Thursday, January 30, 2014

12 Years a Slave and its Legacy for African-American Women

“Slavery is in the marrow of this country.” Dr. Cindy A. Crusto 12 Years a Slave is a movie that is racking up accolades, and I’m glad. I have seen it three times, and I thought it was such an important film that I took more than 120 students on a field trip.

It is a film that continued to marinate in my mind long after the last credits rolled. And though I have heard a number of people grumbling about another movie about slavery, I don’t see it that way. This powerful, must-see-movie was one filled with lessons for me. And I am not alone. When I read the article Watching “12 Years a Slave” Could Save Your Life by Dr. Cindy A. Crusto recently on the Root’s website, I better understood the movie’s lingering affect on me.

While I was definitely drawn into Solomon’s journey from freedom to bondage and freedom again, it is the women’s stories that resonate with me. I draw strength from these women as I see reflections of past converged into present in their characterizations. “Yes, the movie has messages about what happened in the past, but it also has important lessons for what slavery has passed down and for what it says about today,” Crusto says. There was Eliza who entered into a relationship with her master and even bore him a child naively believing that because he treated her “well” within the confines of her enslavement, that she would fare better after his death. But Eliza was sold into slavery and eventually separated from those she loved the most—her children.

How many of us are naïve to what’s going on around us, and are drinking the Kool-Aid—whatever the flavor of the day is? How many of us think that “we’ve made it” beyond the circumstances of our origins because we think our accoutrements define our success? How many of us have been rudely awakened to reality? Then there was the shrewd Mistress Shaw, a slave turned mistress who became head of the household. Unlike Eliza, Mistress Shaw did not believe that her chosen status put her on par with Whites. She accepted her role for what it was worth—a chance to get out of the field and have others wait on her. Master Shaw’s infidelities were par for the course. Mistress Shaw seemed to understand that all good things would come to an end, but she was going to ride it to the finish line.
How many of us know that there’s something better, but we go along to get along? We live by the old adage, “If we can’t beat them, we might as well join them?” And who can forget Patsey? She picked more cotton than any man, and her master proudly boasted about her skills. Being the object of

Master Epps’ obsessive affection, she brought the wrath of Mistress Epps raging jealously. Patsey’s life was so horrific that she tried to bribe Solomon into ending the life that she was too afraid to do herself. Patsey tried to forge a life on the plantation without giving into the master or his wife, and was severely punished for her actions. Patsey’s life was a living hell, and the torch of slavery burned in her soul until there was nothing left but the ashes of her former self. How many of us try to live life on our own terms, but are constantly being beat down? How many of us continue to fight against a system until it kills us or worse—we become the walking dead because our circumstances suck holes in our souls? Which, if any of these women would I have been?

The debt I owe to my ancestors cannot be repaid. I am because they were reminding me of the words of the matriarch Nana Penzant in Daughters of the Dust, “We are the descendants of those who chose to survive.” We came across the Atlantic in the bowels of the slave ship. We were bound and beaten and we survived that, but not without consequence. If I go along to get along like Eliza and Mistress Shaw, there's a consequence as a well as a steep price for resistance as in the case of Patsey. While I know that my history did not begin in slavery, slavery is an integral part of the African-American experience, so I embrace films like of 12 Years a Slave as learning tools. Crusto believes, “We should reflect on slavery to understand the psychological wounds we inherited and how we will break free of them, and what strengths we can build upon that resulted from that experience.” 12 Years a Slave is a vital piece on the history and the legacy of African-American womanhood.

12 Years a Slave is a Must-See

“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” Elie Wiesel I said I wasn’t going to do it, but I lied. I tried to bite my tongue and swallow the words making their way from my brain to my lips, but I couldn’t do it. I was engaged in another debate about the film 12 Years a Slave. Surprised and dismayed by the reaction, I find myself defending the film to African Americans of don’t want to see another movie about slavery. I have never heard Jewish people utter such foolishness about movies about the Holocaust.

