors of the Spirituals and Work Songs, without yet having a social or historical context.

There is no one that could walk away from the Hayden’s Collected Poems not knowing these poems were soaked in what it meant to be black in America from slavery to beyond the 1960s. Hayden was the guy with narratives, history, myth. He dropped science in a way that the other poets I read just weren’t.

At this point, it’s almost a waste to go into comparisons between Hayden and poets of the Black Arts Movement. Any such comparison would be more about personality, less about poem. And at the end of the day, Hayden maintained an exquisite balance in his poetry, work that didn’t seek to demonize or make heroic the figures that found their way into those poems.  Hayden sought less to grant historic black figures anything (be it humanity or heroism) and more to carve a truth out of words that didn’t exist, exactly that way, before they were written. When I first learned of the Fisk Conference controversy, of Hayden’s not wanting to be referred to as a “black” poet, I hadn’t thought about how naming can be akin to handcuffing.  And frankly, I left that issue alone. I wanted to be black because I already had been black as a failure and so I wanted to be black as a success.

For me, being black, wanting to be a writer, wanting to engage in the world larger than my block and my fears, have been about using color as the first filter. I was the kid who wanted to know why we read Shakespeare in high school and not Chinua Achebe, the kid who read the Stolen Legacy and waxed poetic about how Aristotelian thought was stolen from a library in Egypt. My mind was the constant playing of Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back—and I had yet to hear the album.

The thing is, you get older. And when I did, I recognized how racial solidarity addled my brain. My obsession with race became more important than the history I didn’t know.

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Langston Hughes

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In “The Negro and the Racial Mountain,” (1926) published in The Nation, Langston Hughes did not argue for a singular blackness, but I read it that way, missing the part where he wrote, “If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either.” No, I was stuck on his chastising Countée Cullen for his desire not to be known as a “Negro poet,” his wanting to be brave where Cullen seemed so awkwardly afraid of his blackness.

This craving worked as gift and detriment for me. And it was silly.  At the time, I viewed black poetry—all black literature—as a kind of service literature. The problem, of course, is that the best of black literature is far more than service, even when the writers are completely devoted to a kind of service. Ultimately, when I am moved to shirk racial symbolism, it’s partly because no one wanted my wearing “race” when I ran wild in the streets, and partly because there is a little dishonesty in the ordeal–as the idea of blackness too often replaces the fact of blackness. And so, a group of black writers who scrape with words to create a world gets reduced to: “X confronts his black identity (or decides to abandon it).”

What has been lost as I enter into present, public conversations about black literature is the myriad ways of conveying blackness. Conversations about “blackness” always overshadow the elements, the sounds, the nuance, the slang and vibrancy that reduce regional distinctions in African America to places where words become worlds. In having discussions about what it means to be a black poet, I forget that my moms went to work at four every morning without having to name herself “black” anything. That my folks, all of them, lived fully in their black skins, and, when need be, discussed racism and dealt with it—but they needed no obsession with adjectives. None of my friends who aren’t writers or reading the books about “post black” use these terms, or talk about them. They talk about the cost of daycare, of healthcare, of rent – and I imagine there is a poet singing his songs right now who only will be noticed for writing “black”—or being black while writing.

All of this returns me to Robert Hayden, whose “blackness” was called into question because he, like Cullen, didn’t want to be relegated to a literary ghetto (like today’s black literature section in popular bookstores). I’ve come to realize that black poets’ racial solidarity has become tantamount to another restraint: our thinking about black poetry has been reduced to how and why we represent racial issues—and our commitment to language has been allowed to fall slack. We will not call it service literature, but we do want it to serve.

I have found access within the black literary community and felt at home, but that community sometimes has looked askance at me when I’ve admitted to feeling at home at largely white institutions, too. As the saying goes, I am “the Negro of the moment.”—And yes, there is a trace of truth to this saying, but the idea behind it is corrupt and corrupting. Am I to understand the entire history of literature and black folks in America as merely a succession of chosen Negroes?

What is apparent is that the erasing of history that goes on is layered and complex. If you aren’t careful someone will dress you in a beret and an Afro pick before your first good line is written, or they will have you referring to your complexion as a mere coincidence.  It’s all from the same bag, a not-so subtle-way to erase the nuance out of you.

Sometimes the black community that raised me is a far cry from the community represented in the work I read, often the work I write. Sadly, many of the people who are my “black” peers display an overwhelming gap in information. But our poems dance. They dance before a crowd that has no sense of literary tradition. (Or does). They dance before those most concerned (if concerned at all) with what moves them, and little else.

And at a time when we black poets must demand our presence be acknowledged, must scrap and badger with decision makers and power holders of largely white institutions, we have survived, in large part, due to racial solidarity.  Yet, this same solidarity has now lead to a climate where to criticize the work of another black writer is tantamount to racial treason.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe these aren’t real issues issue at all.

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I want to say I stopped being a black poet when I discovered that black poets had the audacity to question Robert Hayden’s authenticity—but the truth is that it is deeper than that. The truth is I have found myself longing to be fuller in my own skin, to dismiss the rhetoric that surrounds what it means to be a black poet and find a way to write a poetry that better reflects the sounds I hear in my sleep, the sounds I hear when I walk down the streets that are most familiar with me – and the sounds that I hear when I am in a strange place filled with black faces.

At the Fisk Conference, Robert Hayden ended his speech by saying the blackest thing ever said at an academic conference (at least to me). Speaking to those whom he expected to disagree with him, Hayden remarked, “Baby, that’s your problem, not mine.”

With that statement, he took it back to where the truth always exists: don’t listen to what a person calls him- or herself, just listen to what is said when the guards are down. And the proof is always in the poems, because if your guards aren’t down when you go to that necessary place, then you were lying before you even started.

