Posts Tagged ‘black culture’

The Language of Blackness

July 11, 2015

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Alternately, I could have named this post “On How America Taught the World to ‘be Black’ ” and not be too far off from either sentiment. Of course, it’s about more than simply language as spoken communication, but the specifically unarticulated as well. A language of knowing and understanding in a plethora of ways. As I was reading through the real time tweets of those epic #AskRachel memes, I kept thinking about this, how a kind of blackness becomes codified through popular culture and all the rest of us, black people from elsewhere — know the answers too.

It’s knowing that even though I have never been to a family reunion before,* replete with matching t-shirts and a rounds of the Cupid Shuffle, I feel as though I know what it might be like. And even what I think I know probably pales in comparison to the real experience. I understand also, that black Americans are not always singularly in control of or ultimately responsible for the way those cultural images of themselves are reproduced and disseminated. I’m not going to delve into whether all the images are nuanced enough or multifaceted enough. But I will say in many parts of the world where black people reside, seeing glamorous black people in daytime soaps or movies — in fact, kinds of reflections of ourselves in any form on screen — took place in American movies.

I grew up primarily on American pop culture and occasionally, British. When I was younger, we paid one price to see double features from Hollywood, sometimes Bollywood. Every wave of fashion and music rooted in African American culture made its way to the West Indies. Though the boys in my secondary school worshipped at the altar of dancehall, with original songs, “dollar discos,” and chanting sessions accompanied by poundings on the desks mimicking riveting basslines — at my graduation dance, someone also breakdanced. Although breaking was no longer in vogue then, unexpected dexterous dancing was always cool. We got in a circle like we’d all seen on TV, and we whooped and cheered him on.

That the cultural blackness of the Rachel memes was instantaneously recognizable for segments of the English speaking black diaspora should come as no surprise. We all greased and sprayed with African Pride and coated strands slick with Pink moisturiser at some point, because it was being done in black American culture. And the ways in which capitalism spun blackness into products and encoded blackness into branding found markets far beyond the United States for those who had access to them.

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Words of Divine: Sizzla, Identity and Black Supremacy

August 24, 2014

Kalonji

“Tell you about Black Man supremacy!”– Sizzla

Almost every Trini of my generation went through a serious Sizzla phase it feels like. Mine, never quite left. For some people, that meant locking up. Reggae sessions. Rasta dances up in St. James and elsewhere. An ites, gold and green phase. All Rasta sandals and Rasta belt and other trinkets, if not real Rastafari trodding. Sounds of Sizzla have stayed with me. Ises and powerful word vibrations. Before #black supremacy was a trending thing, before #black girl supremacy, before Tumblr and Twitter — there was Kalonji, hailing blackness and black womaness as supremely black, powerful and worthy of love, acknowledgement, and protection.

Actually, before Miguel Collins, there was Marcus Mosiah Garvey mobilising black folks for repatriation and heralding their collective power. Garvey, who is one of the spiritual forefathers of Bobo Shantis‘ call for self-reliance and self-actualization for black people. Bobos, whether touting nuts, ital elixirs or handmade brooms across the region, are not about your white supremacist capitalist bullshit. Of Bobo artistes, John Masouri wisely noted that “not since the days of James Brown’s Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud has black consciousness combined with popular music to such rallying effect.”

Eventually, as I became a teenager, the music of Sizzla was such a force in contributing to my black self awareness. Even for myself, and I was already growing up in a house where all my siblings and most of my cousins had African names, I read books with black characters like “Jambo Means Hello!”, and mainly played with black Barbies and other dolls. I know now, how important listening to Sizzla has been for my consciousness and it always will be for me. Heralding the supremacy of the black (man), however admittedly patriarchal and gendered that imagining was, was still very powerful. And no one else was doing so, quite in the same way. Bob Marley shared a Pan-African ethos that easily became multiversed for all kinds of people, the more widely the message spread. Rastafari is love, one love, and slightly decentered from blackness in some ways, but Bobos, via early Sizzla especially, were on a whole other tip.  Like Alice Walker said, I am “not a separatist, except periodically, for health” but damn if I don’t enjoy hanging out in musical spaces where blackness is treasured and exalted supreme.

And yes, it’s amazing how we never die.

Sizzla was talking about what black people are made off: truths and rights and African traditions among other things. Refuting evolution because black people couldn’t possibly be descended from lowly monkeys.* (What he’s also doing importantly is debunking scientific racism in one fell swoop). Sharing love for the ghetto youths dem. He’s also really good when he is reinscribing biblical stories and making quasi historical and political allegories. I enjoy slack Sizzla, pum pum singing Sizzla. The Sizzla embodying Whitman’s, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Here for it.

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Makin’ Style: Trinidad James and Saga Boy Aesthetics

January 5, 2013

james

The cultural shadow gets cast when someone from your own cultural background or heritage does something noteworthy or cringeworthy — Trinidad James is currently casting one. Depending on who you ask, the responses range from shame to staunch or low-key West Indian pride. The eyes of the twin-island republic (and its diaspora) that carries the name of his moniker have been watching especially close. So amidst all the hoopla, I finally sat down near the end of last year and watched the video for “All Gold Everything.”

I wasn’t terribly offended at all (surprisingly), but I was highly intrigued by the imagery after I took several minutes to process it all. From the time the beat started thumping and the camera pans to the flag ring next to James’ gold laden fingers, the gold handlebars, the leopard print (crushed velvet looking) shirt, the crisp Trinidad and Tobago bandana clutched like some kind of scepter, the puppy and the sawed off shotgun; this interspersed with scenes of James’ crew on the block, James up in the club — I was relegated to sorting out my piquing interest.