The fact that my people don’t understand why 12 Years a Slave is a must-see film makes me sad. It’s not as if movies about slavery are rolled out on a regular basis—two within the same year in very different genres does not measure up to, too many in my book. In America, we shy away from stories about the slave trade—an integral part of American history, but often flock to see films about the Holocaust. I often wonder if we embrace the tragedy of the Holocaust, but not the Transatlantic Slave Trade because we take comfort in knowing that the atrocities of Holocaust did not happen on American soil.

As Americans we like to hold ourselves superior to the Germans, but I don’t know how when America also promoted racial superiority. Just as the Holocaust is Germany’s shame, America must accept slavery as this country’s shame. The same thought process set that allowed Hitler’s reign of terror over Jewish and other “undesirable” people in Europe was also a mindset in America. We too, had a strong eugenics movement and believed in racial superiority that was born out of the very institution that we want to people to forget and get over because it happened hundreds of years ago.

We cannot ignore the impact of slavery as its effect is still being felt today. There is a scene in the film where Solomon is lynched, and as he stands on tip toe with his life in peril, the slaves on the plantation go on about their day—timidly looking on, but saying nothing. One woman gives Solomon a drink of water before going on. I sat in horror as I digested the mindset of those who acted, but did nothing. And yet, I see this in my life all the time. The police stop young men of color and search them all the time, and the rest of us watch and say nothing. I watched 12 years a slave to learn. I watched to pay homage to my ancestors. I watched to draw strength, to draw courage, to have faith. I am because of who they were.

There is no shame in me for being a descendant of slaves. I am a product of those who survived such horrific circumstances, and I’m thankful to those like Steve McQueen who tell the stories that need to be told.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Under the Bus—Black Women and Girls in America

To borrow a line from pop singer Lilly Allen, “It’s Hard Out Here” . . . for a Black Woman or Girl. Just when we thought we were on the mend from the injuries inflicted after Miley Cyrus threw us under the bus in her attempt to “blacken her sound” with her American Music Awards attempted twerking performance, here we are under the bus scrambling for safety-- again. As Black women, our bodies and our sexuality have never been ours to own. And thanks to Cyrus and others, Black women’s psyche and sexuality is constantly being crushed under the flashy expensive rims of the various “isms” rolling through the world we live in.
The tire tracks on our backs were just starting to fade, when I saw this bus coming at us full speed just as we were about to step off the curb at we-can-move-past-this-episode avenue. The driver, Lilly Allen, a British pop singer that I didn’t know existed until I was trolling on the internet and ran across her controversial “Hard Out Here” video and the responses—positive and negative--to it. What is supposed to be “a light-hearted satirical video that deals with objectification of women within modern culture”—according to Allen in response to the Black feminists who took offense at the video—turns out to be another vehicle for calling out sexism and misogyny without understanding how race is intricately woven into the fabricate of discrimination against women of color—especially Black women.

While the lyrics sound as if the song can be a feminist manifesto, the video paints an entirely different picture. Lilly asks, “Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you?” and proceeds to do just that under the weakly executed guise of satire.  She sings that if we don’t get the sarcasm, then we’ve misunderstood, but it’s Allen who misunderstands. Her stinging indictment of patriarchy in the music industry subjugates Black women to the roles that she rallies against. Though she uses diverse dancers (African-American, White and Asian) the only ones twerking, making sexual gestures and getting slapped on the ass are the Black dancers. Allen is right when she sings, “Inequality promises that it’s here to stay. Always trust the injustice because it’s not going away.” Allen’s video continues to sexualize the bodies of Black women. She is simply a stand-in for the very men she calls herself calling out. 

As I lay in the gutter, trying to collect myself, I could hear the rumbling of another bus coming. I didn’t have time to roll out of the way; it was too late. Kansas City Fashion Designer Peggy Noland was driving a bus painted with her infamous naked Oprah Dresses. Noland, who has worked with Miley Cyrus and Rihanna, has created a line of T-shirt like dresses that feature Oprah’s face photo shopped on to various Black women’s nude bodies. There’s a skinny Oprah, a fat Oprah, an Oprah with a KISS rock star face and an OMG! full frontal naked Oprah! 