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Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father of two sons. His memoir, A Question of Freedom (Avery/Penguin 2009), won the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction, and his collection of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010), was awarded fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, the Open Society Institute, Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop and Warren Wilson College. As a poet, essayist and national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, Betts writes and lectures about the impact of mass incarceration on American society.

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Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes!

Today, I want to say Happy Birthday to Mr. Langston Hughes. I think there’s something very appropriate about his birthday starting off Black History Month/Afropalooza and I hope you do, too.

Langston Hughes is just The Man.  And really, that’s what this blog post is about, how fabulous Mr. Hughes was/is.  This is Black History Month, yes, but this also is a blog for grown people who I hope can do their own reading. But I will say that Langston Hughes—along with Zora Neale Hurston, who I must get to sometime during the course of this month—is the most well known creative writer of the Harlem Renaissance.

To read about the Harlem Renaissance as a literary movement that produced several geniuses—or, I should say, several geniuses produced the Harlem Renaissance—click here.

Because I’m doing a bit of writing on the Harlem Renaissance for my real job, I’m going to focus on some of the figures of that time in the next twenty-eight days. Did you know this is leap year? Not only is Black History Month my favorite month, but leap years are my favorite years because I get one extra day to Afropalooza!

Sidebar: Yes, Afropalooza is both a verb and a noun. When I make up words, they are multifunctional, like pig meat grease. Tell me something.

And if you want to read an extensive biography of him and the gajillion books Mr. Hughes published—I told you he was The Man—please click here. This is the best bio I’ve read of him so far.  It’s really excellent.

So let’s get to why I love Langston Hughes so much.

Like many African Americans of my generation, I learned to recite poetry by memorizing Langston Hughes’s poetry as a child in elementary school. I attended Fayetteville Street Elementary in Durham, North Carolina, a bastion of Black History in its own right.  North Carolina Central University was there—formerly North Carolina College at Durham—and the wealthy Spaldings lived in Durham; they were the founders (in 1898) of the first African American life insurance company, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance. I was in a Brownie troupe with one of the Spalding descendants; my mother was extremely proud of telling people that, too, much to my embarrassment.

And I know that some of my Black readers know at least one Langston Hughes poem by heart. Who can forget “Mother to Son,” the favorite poem of female talent show contestants at predominately African American high schools and colleges across this country? All I need is to recite the first five words, and many Black folks can recite the next eight words.

Well, son, I’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

And I don’t know one Black poet who doesn’t know “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” I can’t recite by memory the entire poem, but I bet you any Black poet can tell you the last lines of the poem.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

By the way, it’s because of Langston Hughes that I developed a fondness for colons in my poetry! I just love a colon in a poem. It’s really cute on the page, don’t you know.

To honor Mr. Langston Hughes Otherwise Known As The Man, I am posting my favorite ever poem by him.  The poem is called “The Weary Blues” and it’s the title of Mr. Hughes first published book.

I could tell you why I love it, but then again, I can’t. I just do. And I don’t want to find reasons. It’s like loving a person. It’s just a feeling inside, and I don’t care if no one else approves. That’s that real love.

And guess what?  I found out that I can actually purchase “The Weary Blues” collaboration of Langston Hughes and Charles Mingus! You know I cannot live any longer without owning that collaboration. My life will not be complete without it.  I’m ordering it today.

Here’s a link to podcast about the Hughes/Mingus collaboration. And here’s the poem below.

The Weary Blues

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Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
……I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
……He did a lazy sway . . .
……He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
……O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
……Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
……O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan–
……“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
…….Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
…….I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
…….And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more–
……“I got the Weary Blues
…….And I can’t be satisfied.
…….Got the Weary Blues
…….And can’t be satisfied–
…….I ain’t happy no mo’
…….And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

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Afropalooza Starts in TWO Days! Are You Ready?!

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

On February 1, my favorite month in the whole, entire year starts. That’s right! It’s almost Black History Month! Or, as I have renamed it, it’s almost time for “Afropalooza”!

I had the “palooza” part, but I just couldn’t  figure out the rest. One of my brilliant Twitter followers helped me by going through a few suggestions, and then we came up with the perfect name.

But why “Afropalooza”?

Well, for me, Black History Month is not only a month of education, but celebration. It’s the time that I can reflect on those African Americans who have done great things for this country, and quite frankly, I can give thanks that none of them were wearing saggy pants and diamond encrusted, gold grill fronts—and thereby Embarrassing The Race—when they did all those great things.

Their fashion sense is enough to celebrate, because back in the day, Black folks who worked for the race usually dressed cute in their pictures.  So not only were those people doing good, they were looking good. (See how pretty and neat and dignified Mrs. Ida B. Wells-Barnett looks in her picture?)

But there’s even more extra-goodness.

There are those classic African American films in which the Black folks are front and center. Not any of that African American “sidekick” stuff where we only exist in the movie to stroke some White lady’s hair or listen to her boyfriend troubles because we have no men of our own. Or where we only exist to get killed around minute twelve in the movie while the White hero dodges a bullet. Unh-unh.  We live through the whole movie and our hair gets stroked and we’ve always got a man.

And in many of the films, Black-on-Black love is a focus. Who can forget James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll in Claudine? Or, Abby Lincoln and Ivan Dixon in the great (admittedly, more than a little bit patriarchal) Nothing But a Man?

And ooh! Billy Dee Williams and Diana Ross in Mahogany AND Lady Sings the Blues!

Sidebar: Ladies, If you’ve never watched Lady Sings the Blues, once you do, you will never get past that scene where Billy Dee—he doesn’t need a last name—is sitting in the audience listening to Diana Ross—but she does need a last name and I don’t know why—and his face is covered in shadow. But then, he lifts his face. And then, every woman in the theatre or living room or wherever you are watching the movie starts screaming. Because Billy Dee is just that fine, even with that perm of his.

