Monday, December 14, 2009

Hip Hop's Double Consciousness by Regina Barnett

"I’m the dude playing a dude played by another dude" –Robert Downey, Jr., "Tropic Thunder"

I spent my Thanksgiving break trappin’. Yes folks, I had T.I.’s Trap Muzik (2003) on full blast marinating and negotiating ideas about gender politics and identity in rap music. And T.I. was my main subject. Clifford “T.I.” Harris is no newbie to the game, quickly closing in on a nearly ten year stint as one of THE emcees in Hip Hop Music. While many critics reflect on specific slivers of his identity, I’ve always wondered about the man as a whole. A former dope boy in the trap and a full time corporate hustler, Harris has performed in both ends of the black masculinity spectrum. And, in similar fashion to other men of color who attempt to negotiate or even establish a gray area of masculine existence, T.I. got lost in the hustle.

The 2007 shooting death of Harris’ best friend Philant “Big Phil” ‘Johnson triggered a violent emotional response within the rapper. The by product of that rage and grief was T.I. vs. T.I.P. (2007). Almost immediately following the release of T.I. vs. T.I.P. Harris was charged with illegal gun possession. On the album, Harris displays a nearly schizophrenic reaction to his place in society and lack of control over the internal rage slowly seeping out of his seams. He re-divides himself into two dueling personas, each trying to cope with the death of Johnson and their success.

French theorist Jacques Lacan’s fragmented body theory provides useful insight into understanding Harris’ triple personality (Harris, T.I., and T.I.P.). Lacan suggests that the psyche splits itself into a main and “alienating personality” after a “certain level of aggressive disintegration in the individual.” The agitation of Johnson’s death and Harris’ inability to relay his grief forces T.I.P. re-emerge. T.I.P. considers himself raw, real, and confrontational. Because of his inability to discuss his traumatic experience, Harris regresses back into a trap boy, a familiar and recognized coping mechanism for him to explore the suppressed anxiety he experiences.

Due to the lack of available discourse for Harris to vent, T.I.P. embodies the reaction to and consequences of that underlying anger and guilt. He sees himself as coping with Harris’ traumatic experiences through angry tirades at the beginning of the album. T.I.P. attempts to voice his concerns and feelings of displacement – “Man I ain’t up for this shit/I lost my partner and lost my life homes/ Man fuck this shit I’m done.” The urgency and angst in Harris’ delivery here suggests his dissatisfaction with his career and the expectations placed upon him. He is no longer suiting his own needs and interests but is being tugged by Atlantic records and, more specifically, the CEO of Warner Music Group (WMG) Lyor Cohen. WMG owns Atlantic Records.

In a heated exchange between Cohen and T.I.P., Cohen tries to intimidate him back to a subservient role – “listen kid don’t play with my muthafuckin’ money” – with little impact. Cohen’s threat attempts to speak to Harris on a presumed and understood level of hood discourse or trap speak where the primary language is money. T.I.P. quickly fires back with a threat of his own, telling Cohen to “get it like the Red Cross” and hangs up. The allusion to the Red Cross, a symbol of aid in the face of disaster, speaks on two levels.

The first level is a physical threat of violence and the second is a threat of leaving Atlantic altogether for lack of consent to T.I.P’s demands. He believes his abandonment of the label and this latest rap project would cause an economic disaster for Atlantic Records. The tracks that follow the opening skit on T.I. vs. T.I.P. suggest a return to the trap discourse heard in I’m Serious and Trap Muzik. This throwback to Harris’ trap days suggests not only T.I.P.’s familiarity and comfort within the trap setting but also the days that Johnson was still alive. It is especially prominent in many of the songs in Act I including “Da Dopeman,” “Raw,” and “Hurt.”

What is fascinating about this album is T.I.’s unconsciousness about T.I.P.’s actions. In the opening skit of the next segment of the album “Act II: T.I.,” Harris awkwardly wakes up and is unsure of his previous actions. He notices his car parked in a different location and a host of urgent voicemails accusing him of “losing his damn mind.” Dazed and in denial about the conflict with Cohen, T.I. pleads his innocence about the previous night’s events with friends Jason Geter and Douglas Peterson. T.I.’s understanding of not only the hierarchy of the record label but the need for the label to support his endeavors is shown throughout the exchanges between Harris and the record executives. He represents Harris’ understanding of his brand.