While trying to order my thoughts around the visual imagery, the sparse lyrics and the criticisms I’d heard and read, I was struck by Trinidad James’ style aesthetic and why it seemed to strike a culturally familiar chord. And I’m not the only one talking and thinking about the way he dresses.  In an interview on New York’s Hot 97, when asked about his unique fashion sense, James acknowledged that he “ran a boutique in Atlanta for like, three, four years.”

Trinidad James Of course, indie rap is hardly a strange place within which to indulge a different kind of fashion sense. Other rappers like The Based God (Lil B) and A$ap Rocky also help reinscribe the boundaries of what rappers, black men and black men rappers could dress like. A$ap also has a penchant for gold but then again, few rappers don’t. What makes Trinidad James of curious note is where his aesthetic converges at the intersection of nationality and cultural emblems.

As any visit to any major North American carnival would show, flag bandanas and nation colors have long been imbued inside the fashion sense of folks who are part of the nostalgic West Indian diaspora. I see more Trini flags in Miami carnival, than I do on the streets of Port of Spain, like, ever.

At the Ft. Lauderdale airport this holiday break, when I said to my new friend (we were on the same flight up and back) that I liked an older gentleman’s hat, a straw fedora with the colors of the Trinidad and Tobago flag wrapped as a neat side band around the crown, my friend commented derisively that he didn’t because he used to don “all kinda flag ting when I first came up” and he didn’t like any of those things anymore.

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Michael and Me

June 26, 2009

I really felt compelled to write something on the advent of Michael Jackson’s passing. Which really hit me. In my life, when I think about Michael — I think about my big brother and the two are inextricably connected for me in a multitude of ways. He is one of the biggest MJ fans I know. While everything I learnt about American and British 80s pop culture, its music and icons — I learnt from my big sis, hearing her play the music when I was little and watching her dress in the fashions of the day.

Everything I learnt about Michael Jackson, his music and that of others from the 90s, before and beyond in pop, rock, rap, conscious, dancehall, calyso, soca and soul — as well as show business and how to recognize the consummate performer — I learnt from my brother. From listening to the “Bad” or “We are the World” LP to watching marathon sessions of “Moonwalker” and “Thriller” on vhs. Or “Michael Jackson Live in Bucharest” from the Dangerous tour. Before it fell apart in tatters, the poster of Michael Jackson on the door of the bedroom that I grew up in — I’d received from my brother.

I had forgotten all about video tapes until a friend of mine from undergrad, who grew up in Ghana, posted his own memory on facebook of seeing “Thriller” for the first time there on video, “through a mosquito net” and I laughed and was reminded of my own childhood. I’ve read “Moonwalk” and probably seen “Smooth Criminal” too many times to count. I had to eat my words as I watched my brother moonwalk across the carpet of our house in Trinidad after doubting that he could. In socks! On carpet! Guess all that practice and attention to detail paid off after all.

I used to cringe when my friends were educated in the artistry of Michael by my brother sometimes, when they came over but I grew to love Michael Jackson because, I grew up with him, about as much as I grew up with my brother. My friends in turn, learnt a lot about Michael, whether they wanted to or not. So, Michael Jackson reminds me of childhood and the reach and span of American pop culture around the world. He and other symbols of American music and culture embody so much of  what I love about pop culture and reminds me why I like to write about it, read about it and learn about it so much. Both the good and the bad aspects of it.

Any one who knows my brother can attest that he is one of the biggest Michael fans in Trinidad. Also a serious movie and music buff. One of the coolest people I know, a sometimes quiet, thoughtful fella — who always looks out for those he loves. No one brought my brother out of his shell growing-up, like Michael Jackson’s music and talking about the talent that he was. As a lover of great music across genres, I was (and still am) a little sister, basking in the recommendation of anything by my big brother. I am as big a Michael fan that I am today, largely due to him. So I was contemplating various angles to undertake when I thought about writing this.

Obviously I’ve been contesting with all the MJ naysayers in the facebook world and I wanted to talk about that, what that means, if anything. Secretly pleased to see how many people I know are as touched by his passing as I was. Legitimized that I am not an anomaly. Legitimized that some of the most negative people I know of, [NOT friends of mine but acquaintances] have the worst things to say about someone, on the eve of their death, via online communities, as though they know nothing about speaking ill of the dead.  These are the kinds of people who wear negative vibes like a shroud around them, so much so, that Michael Jackson is the least of their concern — not that much outside their realm is. Who you are sensitive toward in your life that you know personally, doesn’t impress me much (that’s okay though), it’s who you are compassionate toward that you don’t know, now that’s most telling.

Thanks to many branches of American media, to be part of a community of persons who love and appreciate Michael’s art was equated with some kind of freakishness. The man and his genius became nothing more than a caricature to some people. Some people from a certain generation —  their only understanding of the man’s legacy? Through a Katt Williams routine. If I never hear “wacko jacko” again, it’ll be one of the things making me happy. So will a certain someone’s spirit, resting easily now, rejoice too with happiness in this knowing, I am sure.

Now, on to the naysayers who probably shouldn’t be reading this anyway. About the extortion-plots, the child abuse charges — I’ve been a one-woman rallying cry amongst some of the people that I know personally, pointing them toward articles, encouraging them to get more information and alternate insight into the story. Before anyone starts, no I was not there — neither were you. But I do know that the media bias, the cultural witch-hunt and the mob rampaging after Michael Jackson, never went to any great lengths to paint an accurate portrayal of the extortion angle in the Michael Jackson case, the dubious characteristics of the accuser/s and their parents and their shady past — even though evidence for all this exists.