Look, don’t  nobody care that Billy Dee was one of only ten Black men in America who wasn’t wearing an Afro in the early 1970s. I would have run my fingers through Billy Dee’s politically anachronistic hair in a minute. I’m trying to tell you what I know.

And then, there’s African American music.

During Black history month, I can listen to the many African American musicians who made music and didn’t once call women the h-word or the b-word in their songs,like Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday and Scott Joplin. (I’m just being random here. There are so many.)

Or, I can read the great intellectuals and activists like W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Anna Julia Cooper, on down to people like Malcolm X and Audre Lorde. Or I can look at the artwork of artists like Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Faith Ringold or Kara Walker. Or I can be grateful for the contributions of inventors and scientists like Madame C.J. Walker (no relation), George Washington Carver, Daniel Hale Williams, and others.

And I can read (and recite) wonderful poems and stories and novels by Black writers. Let’s go all the way back to Phillis Wheatley, who published the first book of poetry by an African American, in 1773, and then come up to Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Huston–author of My Most Favorite Novel in the World, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Edward P. Jones, and Toni Morrison–and Audre Lorde again, because she was every woman.

Is it any wonder I call it Afropalooza?

Sidebar: this year, I decided that I would choose a “slept-on” African American novel for my blog followers to read. I’ve chosen Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams, which is an absolutely wonderful book. And we’re going to have some Twitter Lit Chats about it! So stay tuned for directions for the Afropalooza Book Pick Club.  You know you want to!

Now, I know some of my new readers (who may or may not decide to come back and read the blog, which is absolutely their choice) may be All Blacked Out right about now.

If so, I’m going to keep it real with you. This is a Black blog that keeps African Americans at the center of the discourse. I make no apologies. Why? Because I’m, like, Black, and it’s, like, my blog. And if you think I’m changing just to get hits for a blog I don’t even get paid for, well, you’re going to be disappointed.

I say the following with all the love and respect I have inside me.

Listen, if my own aunt who told me I’d never be happy if I didn’t get married and have kids couldn’t change me in thirty years–and by the way, I’m very happy– do you really think some complete stranger I’ve never met will cause me to change?

And feel free to go ahead and leave mean comments for me. As long as your comments don’t contain profanity and hate-speech, I’ll be more than happy to publish them!

In the words of the great African American comic Flip Wilson, “What you see is what you get” with this blog. If you loved my latest post, you’re probably going to keep on loving subsequent posts.  If you hated it, well, I can’t do much except say I’ll miss you when you’re gone.

And here’s another thing.

Please know that during Black History Month, you’re going to see me feature a bunch of real light-skinned folks mixed in with darker folks. Those light-skinned folks are not “biracial” or “half-White”—they’re Black. Why? because they identified as Black, and proudly.

So just because you might think that someone who is not one hundred percent African should identify as something else, guess what? You don’t get to choose how someone identifies what culture he or she feels comfortable in. That person gets to choose.

That’s right, I said it. It had to be said.

I don’t throw shade on any other “race” or culture. I just love myself. And in my opinion–which I have a right to have–being Black is completely fabulous. Which is why I have such a big ego right now. Yes, it has its hardships, but I’ve survived.

If Harriet Tubman can free a hundred folks from slavery, I think I can get over the saleslady following me all around the store because she thinks I’d risk going to jail for stealing a thirty-five dollar blouse.

And no,  I don’t want to be lighter or have straighter hair. And no, I don’t wish some Angel of Jesus would come down from heaven and free me from the so-called misery of being Black. What I wish is that mean, prejudiced people would get some [insert expletive adjective] home training and some more love inside themselves.

But let me be clear on something–crystal clear because in the past three days people have been misquoting me and taking me out of context left and right. It’s quite amazing (and annoying).

Under no circumstances am I dismissing or attempting to demean folks who choose to call themselves Biracial or Multiracial instead of Black. (And don’t you dare try to say I said that.) I give Biracial and Multiracial folks all the respect and glory of naming themselves, which is their right. The point is, it’s their choice, not mine. And it’s not your choice, either.

But it’s also not the choice of Biracial or Multiracial folks to go back through history, look at people who had White or Indian parents/ancestry, and then try to insist that “blood quantum” means that a person who identified as Black back then wouldn’t be Black now. Guess what? Most of these folks are dead. All we know is what they called themselves then. And they called themselves Negro–which means “black” in Spanish–Black, African American, or Afro-American. And they didn’t want to be anything else. Deal with it, pretty please.

So Happy Two Days Before Vanilla- and Buttermilk- and Caramel- and Chocolate- and Coffee-Colored Folks Who Decided They Had The Right And Privilege To Love Themselves Fiercely and Call Themselves Black History Month, y’all!

And let the fabulousness begin!

Below, I’ve included that iconic scene from Lady Sings the Blues. You really need to watch the whole thing to get the full effect, but if you are impatient for The Moment, it occurs around minute 2:25.

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Guthrie Ramsey’s New Single from THE COLORED WAITING ROOM (Available Today!)

Today, I’m so excited because I’ve been waiting for weeks for the release of the first single from Dr. Guthrie Ramsey’s musical project, The Colored Waiting Room and it’s finally here!  Much of Black Social Media has been buzzing about this project for weeks. I know I have.

Before I get to the sassy part, let me give you the fussy, academic stuff. Please be patient, now.

Hailing from the “Up South” Mecca of South Side Chicago, Dr. Guthrie Ramsey is a former elementary and high school music teacher who earned his Ph.D. in musicology at the University of Michigan. He’s the author of Race Music: Black Cultures From Be-Bop to Hip Hop (University of California Press, 2003), which was named outstanding book of the year by the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. Dr. Ramsey also has the distinction of being recognized as a Thurgood Marshall Dissertation Fellow at Dartmouth, a DuBois Institute Fellow at Harvard, and a recipient of the Lowens Award, from the Society for American Music for best article on an American music topic. Currently, he’s the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA.

