Teachable Racial Moment: You’re Supposed to be Upset By a Slavery Movie. That’s the Whole Point.

I’m writing. I promise–which is why in addition to my not updating the blog like I used to, I’m supposed to be on a Social Media Fast. That is, until last night, when I sneaked on Facebook and read a comment thread where someone white was vehemently arguing against the depiction of violence in Twelve Years a Slave, the movie.

And then, I got really, really mad. And then, I didn’t get any work done.

I can deal with the Confederate Flag Toting Yahoos and their “I’m tired of hearing about slavery and now, shut up all y’all n*****s” routine.  But there’s something about Nice Liberal White People trying to trash a movie made by a black man about slavery by using the “I’m made uncomfortable by all that slavery violence” excuse that just burns my biscuits.

Sidebar: I wish that some middle class black folks who are highly educated and nice, too, would join me in telling Nice Liberal White People that it is not really their place to talk about how black folks should make their own films about their enslaved ancestors. And also, that it doesn’t matter if Steve McQueen is British because the British Empire had black folks in slavery in the United Kingdom and in British colonies, too. And it doesn’t matter if Chiwetel Ejiofor is British, either, because his parents are Nigerian and some of his ancestral kin ended up as slaves in America.

That whole “black folks are still black even when they don’t live in America” thing is what’s called the African Diaspora, just so you know.

Anyway, I have not even seen this film yet because it’s not in my town. I live in a very conservation area and I’m not even sure the film will make it to my town. But I am a serious fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor, going all the way back to his Kinky Boots days.  I even saw him in Love Actually, which made me ask, “Don’t no black folks ever marry each other in the United Kingdom?” And of course, I’ve read the narrative of Solomon Northup; that was back in college, so I was excited, but after last night, I realized, it was time for A Teachable Racial Moment post before I get back to my writing.

So let me break it down:

First, you’re supposed to be upset by a slavery movie. That’s the whole point.

Slavery was bad, okay, no matter what Paula Deen tells herself. It was bad, and brutal, and dehumanizing for a lot of black folks on three continents for five hundred years.  (In fact, slavery is going on right now in this country with non-black folks.  But that’s another story.) Slavery is never supposed to give you a feel-good moment, unless somebody gets free.

When you read the classic slave narratives, like Solomon Northup’s or Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom you need to remind yourself that these books were written in the age of censorship and also, delicate public sensibilities; they use a lot of euphemism in these narratives so as not to shock nineteenth-century audiences. Despite the lack of overtly violent scenes, Jacobs’s book still was shocking because she addressed the sexual exploitation and sexual assault of enslaved black women, and to a lesser extent, enslaved black men and black children.

I didn’t see Tarantino’s Django Unchained because I might have been offended by his use of violence to depict slavery, but rather, because I refused to give my money to a disrespectful, rude—and might I say, extremely corny—white man who thinks he’s been granted a Ghetto Pass. No you haven’t, Mr. Tarantino, and your black friends in Hollywood might let you get away with using the n-word in front of them, but you better not come to The Dirty South and try that out in the country, not if you don’t want to get a Grits And Streak-o-Lean A** Whipping By RayRay And Them.

As a survivor of sexual assault and childhood molestation, I completely understand that some people might be triggered by what has been called graphic violence in Twelve Years a Slave.  I don’t want to diminish people’s trauma, nor am I telling them to “suck it up” and dash headlong into a situation that may prove emotionally detrimental to them.

What I am saying is, just don’t see the movie. But please–I mean, I’m begging you–if you are a white person, don’t proceed to lecture black filmmakers about whether it’s appropriate to depict the actual violence that happened to other black people because you–a white person– might get triggered by the violence. That’s one of those unfortunate “okay back to me” examples of white privilege that makes black folks want to cuss you out. It’s also extremely ironic–and not in a good way– considering that other white folks were the ones meting out the violence towards said black people.

Now, you don’t want to be that person, do you? Look, I’m just trying to be a friend here.