Mark Anthony Neal suggests that branding solely exists within the framework of extremities seen within the performance of one’s identity. “What branding doesn’t help illuminate is the extent that the candidate and the thug(s) are dependent upon each other to lay claim to that which their brand doesn’t – and, quite frankly, can’t – allow,” Neal notes. Within the manufactured space of Atlantic Records/Warner Music Group, T.I. can not let T.I.P. interfere with the delicate balance of power and creative authority. Furthermore, T.I. and Harris in this instance cannot be in one accord or agreement with T.I.P. because Harris has to keep his desires (both commercial and personal) within the constraints of his signature brand as two distinct and accepted identities. Any sense of harmony or peaceful coexistence (which, prior to the breakout success of Urban Legend, somewhat existed) would not only throw off our understanding of Harris as a rapper, but also problematize the implications surrounding the performance of his manhood .

Track fifteen (15) is a vicious confrontation between T.I. and T.I.P. Their medium is the mirror, symbolizing only the commonality of the physical body between both personalities. Lacan poses the mirror as a symbol of an innate understanding of self. One molds himself based upon the perception in the mirror. In the initial exchange, there is a noticeable and distinctive difference between the narratives of T.I. and T.I.P. T.I. presents himself as Harris’ logic, the accepted representative of Harris as the socially functioning member of American society.

T.I.P., through his rage, presents the suppressed and illegitimate portrayal of Harris – the criminally minded and explicit black man. He forces Harris to confront not only Johnson’s death, “do you think I meant for that shit to muthafuckin’ happen?!” but also why he feels T.I.P. is illegitimate to his commercial success, “Man T.I.P., you’d get us locked up every chance you get if I let you.” T.I.P. responds with an explosive reaction of expletives and defends his actions: “If you let me? You see what I’m saying man/how the fuck you gon’ let me do something?!” Not only is T.I.P. angry over being marginalized by social expectations, he is furious over T.I.’s belittling of his efforts. Through T.I.P.’s tirade T.I. weakly responds with “why you gotta take it like that?” accenting a thwarted attempt to distance himself from T.I.P. and questioning his own logic.

The line that most resonates in the skit is T.I.P.’s remark “Naw I don’t know everything/but I know bullshit when I see it” and his referral to T.I. as a “Hollywood nigga in a suit.” The act of performance here is negative and T.I.P. blasts T.I. for catering to that expectation. Not only is he referring to T.I. as bullshit, but also the mirage presented by him that success does not come without a sacrifice of self or self-actualization. T.I.P.’s categorization of T.I. as Hollywood demonstrates not only his belief of the plasticity of T.I.’s persona but also the lack of authentic lived experience that he professes for his audience.

T.I. is playing a role that is problematic for T.I.P. because he is being written out of existence and the rage that he represents is once again suppressed and illegitimate. Instead of inner city Atlanta, it is the manufactured space that T.I. functions within that becomes the trap. What is disturbing about the phenomenon exhibited on T.I. vs. T.I.P. is the fact that Harris still needs an alter ego(s) to stay in eyesight of the American public. Harris’ personification of the inner conflicts that haunt him reflect those of other young men of color facing the need to perform an overextended representation of blackness. In order to be acknowledged or able to work through a traumatic situation, Harris and other young black men create a persona that threatens or counters expectations of their anticipated response.

This alternative expression is needed to work around the embedded code of silent suffering forced upon men of color. While Harris does not directly state that his album is an accurate portrayal of reality, he does acknowledge the conflicts of interest between social expectation of his character and personal growth. Neal astutely suggests that black men do not exist within the restraints of polite (conservative) society.