Now here’s the good part.

What I like about Guthrie Ramsey is that he’s a “regular brother” who just happens to also be a seriously brilliant musician with his own Philadelphia band, Dr. Guy’s Musiqology. And you’ll see his brilliance and the beauty of his music when you download (for FREE) and listen to “Stolen Moments,” the first single off his new CD, The Colored Waiting Room, sung by the inimitable Denise King.

But you now why I’m even more excited? Because “Bruh Guthrie” (as I call him) asked me to contribute a “meditation” for the first single!  Here are a few lines from what I wrote:

….now when can you come over? Maybe around midnight, later? It’s been a while. (If you like, I’ll say please.) I miss you. You miss me. Of course, I know you do. You miss how we…

Sidebar: Y’all didn’t know that side of me, did you?  Please don’t tell nobody that sometimes, though I am always ladylike, I’m not always well-behaved.

To read the rest of my “Stolen Moments” meditation inspired by the beautiful single sung by Denise King, and also to see a fabulous short film about the entire project known as The Colored Waiting Room, click here and scroll down.  (It’s a different site from the download site.)

And have a great weekend! I know whenever I listen to new music, it always makes me feel good.

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Reginald Dwayne Betts: Black Poetry, the Night, and Notes on Forgetting

Hey Y’all:

I’m so excited to introduce Reginald Dwayne Betts, who has joined PhillisRemastered as a regular guest blogger!

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father of two sons. His memoir, A Question of Freedom (Avery/Penguin 2009), won the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction, and his collection of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010), was awarded fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, the Open Society Institute, Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop and Warren Wilson College. As a poet, essayist and national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, Betts writes and lectures about the impact of mass incarceration on American society.

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“Black Poetry, the Night, and Notes on Forgetting”

I.

The fourth of July weekend, 1997, found me bracing myself for cuffs once again. Already in prison I was headed for a cell all my own, a little spot in C Building to celebrate my lack of freedom. The reason I was going to the hole isn’t as important now as it was then, the invented assault on an officer charge then a way to demonstrate how little control I had over my own life and now a point of humor.

The only relevant part is that I ended up in that single cell on the bottom floor, in the summer time when the heat was so oppressive that men would strip naked and lay on the small plastic covered mattress with a cup or two of water poured over them. A makeshift cold bath. Nothing of the situation had me expecting my life would change, nothing of the situation expected me to find the one thing I’d get from prison and hold on to forever, as if it were some life line.

This was my second time in the hole, and I’d already learned that with a book I could deal with my cell door never opening. Quickly I learned that despite the library cart not coming to the hole there were hundreds of books back there. Books that were read and passed on, having either been brought back there by people who had time to think before they were hauled off to solitary, or snuck back there by guards and the housemen who worked those hallways, passing out our meals, cleaning showers and sweeping the hallways under the not so careful watch of the C/Os.

One day I stood at the steel grill of my cell door, and shouted down the hallway for a book, any book, to read. Moments later Dudley Randall’s “The Black Poets” was tossed under my cell. Up until this point I’d never heard of Robert Hayden, of Lucille Clifton, of Sonia Sanchez. I’d never heard of Nikki Giovanni, Etheridge Knight and so many others. You were expected to read the books and pass them on–so I began copying poems long hand in a little blue folder. And this is how I became a poet.

This is also why when I think about poetry, when I hear people saying that poetry saved their lives, I imagine it to be true. What I learned when I came home is writing can exist in a superficial way in the lives of those who claim to love it, that it could be reduced to arguments that did little to advance the art, little to interrogate the art, but much to lift the intellectual status of the arguer. I found myself in those same conversations, sometimes leading them.

It has all been a manner of forgetting what it was like when the stakes were so high that the frivolities of my own criticism were lost in my pursuit of the poem that didn’t need me to criticize it. Back then I knew two poets, and didn’t talk about poetry much to anyone, and it was enough. Now I know scores of poets, and talk about poetry often, and it is often not nearly the bread it was before.

II.

A few days ago, maybe a little longer, a friend of mine told me that I was a poet in the MFA generation. I had no real idea what “the MFA generation” was, but in retrospect understood some of what he was saying. We, a generation of writers who became writers under the academia sponsored tutelage of other writers, our readings directed and in some ways predicated on the institutions we went to, are susceptible to having gaps in our hearings. Which is to say gaps in the writers who we have been encouraged to take as literary mentors.

The argument is that for the black writer, this is more troubling, because if one is to accept the authority of the institutions that degree us, one must, almost, also accept that barring any reclamation projects (i.e. Zora Neale Hurston) that the writers of color who were not acknowledged as writers by this hugely generalized beast called academia are not writers of quality.

He misses the point though, because even where he is correct, it isn’t the fault of the institution that we forget writers. Writers have and always will be forgotten. Alan Dugan won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his first collection of poems and I can’t recall any poet ever mentioning him to me. I went through undergrad at a fine institution without once reading Steinbeck or Faulkner, while majoring in English. I also didn’t read many writers of color outside of classes that fell under the rubric of African American studies. But this is besides the point. My friend, fine writer that he is, has chosen (in this brief conversation) to advocate agitation over the work.

I am not a poet of the “MFA generation,” if there is any such thing. I understand that it is a clever way of framing a conversation about all that literature in America lacks, but in the end it fails to discuss what is vibrant, or even what one can do about the missing pieces, or why the missing pieces are important.

Regardless, I am a poet of prison, which is to say that if you have been to prison you might understand fully how almost every conversation for me appears a sort of circling the wagon, of returning to some point where the nights were bleak and what I saw out of my window was barbed wire. I blame those nights for making me a poet, and blame those nights for introducing to Neruda and Knight, to Brooks, Alexander, Baraka and Hemingway.