Further, movies about black history shouldn’t be expected to foster racial reconciliation between blacks and whites or start feel-good “conversations on race.” A black director is not a race. He’s a black director. And how come when, say, Unnamed White Lady writes a book or directs a movie, it’s not a “conversation on race”? Because you know what? It is to me.

I’m reading this book or watching that movie saying, “Dang, Unnamed White Lady, how come you don’t know one person of color unless she’s your sassy, celibate, unattractive black girlfriend who lives to tell you how fabulous you are and stroke your long, silky hair”?  That lack is, in itself, a statement—to me—about race in this country, maybe because I’ve read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imaginationbut somehow, apparently, it’s not a statement on race to other readers or viewers. It’s just a film or a book about the “universal human experience.”

Do you see how that strange, double standard works? It’s odd, isn’t it?

For many Americans of all complexions, racial reconciliation has been the work that black art is supposed to do—”Race Work.” And yet, this Race Work has strayed away from its original intention of moving black folks forward in American society. These days, it doesn’t do that, because if that was the case, we wouldn’t have to keep doing the same work over again.

These days, Race Work resembles a clothed version of Sex Work, making the receiver of that labor feel good, but the pleasure–or racial understanding–of the worker is incidental and not important in the least. The worker is a conduit of pleasure or understanding—or both—but never an equal participant in the pleasure or understanding. And both Race Work and Sex Work have fleeting responses, too, resulting in that need to begin again. It’s like Negro Groundhog Day.

I can attest to that, having been on many “race panels on writing,” and on which I have decided to stop appearing.  I’m just tired, because it’s always the same Race Work. I’m supposed to listen sympathetically to the grievances of colored folks about how they’ve been ‘buked and scorned, while at the same time, explain to a group of Nice White Liberal People how I do that hoodoo I do: how I write like a black person. Or rather, “Write about race.” And then, I hope that if I have been well-behaved enough, someone will invite me to a college or university and do the same thing and pay me for my Race Work.

But I’m not a race. I’m just Honorée.

I can tell you about racism in this country, but race is another matter. To begin with, it does not exist as a real, biological thing; it exists as a social and legal category, something a bunch of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century white dudes made up to justify their prejudice against varying groups of people with dark skin.

Now, I can explain that, but how am I supposed to talk about how all that appears in my writing when I’m just trying my best to be an artist, and when I really want to say, “Y’all could make my job as a black writer less difficult if I didn’t have to keep trying to figure out what the heck ‘race’ was, and then, how to write about it just to make y’all happy. Because I’m going crazy over here with all this cognitive dissonance and binary opposition and whatnot and what have you.”

As the kids say, Can’t a sister live?

~

I know Twelve Years a Slave is not going to live up to my lofty expectations; no movie can do what I’ve been waiting for since I saw Roots back when I was nine years old. That was a big moment for me, but now, I look back and see a campy miniseries. That was all I had then, though, and I’m grateful. It did its job for the child I was. But I’m a woman now. (There’s a metaphor in there somewhere about this country.)

Roots was about racial reconcilation, and many black films have continued that tradition, but Steve McQueen has expressly stated that his film is not trying to “start a conversation about race” and for that, I applaud him. One of the biggest issues with American audiences today is that they expect to feel good after seeing a film about black history. This is what black art is supposed to do, right? It should teach. It should uplift. It should make you cry but not too much so that when you leave the theater you might feel sad, but you feel admiration for what black folks have gone through.  That’s why so many of those movies have those Emotionally Manipulative Fake Negro Spiritual Soundtracks.

And if you are a Nice White Liberal Person, in addition, you are supposed to feel guilty about the crimes of your ancestors, but never afraid that the present-day descendants of those folks are seething with anger over what was done to their ancestors. Never that.

But you know what? I don’t want to have to consider any of that when I’m watching a film on slavery. I’m just ready to see a real, good movie about some black folks, a film that makes me sigh in relief. I’m ready for a great film that happens to be about people who were enslaved. And I don’t want to be taught something on purpose. (If I want to learn something on purpose, that’s what, like, reading books is for.)