While it is no surprise that rap music is a space designated for a nihilistic and often exaggerated representation of African American men, it is also the minimalized side view of society where black manhood – both imaginary and in actuality – exist. It often casts its shadow over not only the black community, but American society’s understanding and expectations of black masculinity. The fear of invisibility intertwined with feelings of desperation and anxiety result in not only the T.I.P.’s of the world, but a sorely misunderstood reality of the anxieties that black men continue to face in America.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Ever since the Ft. Hood tragedy made the news, the Rabid Right has engaged in all manner of race-baiting and religious xenophobia to explain the catastrophic event. The most recent argument to come out of this camp is that the military and federal authorities failed to prevent the shootings because they were behaving in a “politically correct” manner. They argue that to resolve this problem our nation needs to condemn Islam at large and revert back to a version of racial/religious profiling.

A recent Op-Ed piece by Reuel Marc Gerecht in the Wall Street Journal refined the extremist expressions into a more subtle polemic. Making the case for “respectable racism,” Gerecht blames the spasm of violence by Major Nidal Hassan on American law enforcement officials, generally, and President Obama, specifically. Gerecht’s rationale is that the President – as the icon of political correctness – has been unwilling to identify Islam as the nation’s enemy and, in failing to do so, has allowed terrorism to strike where it should not have. In short, Gerecht’s larger argument is that federal investigators could have stopped Major Hassan’s rampage had they not been concerned with the feelings and reactions of Muslims.

To support his position, Gerecht claimed that the FBI “reflects American legal ethics,” thereby casting the Bureau as innocent and na├»ve when confronted with domestic “jihadists.” Given the multitude of well-researched works regarding the FBI’s coordinated attacks on American citizens under COINTELPRO, this assertion cannot withstand serious scrutiny as Clayborne Carson’s “Malcolm X: The FBI Files,” Brian Glick’s pithy “War At Home,” and Jeffrey Haas’ recently published “The Assassination of Fred Hampton” all dramatically demonstrate.

Even in the present period, the FBI has engaged in “racial mapping” of ethnic/religious communities and intimidated individuals into becoming informants. And lest we forget, FBI agents killed Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah in Detroit – a community leader supposedly linked to “radical” Muslims like the former Black Panther H. Rap Brown – roughly a week before the shootings at Ft. Hood.

The rhetoric of the Rabid Right – that “political correctness” may be killing us – is all the more disingenuous because there are a number of viable alternative explanations for the shootings at Ft. Hood. Even if the investigation into Major Hassan's affairs proves that he was indeed a terrorist, it does not mean a priori that political correctness (read: racial sensitivity) was the culprit. Given what has already come to light about the case--like the fact that Hassan was promoted after receiving a poor performance evaluation--, the true culprit here is more likely internal corruption, incompetence, and bureaucratic in-fighting. Government whistle-blowers Coleen Rowley and Sibel Edmonds showed us that those three factors, at the very least, played a role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But the Right would have us sweep to the side all of these inconvenient truths. The arguments of Gerecht and his ilk suggest that scapegoating and racial/religious profiling are necessary to keep Americans safe. By turns, Muslims are guilty until proven innocent. Democracy and fairness be damned.

But, alas, proponents of this thinking should be careful what they wish for. Racial profiling does not work; it casts too broad a net to be effective and rewards racism and laziness. Like torture, it is a tactic that provides a sense of comfort and control to the perpetrator but provides little, if anything, in terms of collective safety. In addition, it comes at a tremendous cost of blindness. Not only does it distort the dominant culture's perception of the "othered" groups, but it also distorts their vision of themselves as "innocent" and rational thinkers.

Thus, I leave you with a story from the PBS series “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.” In one of the episodes, groups of Black folk described inter-personal interactions with whites during the years of legalized racial segregation. One man told the story of walking along a road, seeing something disturbing at a nearby house, then rushing to warn the occupants. As he approached the structure, a white woman appeared at the front door and began cursing and threatening him: “What do want here, nigger? What’s the meaning of you coming up to my house? You better get out of here!” In the face of such invective, he turned and headed back toward the road. As he strolled, he yelled over his shoulder, “I was just coming to tell you that your house is on fire.”