It was much, much easier to tie someone’s supposed eccentricities to alleged criminal behavior. Not that I think that Michael Jackson is any kind of weirdo at all, though pop cultural discourse loves to paint him that way. Some of the weirdest things — thoughts and habits, go on inside the heads and lives of all of us. All. People like you and me. What’s weird? Wanting to stay a child? I’ve felt that way sometimes. Loving the company of children? I have — at times. Ill-behaved brats, not so much. Not liking what you see in the mirror? Been there, done that. Wanting a cool pet chimp? Ok, maybe not. Monkeys kind of creep me out but I do want a baby pig! And what’s weird anyway? Think about that. Weird I say, not criminal. Not problematic. It’s not all the same thing either. People would police Michael Jackson’s behavior so much that the inane became “weird,” code in MJ-related speak for normal for him — but not us! Everything therefore, was always weird when it came to him. He became a spectacle for the media especially, as though any of the rest of us are fucking normal. Whatever that even means.

Like the boy who cried wolf! The ploy only worked because since actual wolves existed, the fear of a wolf existed and people knew that it was entirely possible for one to eventually appear one day — and it did. But people also lie about awful things all the time. People do. And people also forge all kinds of terrible allegations for money or in the hopes that money (gobs and gobs of it) will be forthcoming, all the time. Child abuse — not unlike wolf! is one of those cries where the fear of such a crime, manifests itself in the awfulness behind even just an implication and the implication alone becomes enough. The mere fact that it was even made in the first place.

We might need to see a wolf first but some things in life require just a hint, a whisper, a creepy consternation in the mind of one or two bad-minded persons. An imagination of the awful takes root in a masquerade of truth. Why was that even said to begin with? — some people say in retaliation. It must be true, they contest. I mean, why is anything ever said? Depends on who’s doing the saying and why. And about what. If we understand more about the boy who cried wolf! (that’s a metaphor folks!) then perhaps we’d understand more about why he said what he said in the first place. And for that story, you have to go look for it and really want to unearth it. That story will not be brought to you by the people who have drawn the “weirdo” line in the sand and are pointing and laughing at the person on the other side from theirs.

Some of the least informed people are the people holding these things to be true most vehemently. Likewise, they tend to be those people who least appreciate Michael Jackson — but love to think that they know more than his supporters who actually got informed about various aspects of the allegations. I started embarking on this piece by looking for an article that I read in Vibe magazine — one of the best articulations that I’d read at the time about Michael, through a lens of deconstructing race.  Got me to thinking too — that piece, saying some of the things that people don’t want to hear. Or think about. Got me thinking about how some black people were upset that he became so-called “white” [not that it’s even possible] — like some of them never wanted to themselves and white people were upset that he had the gall to try.

What do black people really see when they look at him? Do you look past the external? Is the outside, in this case, at all relevant to your view? And what do you think about, if you’re white and you look — really look, at the face of Michael, through that kind of critical-thinking lens: that he’s trying to be you, look like you? That he just hated his nose? Or do you see “a freak?”  Do you try to reconcile this with your sense of self — your people’s history of white dominant values and constructions of beauty? Or do you dare not tread there, just detach yourself and talk about how fucked up he must be? Just him. That man over there with the tweaked nose — The Fucked Up One?

What about you reading this? Have you thought about what you think about Michael Jackson? And why you think what you think?

I was originally tempted to do a retrospective about what his transformation — said about race and identity [topics that concern me].  Then I thought, that maybe now wasn’t the best time to do so. But when is ever a good time really? Seems like never. So here I am, just going with the flow instead, doing a kind of retrospective on the man, his music, race, color, what it means for me in my life — however the heck it flows. And it’s flowing. Here I had been, hopefully waiting for the announcement of US tour dates after Europe [I knew they HAD to be coming] and had told my brother that we would be going, no matter where in the States they were — I’d get us tickets. He’d fly up and we’d go. Might be his last tour. The man’s no spring chicken I thought, never ever expecting this. Thought he’d just kick back in Neverland, enjoying watching his kids grow  up. So much for that. *Inward sad sigh*

Earlier today,  I got a call from a dear primary school friend in Trinidad and we talked about the news, the music, the memories, the sadness. She also reminded me that some people under a certain age just will NOT get any of this at all.  Plus we both understand that some people in the world, just feel like they have to loathe Michael Jackson for whatever reason — any reason or no reason. So we’ll just ignore them and all the folks like them. In the meantime, let’s enjoy the man, the music, the legend, humanitarian, father, brother, son, the memories, the innovator — the icon.

Disclaimer: So as not to field any comments (emails) and feedback from people getting all defensive and shit. Of course, child-abuse is a serious charge and crime; whenever, wherever it occurs. And whomever commits it. I am not contesting that. If you think I am, then you’ve clearly missed the whole point entirely.  

Things to check out:

Please read Mary Fischer’s “Was Michael Jackson Framed: The Untold Story” below, for added perspective that you probably don’t have. You don’t have to be Nancy Drew to connect the dots between the first extortion case and the 2003 charges leading up to the 2005 trial.

http://www.buttonmonkey.com/misc/maryfischer.html

The article I referenced above in my blog was “Black Skin, White Mask” by Karen R. Good from the March 2002 issue of Vibe Magazine. Read the article here at The Michael Jackson fanclub. Short but lovely piece taking on the intricacies of skin color, race and identity—and Michael.

One of the best blogs I’ve surfed onto about Michael Jackson and race, performativity, identity, pop culture, prescribed gender roles, the media–among other things. Do check it out below:

http://orvillelloyddouglas.wordpress.com/2007/09/04/michael-jackson-and-james-blake-a-product-of-north-american-society/

Pan on the Net Radio does a stellar show dedicated to Michael’s memory through sweet pan! Click  above link to take a listen.

I also liked these celebrity responses found at yahoo! in response to Michael Jackson’s death.

John Mayer: “A major strand of our cultural DNA has left us.”