And I definitely don’t want to hear none of them Emotionally Manipulative Fake Negro Spiritual Soundtracks no more. Oh, I am so tired of those.

I just want a story about human beings that happen to be black and enslaved. I just want some art. And that’s what I heard Twelve Years a Slave was. And I’m ready for it. And then, I’m ready for another film like that. And then, another. Just keep them coming.

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.

.

.

What if Touré were White?

Originally uploaded at mediaite.com

I was on Facebook last night when a Black male friend of mine posted an article by Touré on the ESPN website, entitled “What if Michael Vick were white?”  Above the actual article was a disturbing sight: Michael Vick in “white face” with light hair and light eyes. (This article also appears in the latest ESPN magazine.)

I know next to nothing about sports, and I don’t find sports interesting, either, so I almost didn’t read the article.  (To read an analysis of Touré’s piece by someone who does know about sports, check out this brilliant post by David J. Leonard.) I knew that I would encounter certain “insider” terms about sports in a, well, sports magazine.  I only read on because of the provocative title. But luckily, I needed to know absolutely nothing about sports to understand Touré’s inflammatory and downright rude article, because it wasn’t about sports. It was about the pseudo-science of analyzing “race.”

Only in this article, Touré wasn’t analyzing the constructed concept of “race;” instead, he was making sweeping generalizations about Black culture, and reinforcing coded cultural and class stereotypes. Throughout my reading this article on Michael Vick, instead of asking myself the question I was supposed to—what if Vick were white—I found myself asking instead, what if Touré were white?

Now, before I go any further, let me say that I’m no fan of Michael Vick. I think what he did to those poor animals was horrible. And I’m also past tired of Black (and some White) folks trying to give Michael Vick a bleeding heart pass for inhumane treatment to God’s creatures and whining about he caught a bad break because he was African American. I don’t care what race he was; I think he should have done way more time than he already did.

Yes, I said it. Snatch my Black card, and I don’t care. I can always get me another one down at the Target.

But let me say that the sort of strange racial rhetoric on the other side of this debate, about the “nature” of Black men and Black culture is infuriating as well. And seriously tacky. In Touré’s defense, this rhetoric was going on long before he waded into this fray with his singular, accented moniker and “throwback jam” Enlightenment philosophy.

However, Touré’s article takes this rhetoric to the next, unsavory, near-skull measuring level. Again, this article is not about sports, though Touré begins with bloviated, quasi-lyrical language, using such terms like “in the pocket” and  (I guess) establishing his Black bonafides with the use of the Black vernacular, as when he writes:  “I’m not saying that a black QB who stands in the pocket ain’t playing black.” [Emphasis mine.]

Okay, stop.

What the heck does “playing black” mean? I’m not even a sports fan and I know that’s not one of those complicated technical terms. And if a White writer said some sort of essentialist crap like somebody “plays black” we’d be all over him. Why doesn’t Touré just start talking about antebellum slave breeding practices that produced better athletes while he’s at it? Like we haven’t already heard that one before.

Then, Touré goes on to imply that if Michael Vick were White and middle-class, he wouldn’t have been dogfighting in the first place.

One pertinent question: Would a white kid have been introduced to dogfighting at a young age and have it become normalized to the extent that he builds it into his life after he joins the NFL? It’s possible, but it’s far less likely because what made Vick stand out among dogfighters is less race than class.

Here, I want to focus less on Touré’s circular reasoning in this quote—such as, if what makes Vick stand out is his class, then why are we bringing up his race in the first place? Oh, that’s right, because we have to prove that Black folks are pathological—and more on his Clear Yankee Ignorance as well as his Clear Historical Ignorance.

As my readers may or may not know, I’m from the Deep South, where White men love them some dogfighting. White men of all classes. Matter of fact, the term “Alabama Dog Fight” definitely does not refer to an African American sporting event.

Further, according to ASPCA website, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the roots of dogfighting can be traced to “bear baiting” which began in England in mid-1800s. England, not Africa. Thus, dog fighting is not a Traditional Negro Pastime.