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Black Women on the Auction Block: A Black Feminist Response to “The Princess and the Frog”

~ Beauty Bragg

Listening to an NPR feature on the Disney film The Princess and the Frog on opening day, I was struck by the uniformity of black opinion celebrating the fact that now we, too, could participate in the commodification of our images. The overwhelming sentiment was “finally” we can buy a Disney princess that looks just like us. This was on top of my previous shock about the Carol’s Daughter hair and body product tie-ins featuring the princess. This reaction—our eagerness as producers and consumers—is too simplistic. I mean, it is a reaction that essentially says we know we’ve achieved when we can participate in our own commodification. Then again, perhaps we truly are, finally, real Americans—willing to buy and sell anything.

Instead of offering a critique of market values or at least attempting to resist them, what we are witnessing is the celebration of the beginning of a process of brand loyalty and personal identity formation through products consumed—the branding of our children. Now for people whose ancestors have been literally branded this ought to spark concern not celebration. This seems a sorry state of affairs for people descended from people who constituted one of the first mass-market commodities and have witnessed first-hand the damage wrought by submitting to the ethics of the market place. As if the lessons of slavery aren’t enough of a lesson in the nature of exploitive labor and the extraction of profits from the bodies of black people, recent developments in the popular entertainment sphere should warn us about being too eager to assume that our presence in the market place is always positive and beneficial.

Numerous critics have cited the ways in which various contemporary black artists have become complicit in the reproduction of problematic representations as well as the erasure of historical context and radical politics for current images. In a really useful chapter of his 1999 book Pan Africanism: Exploring the Contradictions, William B. Ackah, suggests that, as a result of the dominance of American cultural productions globally, “American” representations of blackness become the dominant representations of blackness and often subsume other more progressive discourses on black identity and politics. If this is true, then African Americans in particular have a responsibility to exercise special care with regard to the images of blackness we consume and endorse (and not only in relation to everyone’s favorite whipping boys, rappers). In fact, given the extensive history of negative and , largely, uncontested representations of African American women already cited in Ikard’s blog “Why Baby-Girl Won’t Be Going to see Disney’s ‘The Frog and the Princess,’” we should be especially vehement in our rejection of this new commodification of black women’s bodies. That it is repackaged as a New Orleans “romance” should in fact heighten our attention to history since this was a space in which the murky ethics of trading in humans as commodities was amplified in the practice of the system of concubinage in which black women could trade their bodies and sexuality for a few of the privileges of freedom. Certainly this twisted conflation of commercial value with social equality can provide a lesson for us today.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Why Baby-Girl and I Won't Be Going to See Disney's "The Princess and the Frog"

In case you haven’t heard, Disney has decided after close to 90 years in existence to create an animation featuring a black princess. As you can probably guess from my title, I’m not going to take my soon-to-be-four-years-old daughter to see the film. Beyond the fact that Disney has a long and torrid history of distorting non-white ethnic folks in general and African Americans in particular, I think its of critical importance—as a father and anti-sexist black man—to monitor what goes in the smart, beautiful, afro-ed, head of my little daughter. Though as a black man with black feminist political leanings, I try desperately to recalibrate how my children (I also have a boy that is 7 years old) conceptualize their socially prescribed gender roles, I am fully aware that--despite my hyper-vigilant parenting--pervasive notions of gender, race, class, and sexuality will have a major impact on how they negotiate their social environment and their value—or lack thereof—in it.

Suffice it to say, that the U.S. has not been kind to black women as it regards portraits of beauty, sexuality, and moral character. Indeed, during the antebellum period it was generally accepted—and, at the time, backed up by so-called “hard science”—that African women preferred the sexual company of primates over that of men, that black women gave off a particular sexual pheromone which enticed white men to have sex with them, that they lacked the emotional feeling and attachment to their children compared to whites, that theirs was not a femininity worthy of acknowledgment. Ever wonder why the white mistress in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God blames Nanny and not her white powerful master-husband for the sexual acts (read: rape) that resulted in the birth of Janie’s mother? There you have it.

Black men have also been stigmatized sexually as primitive and targeted on this basis, often in the name of protecting white women’s honor, as a means of white masculine dominance. Who can forget the anti-black man propaganda that was the first Hollywood “blockbuster” in Birth of a Nation—based on Thomas Dixon’s novel/play Clansman—or the 1955 brutal slaying of baby-faced, Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi for purportedly whistling at a white woman.