All of which is to say that I was introduced to authors by my own whim, and am a bit disappointed in what I’ve forgotten, disappointed in how some of what drove me to want to write has been dismissed by writers and writing programs I have been a part of without me acknowledging that those poems carried something that drove me. We should be disappointed in what we forget and what others fail to acknowledge, but the idea that it is not totally our duty to do the remembering (in ways that move beyond critique and complaint) strikes me as naive.

In 1997, the second collection of poems I purchased was Michael Harper’s anthology Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep. I remember reading a poet in there, Sherley Anne Williams. She first gave me the idea to write poem as epistle. Just a few days ago I was searching for her name, and couldn’t find a trace of those poems anywhere on line. I did find a Sherley Anne Williams who wrote “The Peacock Poems,” but wasn’t sure if that was her. A friend pointed me to the journal Callaloo, where her series of poems (the series I remembered) “Letters From A New England Negro” were published.

Williams’s first collection The Peacock Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award when it was published. Yet, her name too, I have not heard mentioned, have not mentioned myself. So now, as a free man, with a wealth of friends who are writers, I find it harder to discover and rediscover poetry that I should love than I did when I was in prison. And I ask myself why, and I’m convinced that the problem, if there is a problem, is that black poets have been tricked into believing that there is this homogenous thing called the “black community.”

And so we imagine that we get what we need, we must get what we need, because we are in this community. But we lack—and we bicker, and we complain. And while those these are great, and are indeed vital, we (this fictitious, homogenous whole) seem not to remember with the same ferociousness that we bemoan the forgetting. And then we fail to discover why we do this. Or to remember.

None of this is to argue I’m innocent in any of this. I think it’s to say that in prison I hoped to find a community where I could raise my children, and they would say with pride that, “Such and such used to come by my dad’s house, it would be him, him, her and her and they would be talking about poems and drinking and cursing and laughing.”

That my children would say this and be amazed each time that they thought about it how vibrant the arts community I was apart of was/is—and my biggest failure as a poet is that I have not worked to create that kind of community around myself, being far too concerned with the trappings of national recognition than the happiness of true community.

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Dr. King Died So You Could Call Me Names (And Other Truths)

I attended a Historically Black College, and King Day was a super big deal. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, so that meant that the Alphas on the campus of Talladega College, my alma mater, used to go crazy on the holiday, which was both a day of pride and sadness, considering the way that Dr. King died.

The question would be asked, what did Dr. King make his sacrifice for? In The Untelling by Tayari Jones, one of her characters is fond of saying, “Is this why Dr. King died?”

Back then, the responsibility hung heavy on my shoulders and those of my peers, and though that burden was ponderous on King Day, it rested there throughout the year.  If we failed, we failed the same community King shed his blood for. The question of why he died—the ultimate message of his sacrifice—was  broached by African American community as a way of reminding us of great responsibility.

King did not die so we could become criminals. King did not die so a Black man could beat his wife or rape a woman. King did not die so we could drop out of high school before graduation.  And so on and so forth, etcetera. And those were the big things.

But not calling another Black man or woman out of his or her name, well, that was the absolute minimum.

Okay, so now, you’re thinking I’m the millionth Negro who’s writing an essay to say, Dr. King did not die so we could call each other n—-r or  b—h or h-. But guess what? That’s not this blog post. This blog post is about difficulty.

See, dying is a hard thing. In fact, it’s the hardest thing there is. There’s no coming back from death, and despite my Christian faith, I’m not sure there’s anything beyond death. It could be nothing, a nothing that goes on forever and ever and ever.

And if dying’s the hardest thing there is, and Dr. King did that, why are we living, breathing Black intellectuals so afraid that we won’t be liked anymore by other Black people that we won’t tell Black people the truth?

So, in celebration of Dr. King’s birthday, I’ve decided to be that rare Black intellectual who’s not afraid of risking my Black Passport by telling other Black people things they don’t want to hear. I’m going to tell the truth.

First things first.

If you are African American and you call another Black man (or woman) the n-word even if it’s not in real life but on a record, you’re not creating art.

Art is hard. Art is difficult. Calling someone a mean name is easy. You are not smart if the n-word is the first word you reach for. What you are is lacking in imagination. And you’re embarrassing me, The Race, and your mama.

Yes, using the n-word falls under your freedom of speech. And it’s also my freedom of speech to tell you that growing up in the ghetto and then making a lot of money does not mean you’re a genius. It means, your setting such a low bar makes it easier for me to make a living as an academic because anybody with a vocabulary above fifty words who went to graduate school will really look like a genius compared to you.

I guess I should thank you profusely, but again, you’re embarrassing me. And since you might not know what “profusely” means, it wouldn’t matter anyway.

Want to call a Black woman a b—h or h-? Okay. Go on ahead. But again, that means you have a lack of creativity. It also means, while you might be telling the truth when you say you love your mother, wife or baby daughter, you might consider that it is truly possible to treat your family right while treating others badly so you can still be a bad person. Just ask CEOs of Fortune Five Hundred companies or read about slave masters in a history book. An actual book, not one on tape.

Here’s some more truth: I walk into a classroom and look in the faces of my White students and wonder, how many of them think it’s okay to consider my Black female skin and think I’m nothing but a receptacle for sex, if my brothers already have talked about me that way and nobody has ever made a real effort to stop it—even the people who are supposed to know better, like Black public intellectuals and Sisters who call themselves feminists.

Let me keep going with this whole truth thing.

It’s the truth that sometimes, I want to pack my belongings in a rag on a stick and take the next Underground Railroad Train out of this Black community and start A New Race.

And that’s just when I get embarrassed about the name-calling.

Don’t even get me started on the despair I feel about Black-on-Black crime, the Black men who rape or kill Black women or each other, the Black men who won’t stay and be fathers to their children, the drug dealers (sometimes who are Black women) in our community. All those things we can help, and those things we can’t really blame on White people—but there is liable to be some Black intellectual with a Phd who will find a loophole for us to act like fools, probably concerning something White folks did to us before the telephone was invented.