Then, Touré hits even lower: he focuses on Michael Vick’s absent father:

If Vick grew up with the paternal support that white kids are more likely to have (72 percent percent of black children are born to unwed mothers compared with 29 percent of white children), would he have been involved in dogfighting? I ask this not to look for an excuse but to explore the roots of his behavior. Vick’s stunningly stupid moral breakdown with respect to dogs is certainly related to the culture of the world he grew up in, which he says fully embraced dogfighting. But it’s also related to the household he grew up in.

So apparently, violent behavior toward animals is connected to your being Black and your daddy being gone. I’m just going to let that appalling statement marinate with y’all for a second.

Now, let’s come back.

If a White man had implied something illogical like being Black, fatherless, and working class predestines somebody to treat animals badly, we’d call him all kinds of racists. Or, like, call up Fox news to get him fired, because that’s probably where he’d be working.

In a recent review of Touré’s latest book,  Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to be Black Now, Randall Kennedy talks about Touré’s logical fallacies on the subject on which Touré has appointed himself as expert. It’s clear that Touré wants to distance himself from “regular” Black folks by positioning himself as “raceless” or “post-race.”

But the problem is that if Touré weren’t Black, he wouldn’t be looked to as an expert on Black culture—and the supposed intrinsic pathologies located therein—in the first place. Indeed, Touré’s stunning statements are not “post-racial” or even new. Not only is he the latest in a long line of Black folks (mostly men) who have decided to go in hard on the Black community, he’s also writing in a tradition that has its roots going all the way back to the Enlightenment period, where Immanuel Kant, David Hume and Thomas Jefferson asserted “facts” about Black people’s inferiority.

Kant and Hume “ordered” the races—and of course, Black folks were down at the bottom of all that–and Jefferson asserted that Black women and orangutans were getting it on. (I’m not lying. Look it up in Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 14.)

All three of these men—and countless other European/American philosophers, intellectuals, and scientists—asserted “facts” about Black folks with absolutely no proof of the existence of these assertions. They just made stuff up as they went along, saying whatever rude things they wanted to say about Black folks and it was taken as cultural gospel. And many people don’t even know that much of the racism that we now hear being spouted as “fact”—by both White and Black folks– were simply philosophical ramblings that solidified throughout two and a half centuries.

That was back in the day, but now White folks aren’t allowed to spout certain things in polite company—certainly not in print—and get away with it anymore. So enter Touré with his Patrick Moynihan-esque faux-truths for why Michael Vick turned out to be mean to animals.

Oh, y’all didn’t know? It’s about the breakdown of the Black family. That’s why Vick fought and/or killed dogs. It’s about about how poor Black people just are naturally not as nice as middle-class and upper-middle class folks. That’s why Vick fought and/or killed dogs. And by the way, Touré implies, poor Black people also are poor because they lack some intrinsic moral gift, not because of, like, the centuries-long economic policies in place all around the globe to keep folks of all complexions and cultural backgrounds poor.

And thus, in Touré’s logic, being poor and Black and coming from a single parent home makes one brutal. In the last line of Touré’s article, he asserts that it is only when Michael Vick has ceased to be brutal that the issue of race in his life is deemed null and void—I assume this means when Vick becomes an honorary White man, since “race” here is the code used for “not-White.”

But aside from the glaring, offensive assertions in Touré’s article, he misses the basic point. It’s so obvious I kept waiting for him to say it. See, brutality has never known race or class or color or gender. White folks aren’t naturally brutal. Black folks aren’t naturally brutal. Poor people aren’t naturally brutal. Men aren’t naturally brutal.

Nobody is naturally brutal.

All brutality needs to come to the surface is unchecked power over someone or something weaker than yourself.  That’s all. And what Touré—the ultimate “post-racial” cultural critic—missed in his article is that, in terms of wielding that unchecked power, Michael Vick wasn’t inhabiting the natural role of a fatherless, Black man from poor origins—he was just a regular, old human being who didn’t check himself. And so, when he exercised his power over the weak, Vick established himself as quintessentially “post-racial.”

.

.