Regrettable though it is, however, black men have—for various complex and problematic reasons—had a direct hand in perpetuating these negative images of black women over the course of U.S. history. Providing a useful context for this phenomenon, Patricia Hill-Collins explains in her essay “A Telling Difference: Dominance, Strength, and Black Masculinities,” that “virtually all of the representations of black masculinity [in the public domain] pivot on questions of weakness, whether it is a weakness associated with an inability to control violent impulses, sexual urges, or their black female heterosexual partners or a weakness attributed to men whose lack of education, employment patterns, and criminal records relegate them to inferior social spaces.”

As Hill-Collins makes clear, controlling black women's behavior and bodies became inextricably bound up with attaining manhood, and by extension, social equality for black men. The masculine weakness attributed to black men’s inability to control “their women” was, to be sure, a featured hypothesis in the notorious 1965 “Moynihan Report.” Crafted by U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (a trained sociologist), the document was used to explain why black men and the black family were in such dire straights. Characterizing the black community as a “tangle of pathology . . . capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world,” the document conveniently blamed emasculating black women—not white oppression—for the black communitys' failing. As Donna L. Franklin explains in What’s Love Got to Do With It, many prominent black leaders signed off on this report, including the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins (director of the NAACP), and Whitney Young (President of the National Urban League).

To be sure, King, Wilkins, and Young held white people’s feet to the fire for skirting their central roles in perpetuating this so-called “tangle of pathology” but nary a word was uttered in rejection of the black-woman-as-black-emasculator thesis. This dynamic is important to this conversation because it illustrates, in part, why black women—especially those that have attained a certain level of economic success—are cast in rap videos, black church sermons, and in black popular culture in general as “uppity,” “bitchy,” “domineering,” “black-man-hating,” and "ruthless." It is thus hardly surprising that most black women steer clear of the label “black feminist” like the plague although a great many of them—in their actions, politics, and worldviews—espouse key black feminist principles, including that nonreciprocating gender self-sacrifice is unhealthy and self-defeating.

That black women have been emotionally damaged by demeaning portraits within and outside the black community is no more evident than in the ways that they have flocked virtually en masse to Tyler Perry movies, ministries like those of T.D. Jakes and Creflo Dollar, and make books, like comedian Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, top-sellers. Even though all of these men adhere, at bottom, to conventional notions of masculinity wherein women are expected to cater emotionally, financially, and culturally to black men, they garner so much support—and dollars—from black women because they are, by turns, moderately less patriarchal in their thinking than most black men and black-male-centric institutions. I guess in a world where black women get so little love from within and beyond the black community, meager acknowledgment of their marginalized status goes a long way. This pattern should fill black men with shame not comfort. Rather than explode the racial stigmas that have dogged black women over the course of U.S. history, we have become co-conspirators with the dominant culture—new age pimps, if you will—in exploiting black women’s pain and suffering.

My Baby-Girl and I won’t be going to see Disney’s “Princess and the Frog” because I will not be a party to warping my daughter’s notion of self-worth. Did you know that the original title of the movie was “Frog Princess” or that, according to Arifa Akbar, the original story line featured the black princess as a chambermaid working for a spoilt, white Southern debutante. She was—like a black Cinderella—to be helped by a voodoo priestess fairy godmother to “win the heart of a white prince, after he rescued her from the clutches of a voodoo magician.” In the new storyline the princess is of color—though tellingly not black—and the name of the character has been changed from Maddy (evidently it sounded too much like Mammy) to Tiana. According to the Disney promo, the story is set in the “charming elegance and grandeur of New Orleans’ fabled French Quarter during the Jazz Age.” Need we bother to ask if there will be an inkling of how it was really like for blacks and black women in particular living in that era. This may turn out to be, in fact, the biggest fairy tale that Disney has ever told.

This morning I came across a story about how Google is sorry for an offensive pic of Michelle Obama that comes up on its search engine when you type in the First Lady’s name. (In case you're wondering, the pic is of a monkey superimposed on Michelle's face) This happened because the search engine automatically brings up the most visited websites linked to that particular search item. So, what this means fundamentally is that there are swarms of folks interested in such offensive portraits of Michelle and black women. Alas, this is the world within which I am forced to raise my smart, fun-loving, energetic, and--yes--incredibly beautiful daughter. Nope, baby-girl will not get to see Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” this go-round and something tells me she'll be disappointed. But, I guess now is as good a time as any to prepare her for the bumpy road that lies ahead for her as a black girl and woman. Hopefully, my love for her will absorb some of the shock. One can only hope.