And ?uestlove from The Roots, whose original tweet/post [whatever it was] this morning, when I read it said:  “I just hope that he will get due justice in all the press memorials and whatnot. I know he was mired in controversy the last decade of his life but I think it’s time we let him rest in peace and learn to separate the ART and the ARTIST. That is the MJ I will forever remember. Elvis got revisionist media treatment. I expect the friggin same for my hero.” The version on yahoo! now has the Elvis bit edited out. Interesting.

Poignant and telling MJ quotes from the interview on Oprah in 1993:

About the press: “The press has made up so much…God…awful, horrifying stories…it has made me realize the more often you hear a lie, I mean, you begin to believe it.”

On performing: “Well, on stage for me was home. I was most comfortable on stage but once I got off stage, I was like, very sad.”

On his physical appearance: “No, I’m never pleased with myself. No, I try not to look in the mirror.”

Elizabeth Taylor on the misunderstanding of Michael Jackson: “He is the least weird man I have ever known. He is highly intelligent, shrewd, intuitive, understanding, sympathetic, generous – to almost a fault, of himself.”

Click to read the rest.

The 2005, inteview with Jesse Jackson: “…But what I like to do is help other children who are less fortunate than I am. You know kids who are terminally ill, kids who have diseases, poor children from the inner cities, you know the ghettos, to let them see the mountains, or to let see or go on the rides, or to watch a movie or to have some ice cream or something.”

From the 1999 interview in Britain’s Daily Mirror: “I’d slit my wrists rather than hurt a child. I could never do that.”

Lyrics from “Childhood,” written and composed by Michael Jackson, from the HIStory album, [disk 2] 1995:–

“Have you seen my Childhood?
I’m searching for the world that I
Come from
‘Cause I’ve been looking around
In the lost and found of my heart

No one understands me
They view it as such strange eccentricities
‘Cause I keep kidding around
Like a child, but pardon me

People say I’m not okay
‘Cause I love such elementary things.
It’s been my fate to compensate,
for the Childhood
I’ve never known

Have you seen my Childhood?
I’m searching for that wonder in my youth
Like pirates in adventurous dreams,
Of conquest and kings on the throne

Before you judge me, try hard to love me,
Look within your heart then ask,
Have you seen my Childhood?”

MJ

John Mayer (el douche) pays tribute.

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kX2Vb68egWA]

Retrospective clip from Moonwalker.

Man in the Mirror.

Montage of Michael to the fabulous sounds of Phase II Pan Groove doing “Billy Jean.”

RIP.

Invisible Women [pt 1]: The Plight of Missing Black Women and the Media

May 14, 2009

“I have come to the conclusion that to a lot of people, nothing black girls do is good enough!! They get the blame for everything seem like it!!”–young black girl commenting on the demonizing of black women on a BET message board.

“I am so sick of losers like you putting black women down, like we are the lowest thing on earth.”—black female poster on another popular black message board.

It’s an interesting time to be a black female in America. The difficulties it seems are paramount. What makes it so difficult being black and female in America in this day and age? Well, lots of things. First of all, there are many more mediums out here that do more harm to the representation of black women than good. American pop culture and its ideas are so pervasive too; its images take root and reach all around the globe, far and wide. Think about the implications behind this range of the image of black women and girls, and not just on this continent.

In particular, the position of young black females who view these images (wherever they might be located) is particularly tenuous. It is this group that I am most concerned with as well as not so young ones (smile) like myself. The insistence of the media in various forms and fashions to blatantly ignore the plight of young black women wherever danger befalls them, to consistently fall short in its representation of women of color ends up sending a clear message to young women of color. One that says, you are not valued and you are not important.

If you think this message is not resonating loud and clear in the minds and souls of young black girls, then maybe you should find a cross section of them, sit down with them and see what they have to say. Or perhaps take the time to trawl some message boards where they frequent. Everywhere you go, the message is this same. Young black girls feel increasingly disenfranchised, they feel ugly, unrepresented, unimportant and irrelevant.

While young black girls should not be looking to the media to develop a sense of self worth, they still do so. Teenagers are particularly susceptible. Now there is nothing innately wrong with doing so, if there were balanced healthy images available for them to ingest and if they could consistently view these images with a critical eye. Young people must be actively given the tools with which to develop the skills that will allow them to take in these messages into a more discerning mind. Still, TV and pop culture should not be the sole outlet by any means because we all can see that MTV and BET and the like, seriously fall short.

However my central criticism is that whenever the media does send a message of inadvertent omission (or a consciously direct one), this in and of itself, is a message. One of the most powerful ones of all. If it’s not a message that black people do not exist within a particular space whether it’s as scholars, upper class, intellectuals, middle class, eclectic and so forth, because these images are nowhere near as populous as some of the other kinds. Then it’s one of dismissal. Non recognition and non inclusion makes an equally powerful statement. So it becomes an argument quite beyond that of simple inclusion and visibility. It’s also about those faces and voices that have been seen, felt, heard and still ignored. Maybe because they were not deemed good enough or worthy enough.

The significant thing about the invisibility of black women in some places despite all that I have learnt about race, gender, sexism and the like, is the strange way that I end up internalizing some of it. I feel as though I am less fearful than some of my fair headed and fairer skinned female friends when it comes to certain matters. I am not afraid of The Bad Man (whoever that is), some infernal boogeyman or strange things that go bang in the night. No looking out for suspicious vans with curtains that practically scream “serial killer inside!” But it’s not because I think that I am invincible at all, rather I have, at one time or the other, in a dark parking lot with aforementioned creepy van encroaching thought, “now who would want to grab me?” I suppose I am more fearful of specific people, places and things—more than any mysterious things out there.