I know a lot of Black people are just like me. I suspect those intellectual Blacks who talk about “Post-Race” aren’t really trying to move this society forward. They’re just sick and tired of The Present Black Race they have to belong to, people embarrassing upstanding Black folks with their bad behavior, and then, in order to own A Black Passport, we upstanding African Americans have to get in line and pretend—or be called sellouts.

Some of those Post-Race folks feel the same way I do: As much as I want to help Black people, loving this community sometimes feels like I’m in love with somebody who beats me, and who will eventually be the death of me. And then, who will marry a younger version of me, only to beat her to death, too.

We’re getting to a place where those of us Black folks who are surviving and thriving are being faced with a terrible choice: should the small number of us forget “linked fate,” turn our backs on centuries of shared history to save ourselves, or should we sacrifice our lives for the community, as King did?

I’ll tell you the final truth—a truth I’ve never admitted in print: sometimes I just can’t stand the Black community. Sometimes, I shake in anger when I see how we will justify any crime, large or small. Sometimes while I love my own Black self, I hate certain kinds of Black folks. Certain kinds. The ones who embarrass me and fill me with despair, I mean.

I wonder if that’s how Dr. King felt, in the years before his death. Not all the time, maybe not even sometimes, but every once in a while. When he thought about the negative aspects of this community, was he embarrassed? Angry? Contemptuous? Or even, hateful?

After all, Dr. King wasn’t Jesus Christ. He was just a man. So maybe Dr. King did experience those feelings, but still, somehow he had enough love for all Black folk–even the tacky ones– to stay with us. Enough love to lay down his life for us. That’s really something.

And I think about his profound love, not just on his birthday, but many other days throughout the year, when I remain with my Black community, despite everything, and I try so hard to keep reaching for love myself.

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Hip Hop and the Brokedown Contract

Recently, I was involved in an online discussion with three African American cultural scholars about hip hop artists Jay-Z and Kanye West and their latest collaborative CD, Watch the Throne. Since that discussion of a few weeks back, I’ve been increasingly bothered by what I see as the apologist stance of fans and hip hop scholars alike for the misogyny, rampant materialism, and apolitical nature in most of  commercial hip hop music; this apologist stance comes in the middle of a very politically charged time in American history, when White Supremacy is gaining more open popularity among  moderate White conservatives.

It’s no secret among my scholarly and creative colleagues that I expect more sense of a political conscience and consciousness from commercial hip hop artists, and that I am continually disappointed.  My friends and colleagues argue that since commercial hip hop is a product of post-Civil  Rights America, with its materialist mores, I shouldn’t require the sort of political “core” from the mainstream version of the music. But last night, while in the middle of a heated discussion, it dawned on me what is really wrong with hip hop: the music fails in its contract with African American literary and historical traditions.

I’m not the first person to point out that hip hop has its roots in African American literature, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to draw parallels between hip hop and, say, early Black resistance narratives. For example, during the Revolutionary War era Belinda, a former slave of the house of Issac Royall, petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature for reparations and won (though she’d have to come back around another time to eventually be paid those reparations).  In her petition, Belinda executes an extraordinary move: she not only discusses the tragedy of slavery in the Americas, but also, she refers to the Yoruba gods of her homeland, the “orisas.” This locates her as someone both deeply American and still deeply African, stretching her community and spiritual loyalties across both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Less than a century later, the slave narratives were used by northern abolitionists to gain sympathy for their anti-slavery cause. These narratives differed in the details, but whether written by males or females, the narratives retain the same three-part structure: the “lowly” life of slavery with all its attendant miseries; then, the realization that freedom was a right of all human beings; and finally, the capturing of freedom which leads, of course, to a better life for the former slave.

In Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave, he describes slavery as a state vulnerable to physical cruelty, and he talks in gentile terms (for us, but direct at that time) about the sexual brutality toward unfree Black women.  Once he realizes he must be free, he becomes a better man and when he gains his freedom by running away, he dedicates his life to service of others. This three-part structure—identification, exploration, and resolution–marks the slave narratives as early blues prose texts.

But what does this all have to do with hip hop?

First, I’m not calling any hip hop artists slaves here. Let’s be very clear about that. I’m simply using African American historical narratives and the devices of those narratives to draw obvious (to me) parallels.

If you look at commercial hip hop, it uses most of the same core literary devices as the slave narratives. For example, all of the authors of the narratives came from humble origins—you can’t get much more humble than slavery.  The descriptions of these humble backgrounds elicited sympathy from the White reader, as they were meant to, for once enough sympathy was roused the reader hopefully would lift his or her voice and cry out against the sin of slavery.  But the humble backgrounds were important, too, because the slave narratives are deeply concerned with issues of African American authenticity; thus, one who has suffered through slavery has earned the right to speak the loudest about the plight of other slaves.

The overriding message at the end of each narrative is about the responsibility of the former slave to the Black community. Freedom has been attained, yes, but this freedom is less freedom from and more freedom to. Freedom to marry legally. Freedom to have and love children without worrying about their being sold away. Freedom to worship God in the open. Freedom to belong to a Black community. Freedom to live as a fully ethical and moral human being.

Hip hop has many of these same requirements. For example, it is a requirement that a hip hop artist come from a poor background. Besides Kanye West, there has never been a hip hop artist who gained world-wide and sustained fame who came from a middle or upper-middle class Black household. But other hip hop artists such as Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, etc. all have working-class or poor backgrounds. When any of these artists rap about their poverty, there is anger in their words and in the tones of their voices, and we know that underneath that is pain, though the performance of “hard” Black masculinity keeps them from admitting it. And so we consumers first feel sorry for the hip hop artist and then, we admire his accomplishments.