Monday, November 23, 2009

"Queer Eye For the Black Guy" by Regina Barnett

"Don't Laugh, America." -Rollo (The Cleveland Show)

So, this is not a note to diss The Cleveland Show. As a matter of fact, I could have spearheaded the initiative for Cleveland (from Family Guy fame) to get his own show. I was ecstatic! Needless to say, last night’s episode, “A Brown Thanksgiving,” shot down the last shreds of my optimism. What started as a parody of Tyler Perry ended up a nightmare and a re-entrenchment of whiteness and its influence on black manhood.

Dominant culture’s obsession with black masculinity in American popular culture is certainly not a new phenomenon. The often grotesque fascination with not only the physical body but what the body represents – hypersexuality, menacing intentions, and the straight up “bad nigger” – are often the consumptive domain for many black male characters on television. Cleveland Brown, however, goes in the opposite direction; he’s lovable, goofy, and downright non-threatening. One could argue that he is the reconstruction of an Uncle Tom or Coon figure seen so often in minstrel shows at the end of the nineteenth and early 20th centuries.

What strikes me as odd about Cleveland, however, is his laughing in awkward situations when, say, expressions of anger, frustration, or despair would be more cognitively appropriate. Whether intentionally done by the producers or not, what is highlighted is a lack of available discourse for black men to relay a healthy emotional response to crisis-moments. If Cleveland were a real person, he’d have hypertension, high blood pressure, and a zero chance of making it to retirement age. He’d also be in line for going postal. Indeed, Christ Rock used to joke that white folks were afraid of the wrong Negroes. The visibly hostile black men were virtually harmless, Rock quipped, compared to those unassuming and genuflecting, old black men that white folks always see as fun-loving and easy-going. Rock reported that underneath all of those toothy grins and warm handshakes were some of the bitterest, white-folk-hating black men on the planet.

Chris Rock’s observations aside, Cleveland’s laugh is especially prevalent in this episode of The Cleveland Show. The central focus is Auntie Mama, the matriarch figure of Cleveland’s wife Donna. Voiced by Kym Whitley, who is often the sexual Jezebel in most of her performances (which is a discussion for another day) Auntie Mama excuses her sexually explicit actions with “I’m Outrageous!” This is a double entendre – outrageous as in shock value and outrageous as in “I’m offensive and exaggerated.” She is literally sketched like an animated Muh Dear – grey hair, big breasted, and big boned. In short, Auntie Mama refigures black womanhood and black women’s sexuality. While she appears to be a 2009 Mammy figure, she laces her verbal exchanges with sexual escapades with various men. Off the rip, Auntie Mama could be Madea’s folk. Tyler Perry’s wildly popular envision of the strong black matriarch, Madea too distances herself from the traditional mammy caricature with sexual innuendos, a piece, and a girdle.

In similar fashion to Perry, Auntie Mama’s character is the matriarch of the family, portrayed as the savior figure of the black family. And, in similar fashion, both characters are men dressed in drag. The question begs to be asked: is the queering of the black male body in this episode a backdoor way – pun intended – for black men to affirm normative black manhood on the figurative backs of pathologized black women characters?

In this sense, Auntie Mama and Madea are the literal and figurative queering of the black male body. Literal in the sense that they are in drag and representative of their assumptions of black womanhood and figuratively because they place themselves in the space of interpretation that extends beyond “normal” behavior for black men. There is a blurring of masculine and feminine identity here that ventures into the gray (and avoided like the plague) discussions of black sexuality.

What fascinates me about Auntie Mama and Madea is their choice of how they portray themselves as black women. They are not representative of the flamboyant cross dressers of yesteryear like In Living Color’s “Men on Film” series with Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier, but rather the Big Mama character so beloved in black culture and mourned by comedians like the late, great Bernie Mac. While Wayans’ and Grier’s characters lack any representation of heterosexual normativity, Madea and Auntie Mama replace daintiness and femininity with masculine characteristics of dominance and hyper-sexuality. The asexuality of the mammy/matriarch figure leaves room for Perry and Auntie Mama to perform and explore expressions of black masculinity.