Pop cultural discourse on The Serial Killer and Other Scary Things doesn’t ever seem too concerned with trying to make black women look over their shoulder but as a demographic—white women always must. Not just the actual Ted Bundys out there but all these other myriads of scary things out there, primed to get women—white women. The biggest difference we see with this message is when The Serial Killer forays into the world of sex workers or some other group supposedly on the fringes of society—then and only then, does the call to fear and fearfulness usually begin to cross racial lines.

Like Jada Pinkett-Smith’s character in the Scream 2 movie—subtextual messages in certain films, the absence of people of color in many popular horror films or the ease with which they might be decapitated early on, if there are any in the first place—all help contribute toward creating this absurd, twisted bubble of safety that I feel I sometimes exist in. These representations are further compounded by the fact that the black actresses and actor in the second Scream movie were seen by many as a way to save face for the absence of any in the first film. Black women in horror films are clearly dispensable when we even exist to be preyed upon at all.

Invisible Women [pt 2]: The Plight of Missing Black Women and the Media

May 14, 2009

We can connect these images too, to the larger discourse about black women, their desirability when stacked against white women. Macabre perhaps, but in the context of horror films and the larger conversation—clearly significant. By that same token, black women being picked off by a psychopath with a carving knife for example, would be equally problematic. I do not want to be mistaken for coveting more race-specific depictions of violence against women, encouraging it, nor wistful for any.

Rather, I am trying to consider how our social, racial, cultural, historical, political past informs those pop cultural images inside these dark places that we voluntarily want to go to—-like those inside of a scary movie. Even at a relatively young age, when we are supposed to be psyched about safely encountering our fears and having our hair follicles prickle, like inside the pages of the Fear Street books of my youth—these always seemed to feature wide-eyed, white females on the illustrations on the covers.

I know that I am not necessarily safe from anything in this world, but so much of the discourse on certain kinds of violence against women that we hear about, when not committed by someone close to the victim (and sometimes even then), is often portrayed in the media as linked to female desirability. If the victim is physically appealing, you hear about her beauty all the time. The awful media swarm around the JonBenet Ramsey case was always underscored by the little girl’s beauty and her glamorous pageant footage ran endlessly over and over on many news programs. She was portrayed as the tragic little woman-child.

One hardly ever sees accurate linkages to power, control, other systems of oppression, pornography and other factors explored in these kinds of cases. If black women are then considered less desirable, are we any less fearful of certain kinds of violence? Along with films, mainstream media and their news outlets play a large role in the creation of a culture of fear, fear of violence against women, as well as clearly establishing exactly which women need to be fearful. Take for example, the case of Stepha Henry who went missing in May 2007.

Stepha Henry is a great example because I had often heard newscasters espouse the fact that young, attractive women who go missing in America will have a better chance at their story gaining national attention regardless of the circumstances surrounding their disappearance. Race of course conveniently being that factor that was left out and overlooked. So I wondered about Stepha Henry because she was young, about to go to law school and attractive. But then again, she was black. What message does this send to black women in America when her story is initially ignored?

This of course being coupled with the lack of options for diverse representations of black women in the media and entertainment that are positive. Missing black women are at the other end of the spectrum, voiceless, faceless to the masses because of a media that refuses to publicize their tale, forgotten and ignored by all but those who are personally invested in the story. That’s how the media works though. A story only becomes imbued in the public consciousness because of this very media manipulation.

Which is in fact why I can recite so many of the facts of the Natalee Holloway case off the top of my head as I type, little nitty gritty things like she was a straight A student and on her senior trip, she liked to dance, she was about to start university on a full scholarship. This is also why I can in fact get the unique spelling of her name right in the first draft of this piece and not type “Natalie” because I know. I do not know her but I do. She is blonde and young and missing in Aruba. Her disappearance is certainly tragic but I wonder, why wasn’t Stepha Henry afforded the same personalization and coverage? And why (if I am to be honest) am I not surprised? What happens to the other stories of black women who go missing?

Historically, black women have had to deal with a lot, both within our communities and outside of it. Between colorism, slavery and its various legacies: the black mammies on Southern plantations, slave concubines for slave-masters, colonialism, oversexualized stereotypes of black women, the so-called video vixen, good hair vs. bad hair and more. I couldn’t even begin to list them all. The Hottentot Venus exemplified the ways in which perceived black female sexuality was literally dissected and paraded to a curious European populace.

American southern states clearly placed a higher value on the lives and preservation of white women, while the lives and well being of women of color were considered expendable. Southern trees would often bear the fruit of black men who in some cases, refused to accept this disregard for their wives, mothers, girlfriends and sisters. Our collective story runs deep and is rife with complexities, some stretching back centuries, some self-imposed, some not, all being part of the rich fabric that is the black female experience. At once beautiful, painful, poignant, enduring and so much more. Yes, so I guess there has never been an easy time to be a black female.

i know it’s not christmas but….

April 6, 2009

i am currently listening to this

jacob miller

my dad plays this album EVERY christmas and i just had a yearning to listen to my copy of it. hey, good vibes is good vibes. hearing “all i want fuh christmas is my collie herb, my collie herb, o, my collie herb” in april just makes me smile. merry I-smas all.

Black People. Black Identities.

September 26, 2008

Being a person of color in the world today oftentimes means existing in some kind of hypenated category. Especially if you’re black, we’re prone to using the “black” as a kind of qualitative factor alongside whatever other label you need to insert thereafter. And so, it becomes, I’m not just a feminist, but a “black feminist,” a “black nerd,” “black gamer,” “black surfer,” “black west-indian,” “black skateboarder” et al. It’s important too, because how else does one distinguish one’s self from the legions of other participants who are, by and large, of another ethnic persuasion.

We need this visibility too, because it creates community and it’s essential for the broadening of the scope of “blackness” and what it means to be “black.” Much like a reincarnation of Dubois’ notion of the “double consciousness” for African-Americans and other transplants from the African Diaspora, black people often have to straddle multiple realms of identity.