When asked about her inspiration for the dress, Noland said the idea came about as a result of society’s fascination with what designer, celebrities are wearing during red carpet events. So instead of Who are you wearing? as in designer, one can say that he/she is wearing Oprah. Why Oprah? Noland claims that “One of Oprah’s most effective qualities is that she’s a placeholder, she’s a stand-in for you with her foibles and her failures—especially with her public issues.” Never mind that Oprah has carefully crafted the Oprah brand that has made her one of the world’s most powerful women. Noland explained that she tried to mimic what artist David Nelson did in the 80s when he created a painting of the then recently deceased Mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington.  The painting was of a nude Washington dressed in women’s lingerie. Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor was a well-respected and much-loved public figure, especially in the Black community. And the painting created such an uproar that some Alderman ceased from the Art Institute where it hung. The incident ignited a wave of racial tension in the already segregated city. 

In an interview about the dress, Noland said, “We feel very protective of our public figures; we don’t want them to be exposed that way. . .” But it’s interesting that in her misguided attempt to show us the human side of public figures, she chose to model her concept after Nelson’s work of a beloved Black figure to create an unflattering image of another iconic figure in the Black community. I don’t understand why she didn’t use someone else who has struggled with weight or another powerful figure to make a statement—why not Kirstie Alley, Hilary Clinton, or even Jackie Kennedy? Why this trend of White women rising up against patriarchal norms while throwing Black women under the bus to make their point? 

When I saw the broken discarded bodies of my sisters scattered across these American streets, I thought it couldn’t get any worse. Our bodies had been crushed under the White feminist banner, only to be hit by another bus barreling toward. This bus was driven by none other than, R&B Crooner R. Kelly promoting the release of his latest album, “Black Panties”. The bus was filled with R. Kelly supporters who prefer public amnesia to acknowledgement of Kelly’s reckless past with under aged girls. The arguments are the same: the girls were “fast” and wanted it, the parents were to blame, and he was found not guilty. Never mind that the release of the album coincided with a lengthy detailed interview with Jim DeRogatis, the pop music critic who first broke the pornography case against Kelly when DeRogatis was mailed a copy of the infamous R. Kelly sex tape.

This is not here-say as the staunchest supporters would have us believe. In a recent interview with the Village Voice, DeRogatis gives a detailed description of what it was like to work on the case against Kelly. DeRogatis points out the obvious: the pornography charges, the annulled marriage to his 15 year-old, protégé, Aaliyah, and the cases settled out of court. DeRogatis also talks about how the court documents are filled with lurid stories of Kelly’s escapades with underage girls, and how he was able to get away with it for so long. The girls testified that that they recruited girls for Kelly and he forced them to have sex with each other. 

Not guilty doesn’t automatically mean innocent. Kelly has consistently denied all of the allegations against him, but he instead of moving away from the controversy, he goes full throttle with some of the most vulgar and sexually explicit music that makes you wonder who served as his muse especially given the album covers for Black Panties.  The cover features Kelly carrying what looks to be a very young woman clad in black panties. He’s holding a violin bow as if he’s about to play her. Then on the deluxe album, Kelly is surrounded by young Black women wearing only black panties. The songs and the images are disturbing. It’s as if Kelly knows that he got away with a crime and he’s rubbing our faces in it. 

Race issues are about Black men and gender issues are about White women, so where does that leave Black women and girls? It’s 2014. Do we need hologram of Sojourner Truth delivering her “Ain’t I Woman? Speech in 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio?  In defense of her video, Allen said “it has nothing to do with race, at all.” But Lilly Allen, it does. When it comes to Black women in America—it has everything to do with race. Allen is absolutely correct when she sings “It’s is hard out here for a Bitch especially a Black one looking for a bone of respect in a country that continues to deny her humanity.
The irony of it all is that, DeRogatis a White man, who benefits from patriarchy and White privilege in America understands better than Allen, Noland and Kelly what it’s like on these streets for Black women and girls. DeRogatis believes Kelly was able to give do what he did because of the marginalization of Black women in our society. “The saddest fact I’ve learned is: nobody matters less to our society than young Black women.”

Beep, beep! Get of the way. You know what they say about buses, if you miss one, there’s another one coming—and it’s headed our way.