Just as in the slave narrative, authenticity is a very real concern as well. Contemporary hip hop consumers hear the much-repeated phrase “keeping it real.” (Which, by the way. has been the bane of many a middle-class Black American’s existence.) Keeping it real means that though you might have worked hard and secured a good job and moved out of the ghetto, your values, your way of life, your set of friends, and the people you want/need to impress all still reside in the ghetto, which is (strangely) assumed to have only one set of folkways, mores and ethics. If any of the aforementioned adjust to your new set of circumstances, you are most definitely not keeping it real.

However, keeping it real also means that you might end up killing one of your friends if you deem it necessary—if, for example, your friend sleeps with your woman, disrespects you verbally in action or in word, or steals or gets in the way of your making money. According to commercial hip hop, the only ethical code of the streets is “keeping it real,” but that code can change depending upon the mood of the artist, because he only has to answer to himself. There is no sense of responsibility to the Black community that contains real people, only to the vague “streets” and to the performance of “realness,” which includes speech, dress, and body language. And one can never challenge the behavior in “the streets,” even when that behavior is criminal or unethical.  Challenging “the streets” is not keeping it real.

So let’s go back to that three-part structure of the traditional slave narrative. First, there is suffering in humble circumstances. Then, there is an awareness that those circumstances must change. Finally, there is freedom, both physical freedom and freedom to act in ethical and moral ways. Hip hop has no problem using the first two movements of this structure for its own purposes, but refuses to participate in the third, ethical, movement.

For some scholars or fans of hip hop, this refusal is perfectly okay. To paraphrase a friend of mine, times have changed and there is a generational divide between old school Black community expectations and new school behavior. And that is true. Things do change. There is no longer one Black community, but rather several under one umbrella. And there’s no longer one hip hop, either. I don’t believe in legislating what people make art about, and unlike W.E.B. Dubois, I don’t believe all Black art should be propaganda. But the very real problem today—and for a while—is that hip hop artists trade on old school African American traditions, but want to pick and choose what suits them ethically about those traditions.

For Black consumers, we feel a particular and tender community connection with Black male hip hop artists, for we can rely on a centuries-long body of ancestral knowledge about persecution of Black men when we listen to their narratives today–their music. Further,  we don’t assume that Black folks are poor because they don’t like to work or even, they just caught a bad break. We know the truth: patterns of African American poverty go back to slavery. (Patterns of White poverty are pretty ancient, too, for that matter.) Thus, there’s a special relationship between the Black hip hop artist and his Black listener, and both parties are fully aware of that special relationship.

There’s also an assumption that simply by living in Black skin, the hip hop artist is living a political existence. And again, that’s true to some extent, if one is still poor and not just dredging up memories of poverty. But for wealthy hip hop artists, there is insulation from the brutal, racial realities of “the streets.” Yet hip hop artists still access the anger of a racialized past but do not include a community in this anger. Rather, this anger is for themselves only, and maybe, extended to their immediate families.

There’s Black community loyalty at work here, but it’s one-sided loyalty. The Black male hip hop artist takes the Black consumer’s loyalty for granted, even while living in an individualist manner. Even when ignoring issues that affect the Black community in very real ways. This loyalty to Black men and the need to ease their historical suffering keeps hip hop scholars and fans alike from holding hip hop artists accountable for the apolitical nature of their music, but in exchange for our Black community loyalty to hip hop artists, we receive no love and no loyalty in return.

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Chocolate Breast Milk: A Review of The Help

Warning: this review contains LOTS of spoilers.:-)

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In 1923, the Virginia chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy enlisted the help of Senator John Williams of Mississippi to put forth a resolution to build a national monument dedicated to the Black Mammy. Several prominent leaders of the African American community, including Mary Church Terrell, rallied against the monument and it was never built.

But by that time it was too late: the Black Mammy had been immortalized already in 1912 in another monument at Arlington National Cemetery, the Confederate Memorial. It depicts a “frieze” containing “six vignettes…includ[ing] a black slave following his young master; an officer kissing his infant child in the arms of her mammy…”

This is the public image of the Black Mammy, but for many of us, Black and White, we have intensely personal experiences with her.

For me, it was summer, circa 1976, and my family and I were visiting my mother’s mother, Grandma Florence. My sister Sidonie, several cousins and neighbors, and I decide we would integrate the White pool in Eatonton, Georgia. Bolstered by my mother’s donation of 50 cents for each child, we begin to walk across the railroad tracks.

We arrived at the pool, which we discovered was nearly three times the size of the pool we’d been swimming in. As soon as we placed our small Black bodies in the pool, the White children got out, but after a few minutes, one decided to get back in. The little girl spoke to me; she was about 3 or 4 years older.

“You’re related to Florence, aren’t you?” she asks. “You look just like her.”

I had never heard my grandmother’s name without a handle on it. “I am Mrs. Florence James’ granddaughter,” I said.

“Oh, I just love Florence so much! She used to clean house for us. When you go home, tell her ‘Miss Sally’ says ‘hey’.”

I talked to the little girl for a while, not really because I wanted to, but because I wanted her to notice that I kept stressing that my grandma should have a “Mrs.” in front of her first name. I used my most proper tones, but the little girl never took the hint.

This was my first experience with the figure of the Black Mammy, someone who belonged to her employers, whose love is assumed, even required. She doesn’t work for a paycheck. The money is incidental; the real compensation is her pure joy in laboring for her White employers. But she can never be an equal, even to a child. And she was my blood.

I’ve thought on that sunny afternoon many times. I was a child who’d been raised with a sense of my own middle-class entitlement, but in a few seconds, that girl stripped me of that, and reminded me of what my place was supposed to be–beneath her.  She didn’t mean the slightest bit of harm, but she harmed me anyway.