Certain kinds of subcultures, are for the most part, made up of enough other kinds of people, that the black folk therein, form a distinct subculture within said subculture. Movements and films like Afropunk give voice to a space where like-minded persons of color, can be free to conglomerate and be punk-and-rock loving, lip pierced-and-tattooed black people without judgement. Or for that matter, just any representation that falls outside of what is usually deemed ‘mainstream black culture.’ Whatever that is…..but yay to that! I am huge fan of thinking outside the proverbial box.

So, Shotgun Seamstress (see cover pic above) for example, is a great zine out of Portland, dedicated to the black punk scene. And yup, there is one! While I grew up in a black majority place, seeing people of color play rock music wasn’t an anomaly per se, but it didn’t mean that some people I knew, didn’t think I was weirdo for rocking out to Green Day and Pearl Jam in secondary school while everyone was pounding dub all the time. My musical tastes have grown considerably more eclectic since, (inclusive of dub as well) but I would have loved to have seen something like Afropunk back then, to let me know that it was okay that I didn’t like what everyone else seemed to predominately like.

Recently though, I began to wonder, to what extent do black people involved in certain subcultures feel divided by this dual identity of self. More importantly do they even feel that way? I started with skateboarding, not just because I LOVE the idea of black people on skateboards, but along with surfing, strikes me as this quintessential example of a cultural scene, that is heavily populated with white people–usually.

Trying to find black skateboaders in my immediate area was almost virtually impossible and surfers—quite impossible, even though I am in Florida and nearby a coastline. But I did find two skateboarders finally, a male and a female, who were willing to reply to my questionnaire and share some insight with me, about what it’s like to be black and skateboard. I also had a black, Trini friend from the technology field and Microsoft, give me some input as well and the findings were interesting.

I also asked the girl pertinent questions related to her gender (had to throw that into the mix). Both skaters have been skating for all, if not most of their lives.  Being a girl affected her perceived perception by others, slightly more than being black did. And that I presume was relative to the question posed. For question # 3 What does the term being a “black skateboarder” mean to you? [if anything?]  generated the following responses: “Nothing really. It’s just cool to be involved in a sport or activity other than the typical “black sports” like basketball or football. I mean I love those sports too, but skateboarding gives me something a little different.”

Another answer stated, “I’m a mothafuckin skater period. ‘Black skateboarders’ are the douchebags ruining what I cherish everyday.” The next question # 4, on that note, are you “black” first and foremost, THEN a girl-skater, or does it not matter at all out at the skate park?” garnered the following response, “I think people notice the fact that I’m a girl skater first, and then it kinda shocks them to see a black girl skater. I guess it makes sense because you don’t really see a lot of us, but once you hit some decent tricks you kinda blend in as just another skater. Like everyone is there for that common goal….to work on their tricks and get better, soon after, gender and race are out of the picture.”

On the other hand, for a similar question # 4, on that note, are you “black” first and foremost, THEN a skater, or does it not matter at all out at the skate park? The respondent replied, “Race has never played ever the smallest factor in a damn thing I do at the skatepark. That’s why I started skating because we were ALL rebels who no one liked and came together and didn’t give a fuck what the next person looked like…”

One participant used to see themselves as part of a sub-culture, ONLY as separate and in defiance of “mainstream” skateboard representations and the other understood that they were viewed as a subculture when posed with the question, but admitted that they tried not to “consciously see it.” When questioned if and how being black, may or may not affect or influence their skating style, both participants declared that it had no major effect. 

I think it’s interesting that black people within certain subcultures [as with outside] just want to–belong. They want to fit in and be regarded as just another PERSON doing whatever it may be. In the words of my technology respondent, “I like to think I can transcend the race part.” In this case, this person also saw themselves as actively part of multiple subcultures like “the caribbean sub-culture, I’m in the black-subculture, I’m in the technologists subculture, marketers etc.” Unlike skaters which required the mastering and execution of different kinds of skills-sets (largely physical, curiously), the technologist saw how being a person of color clearly affected their own ‘style’ and perspective in the field, as well as the effect of their Caribbean heritage. 

It’s also a matter of choice. Some people choose to identify that way and some don’t. I am a black feminist and I identify as such. Being black has informed my positionality in the world just as much (if not more), as being a female and a feminist has and this is how I choose to see myself. I take ‘black’ with me into other spheres as well, because I want to. In some spaces, taking ‘black’ with you, is a bummer for other folk. And a buzzkill. People don’t dig it. It makes you less authentic somehow, rather than a neutral participant of the particular activity and all that it entails. A connection was made by one of the participants more than once, between the ‘realness’ of true skateboarding culture and the supposed absence of race.

In many subcultural spaces, this would not be possible (and I am not too sure that it even is, but then again I am not a skateboarder so I don’t actually know) but I suppose I appreciate it for what it is. That’s what we’ve always done anyway. Simultaneously bound by the extent of this lovely color and its legacy, some of us have always found ways to do just that–transcend–and others, to simply just, be. Like James Brown said, say it loud people. Say it loud.

Speaking of alternative representations of glorious blackness and people of color:

Order copies of ShotgunSeamstress through Microcosm Publishing at www.microcosmpublishing.com

Check out the Afropunk community

Support some local trini rock for free at http://trinidadandtobagoisfucked.blogspot.com/2008/05/trinidad-tobago-is-fucked.html

 

 

Be Careful What You Stick For

April 10, 2008

You may not have the facebook  Bumper Sticker application added yet, but chances are there are several people on your friends list that already do.  When this app actually works, it’s a quirky little trove of ditties, pics and sayings that facebook users have uploaded themselves into the application to share with other users of the application. 

If you love baseball, love Barack Obama, hate the war in Iraq, want a picture still from your favorite movie, care about “sober kids in India” or you just “can’t wait till summer ‘08!” Well, you can upload a sticker onto your profile that will inject some color and spunk while announcing this to all and sundry whenever they visit your page.  Want to send a subtle message to an ex that’s cute, quirky and unbelievably succint?  Upload a bumper sticker! Bumper stickers after all are only so big.  You’d be surprised what you can squeeze into an image that is not a whole lot bigger than a thumbnail.

Speaking of images…There seems to be a great deal more bumper stickers that send negative racially charged messages about black people than any other ethnic group.  These are a great deal more popular than many of the other thematic concerns of stickers that you can find while trawling the app.  More popular than “everyone loves an Italian girl.” More popular even than the “proud to be a cracker” sticker (insert pic of cracker there, not the actual word), which at last check had been uploaded over 1,098 times by fellow users on facebook. Some racist image stickers are uploaded way more than that already, a few thousand times over already.

You frequently find these stickers high up on the “browse stickers” link pages, because the more a sticker has been downloaded, the easier it is find on the application’s earliest pages. There’s the sticker with the spoof on “Piglet” of Winnie-The-Pooh fame, which is hugelyridiculously popular. It is essentially piglet, colored black, and titled “Niglet,” which is also obviously a play on another derogatory word for people of African descent, and enough people found that this sticker was amusing enough to upload multiple thousands of occasions.  There is also another version of the ever-popular “niglet” sticker, with black piglet holding a wedge of watermelon under one arm and thrusting a bucket of KFC chicken, up into the air with the other, with a huge wide cartoon grin super imposed over the face. Piglet plus the N-word makes for some good humor apparently. 

There’s also the sticker of a menacing, dark-skinned black man declaring “I will rape you”. Then there’s the sticker of another black man, arms enveloped lovingly around an array of many watermelons (yes, watermelons) and the tagline says, “Oh Lawds, is I in heaven?” Complete with bad english and all.  In fact the proportion of bumper sticker images of black people (who are not famous) that involves images of “coonery” are astounding.  You can find watermelons, lots of references to chicken—specifically fried, so-called black vernacular with bad spelling in broken english and plenty bad teeth. Sometimes, bumper sticker is a cold place to navigate. 

All the while I’m there mumbling to myself as I go from page to page, “who thinks these things are funny?”  Who indeed? There’s the black ‘n white sticker of the close-up of a black man face’s, teeth bared in an angry sneer, with a line of forest behind him. Superimposed across his face are the words “Bitch!  Go up to the counter and tell a nigga I want a chicken sandwich and some waffle fries!”  Who uploads this stuff and for what purpose? Now you can see the name of the person who uploaded a sticker but you can’t see them  through the application. 

You can however do a later facebook search for them.  A white guy named Nick uploaded the aforementioned black and white sticker.  There’s one of yet another black man, eyes squeezed tight, in a sharp ole school hat showing off his wide, gaping mouth with the requisite less than perfect smile. This one espouses the tagline “ya dig!”  seemingly spilling from the man’s more-or-less toothless mouth. This one is also uploaded, by a facebook name search possibility, of select white males.  So many people seem to think that all these images of black people and perceived blackness are quite hilarious.

Bumper sticker (again when it works) is this interesting experiment in the kinds of things that people think are funny or at least relevant (or something).  It’s not on your car after all, so it’s not just simply that you believe seal clubbing is wrong. It’s about you as you are perceived through your page, what you think and like and enjoy. It’s about your personality more than anything. Like whether you’re a self-professed bitch, or you love shoes, partying with the girls, you love chocolate, you’re a loyal friend, you put dicks before chicks and what have you.

It’s just another way to dress your page up—the subliminal messages are just an added bonus. It’s about community too. It’s not just that some one person uploaded a certain image of a black man with watermelons, but furthermore, that significant amounts of people share the same outlook enough, to share it with their friends and upload it themselves.  You do feel kind of warm and fuzzy inside, when you see that someone, from who-knows-where, uploaded a sticker that is a still from the movie My Girl 2  and then you feel this swell of belonging.  This rocks, because maybe you think that My Girl 2 rocks too.

 Furthermore, you just happened to stumble upon it, while doing a general sticker browse, so it feels extra exciting.  You weren’t even looking for something so cool and you found it. Largely because the category listings in bumper sticker, are painfully inadequate and inept anyway, so this is how people mainly find anything in there. You get sucked into it too, like the Matrix and next thing you know, you are on page 97 and seeing double. And you wonder where you’ve seen this watermelon grin or cat rolled up as a “purrito” before? Three, four, twelve pages back? Who the fuck knows anymore.

I am not necessarily advocating all-round censorship because part of the fun is in fact the input that the users themselves have to play in the success of the application.  It’s like one great pic swap shop in the cyberworld of facebook. You can mark a sticker as offensive of course but that doesn’t mean that someone else, will not reload it again later or that the one you flagged, was not one of several.  Sometimes, images can be found uploaded multiple times by different people, especially if lots of people like it.  Like the niglets in pink.  Anyway, you can also make it a point, if you are likewise concerned, to upload your own positive, representative images, to combat the rampant negative stereotypical ones in this application.

Then of course there’s the whole matter of who’s doing the uploading and who’s doing the downloading. I’m going to guess that more college students and certainly high school students, participate in this particular application on a whole.  Lots of people across the board might Superpoke, but let’s face it, some apps just appeal to certain demographics faster.  When I wanted to send a really great “black girls rock” sticker, first I had to stop and think, ok, what black girl friends of mine do I know, that even have the bumper sticker app. The end result was not that many.