*

Yesterday, I went to see the film, The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same title, about the friendship in 1960s Mississippi between a privileged White woman and a group of black domestics. There have been several well-known Black entertainers who have endorsed the film, not the least of which is Viola Davis, the actress who plays Aibileen, the main Black character. Filmmaker Tyler Perry loves the film as well.

And there have been individual Black women online who have tried to counter the “bad press” generated by other Black women who have reviewed the movie negatively; both Martha Southgate and Valerie Boyd have been disappointed in the movie in different ways. But other Sisters praise the movie and say that we Black folks need to understand that all stories should be told. We should not be classist, especially about the past.

Yet, I write about working class Black folks and domestics in my own fiction constantly, so in this case, it’s not the story of Black domestics that I resent–or that the story the movie is based on was written by a White woman. And I don’t resent seeing Black women looking unglamorous in frumpy uniforms onscreen. I’m not embarrassed by them. Why should I be, when I’m related to women just like them?

What I resent are the tone-deaf depictions like the ones I saw onscreen yesterday. For example, there are no Black husbands in this film onscreen; there are three Black men in the film, but presumably, all of them are single. Aibileen overhears Minnie’s husband beating her when the two women are on a phone call, but we never see the man. (He’s the only physically abusive domestic partner in the movie, by the way.)

And we never find out who impregnated Aibileen years before and gave her a son. Was Aibileen’s an immaculate conception? Was she once married but now a widow or divorced? Was she abandoned by her son’s father? He’s never mentioned, to my recollection.

There are many historical issues with the film as well. The White husbands of these women are benevolent, fuzzy creatures, yet at this time in Jackson, Mississippi, the White Citizens council (mentioned only once in the film) was in full force, and they were public face of the domestic terrorist group, the KKK. We hear of civil rights activist Medgar Evers’s death, but we don’t see the killing, and there’s a vague “they” who seem to be responsible for Evers’s assassination; but again, there are no fingers pointed at any of the White men we see onscreen.

The meanest person in the film and the person with the most power is a White woman. A woman without a job. And she is cartoonish in her villainy, making it very simple to pretend she’s not real.

This film focuses on giving power to Black women, but none of them can claim that power without White assistance. Martha Southgate already has written eloquently about the fact that Civil Rights was not the purview of White Southerners, but rather Black southerners.  You would never know that by looking at this movie.

Even when Minnie, the other main Black character (played by Octavia Spencer), decides to act alone on her rage, she does so in a way that is (to me) morally transgressive; when her employer fires her, she bakes a pie using her own feces as an ingredient and feeds it to the woman in retaliation. As I sat there in the audience and listened to the guffaws of the White moviegoers at the “feces pie” scene, I could only think, what has become of a woman who gathers her body waste in her actual hands and cooks with it, in her own kitchen? Where were her children while she was stirring up feces? How can she or her home ever be clean again?

For me, it was not the humorous, empowering moment it was intended to be, but rather tragic and pathetic. It made me want to weep for Minnie. And equally as important, if Minnie had ever informed her Mississippi employer of her actions in real life, she would have been strung up and lynched, or at the very least beaten violently.

But the most disturbingly unrealistic aspect of this movie is that we never see the personal lives of the Black women who work as “The Help.” Almost every time they appear on screen, they are either tending to White others, or they are talking about White others’ goings on. To see this movie, one would think that these Black women had no other concerns than the Whites they work for. However, the White women—even the villains—all have personal lives separate from the Blacks’.

For me, the lack of Black female interior life was what angered me the most—that and the lack of any real affection toward Black children in the movie. No Black children were embraced or kissed in this film, while White children were hugged and kissed all the time, the implication being that yes, Black children were emotionally neglected, but this neglect was for the greater good: so that the children of White women could receive it all.

*

There already is Oscar buzz surrounding Viola Davis for her depiction of Aibileen. But I can’t help feeling extremely disappointed in Davis and the other Black women who agreed to act in this film. These are Black women who are plenty old enough to know the history of their foremothers but who either didn’t notice what was wrong in the script, or didn’t speak up—if they had, this would have been a different movie, despite the issues with the book.

And how many Black women who are defending this movie don’t see the serious flaws, either, the glaring historical and emotional anachronisms throughout? Instead, they are bending over backwards to try to understand a continuing legacy of White southern paternalism.

At the very beginning of The Help, Skeeter (played by Emma Stone) poses the question to Aibileen, “How did you feel, leaving your own child while you took care of other people’s children?”

That question is never answered.

Aibileen’s son’s life isn’t explored, even in flashback; she only talks briefly about the horrible way in which he died.  We only see his picture. It is as if his only contribution to the movie is to provide motivation for Aibileen’s later actions, after he’s dead. Her mother’s love, her mother’s grief, is condensed into 2 or 3 minutes. And in reality, she doesn’t claim her own voice—as a mother, as a woman, or someone who has her own inner mystery. She has no voice unless someone White is in the room.

Much has been made of Viola Davis’s acting skills, that in this one early scene the weighted absence of her silence somehow says it all. And it does, but not to answer the question posed to her; rather, it says something about the novelist who wrote this book and Tate Taylor, the writer who wrote the screenplay.

They just didn’t get it.

Nobody’s calling them racists—at least I’m not—or mean-spirited, or out to bring down The Black Community With A Big C. They just didn’t get it. They didn’t get anything about the real Black women who lived in Mississippi in 1963, those women who endured and resisted without “help” and worked in White folks’ kitchens and raised and loved Black children and hoped those children could avoid the lynch mobs to push the next generation to something better.

That story would have been a tougher one to tell–and a tougher one to swallow for a moviegoer who craved the Jim Crow Cliffs Notes; it probably wouldn’t have been funny, but neither was Mississippi in 1963.  But not only did Stockett and Taylor not get those Mississippi Sisters, they didn’t even get the universal human condition. And that’s just a colorblind shame.