I’m also going to make a guess about demographic based on the hugely popular “I love my black man” sticker.  You know quite well that black girls are not the main ones trading that one.  (Just kidding!)  But seriously, a white girl uploaded that sticker. Serious. Anyhoo. So if all communities are a microcosm of something larger, then all of us in bumper sticker are in some ways a microcosm of the dark side of our humor, the racist legacy of our past (and in some cases future) among other things. 

Question what the images mean to you, say to you, about you and others.  Most of all, be careful when you ‘stick’ something on your profile, because saying, “well it’s supposed to be funny!” is not always reason enough and quite frankly, it never should be.”Three white girls in a car + nothing to do = trouble” might be funny (and/or scary) but it’s not derogatory. Even when a sticker’s humor is tongue-in-cheek while pertaining to other groups—it’s not derogatory but many with black faces are. Think about it.

Hairstories

March 27, 2007

So here is my inaugural blog. Initially I thought about calling my ruminations “constructive commess” but I decided against it. While I cannot promise to always be constructive (in fact, many times I am not), I am however frequently creative minded. Now commess is a popular Trinbagonian colloquialism or trini-ism as I like to say. The word commess struck me as totally apt because of the way in which I imagined a space where I could dig into a variety of sometimes random and poignant observations or thoughts on things in my life, all through a Trini-esque lens of course. Sometimes it’s confusion cause I am totally random and that’s the way that my mind works. The following thoughts deal with black women’s hair. This blog really grew out of me writing a response to a friend’s myspace blog about her thoughts and concerns with wearing her hair natural. She explored the response from men (specifically black men) and their inability to accept that her hair is beautiful. She was constantly being plagued with assertions like, “you’re really pretty BUT…(insert appropriate criticism of Afro-textured unpermed hair here). Now seeing that she epitomizes the look of the stereotypical mixed race sister, faced framed with a mass of soft, fuzzy curls. And yes, I used the word “soft” there strategically cause you know, REAL black hair supposedly isn’t.

All this got me thinking about the ways in which black women’s hair functions as this politicized space. Hair can be political, it totally can and it really doesn’t matter what “type” of black girl you are either. Decisions, decisions. Fraught with so much meaning and imbued symbolism. To straighten or not to straighten? A conscious sister has got to rock dreads or an afro right? It also made me think about how growing up West Indian doesn’t mean that we don’t deal with all this either. I grew up in the West Indies and I’ve never had a perm in my life, which is really not an anomaly where I come from. Part of this stemmed from my parents and the way I was raised, it just wasn’t something we were swayed to do. My mother wears her hair natural as well and she never indoctrinated me into the world of relaxers and whatnot. Of course women perm there all the time and there are enough people still existing in some post-colonial fog about what constitutes beauty and “good hair” (more on that later). We have all of that. But despite that, it’s still not all that uncommon to see plenty women rocking their natural hair. So when I came to the states for school, it was amazing the numbers of people on any given week who were befuddled by my hair enough to ask questions and/or touch.

First and foremost, people are always amazed that I never had a perm. Especially black people. Most significantly black people. People are always amazed that I am a dark skinned female with natural hair that supposedly has some “length” allegedly. This is really what makes it a kind of “good hair” for some people. It’s good because it’s been know to graze the tops of the shoulder blades. That in and of itself apparently boggles the mind. People of African descent have some ill conceived notion that black hair “does not grow.” It’s hair! It grows! This obsession with length and what constitutes length. This obsession with movement and what constitutes movement as if natural hair does not “move.” Oddly enough, these are the same people who don’t seem to connect the use of chemicals with unhealthy hair. If one is so inclined to think obsessively about length and all, then leaving your hair chemical free and natural would probably benefit it tremendously. More mind-boggling are the people who grab a fistful of my hair strands and proclaim something like, “wow, it’s so–soft,” many times in an awe filled voice tinged with surprise. Again, usually but not always limited to people of color. What do they expect? It’s hair. Sigh.

As for the popular rationale behind this supposed need for relaxers, as my mother once said to me, something is seriously wrong with a people saying that they cannot deal with their own hair. The psyche must be in crisis. I mean it’s YOUR hair. If you can’t “deal” with it, then who can? Added to which, there seems to be this social construction of black women out there revolving around the beauty industry. It’s true, there is a versatility in black hair that is reflected in the products and possibly the buying power of black women when it comes to hair care products. We can relax, texturize, color, braid, perm, weave etc. and apparently we do so with enough regularity to support a thriving hair and beauty industry. The array of possibilities and the way in which it is presumed that all black women are predisposed to indulge in this market is everywhere. In my life, it is always other women of color saying, “girl, when you going to do something different?”

There is this presupposition that I must somehow eventually get bored with my kind of hair. With MY hair. With my being. I am frequently running into yet another young black woman trying to entice me to change something hair-wise. Straighten it and get some versatility even though it is versatile already in its own way. And to be different. Different as opposed to what though? Me? First of all I don’t have the desire, time, energy or disposable income to be running around changing weaves and refreshing micros and touching up relaxers on the regular. Second of all no one ever asks my white friends who have had their hair exactly the same for as long as I have known them (a lil trim here and there notwithstanding), just straight and natural all their life to switch it up.

So, hair is complicated. It’s just always been a part of me, like the color of my eyes or the hue of my skin. I didn’t choose one day to cut off a perm and find myself. And it’s okay if someone chooses to go that route or not. It’s always just been, me and this hair. I just think it’s very important to contextualize why we think the way we do and understand where this all comes from. Your hair is not difficult but if someone tells you that long enough from every angle, then you might just think it is. It’s sometimes annoying having to consistently validate to random other black women why it’s okay for me and my hair to have the freedom to just be. According to India.Arie, even though “I am not my hair,” if I was though, I’d be cool with that. Though that is not all that I am, personally I’d prefer that than people trying to make a concerted effort to separate me from well, me.