In the case of “The Cleveland Show,” Auntie Mama’s character reaffirms the misconceptions of black women as sex crazed and hungry creatures of habit. Even the updated Jezebel trope (i.e., the black groupie) overlays Mama’s character. She compiles a list of popular athletes and musicians with whom she is willing to exchange sex for basking in their limelight. Her sexual interaction with Cleveland’s father Freight Train, however, moves the conversation away from discussions of black womanhood to black masculinity.

Cleveland’s father “Freight Train” reaffirms almost every negative connotation of black men’s existence. He’s violent, an absentee father, a womanizer, hypermasculine, and threatening. He is the “bad nigger” par excellence. Even his name (or nickname, I got to re-watch the episode) suggests a train wreck of an existence. Freight Train continuously denigrates and feminizes Cleveland, in one instance associating him with more feminine features than his mother. Freight Train establishes and maintains his dominance through physical prowess.

Early in the episode, Cleveland discovers Auntie Mama is a man and contemplates telling the other members of the family. His father overtly flirts with Auntie Mama and their “teasing” culminates with sex. Cleveland struggles through telling his father Auntie Mama is a man or letting him sleep with the man unknowingly. He makes his decision to keep silent against the prodding of the good and evil consciences symbolized by Hall and Oates (two popular white recording artists).

Auntie Mama’s conquest over Freight Train signifies the rape-conquest relationship of prison discourse. The body is collateral and used as an instrument of subjugation for social dominance within the prison social hierarchy. What is fascinating here, however, is the reversal of roles between Auntie Mama and Freight Train. You have two cases of extreme masculine expression – the “womanly” Auntie Mama and the “Knuck if You Buck” Freight Train. While it would seem that Freight Train forces his masculinity upon Auntie Mama (who, we later learn, is really Uncle Kevin) it is Auntie Mama who overshadows Freight Train’s identity—“she got him shook.” His willingness to be subservient to Auntie Mama because of her sexual prowess suggests his hypermasculinity being quelled by Auntie Mama’s queered masculinity. Once Cleveland tells Freight Train of Auntie Mama’s real identity, Freight Train recoils in horror and vomits, desperately trying to purge himself of his affiliation (both personal and sexual) with Auntie Mama.

Of course, the question also remains about the intended audience for The Cleveland Show. There are numerous implications of whiteness and the black male body. For starters, Cleveland is voiced by Mike Henry, a white actor. The show’s producers, who are also majority white, bank on our affiliation of the characters with stereotypical representations of blackness as humorous. However, the exploitations of these cultural expressions are in fact reaffirming longstanding paradigms of institutionalized racial bias. While this episode parodies Tyler Perry’s character Madea, it also uses our assumptions and familiarity with Perry’s character to reaffirm voyeuristically the marginalized practices of cross-dressing and the doubly marginalized black male cross dressing body. This in turn problematizes and reiterates the black community’s homophobic tendencies and innate desires to ostracize those who fall into the queer category.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Part 1: Coonery and Bafoonery: Spike Lee vs. Tyler Perry

Never one to mince words, Spike dropped a bomb during an interview at the 14th Annual Black Enterprise Conference when he referred to Tyler Perry's tv series "Meet the Browns" and "House of Payne" as examples of "coonery" and "bafoonery." Though Lee made clear that black artists "should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors," he added that they should take care not to slip into demeaning portraits of black folks that reproduce longstanding white stereotypes about black moral and social dysfunctions. In an interview with "60 Minutes," Perry punched back, saying that his use of comical black characters was politically strategic. He says, "Madea, Brown and all of these characters are bait. Disarming, charming, make-you-laugh bait so that I can slap Madea in something and talk about God, love, faith, forgiveness, family -- any of those things -- you know." Framing Spike Lee as an elitist gatekeeper of black respectability, Perry asserts that his work speaks to the black masses and their unique experiences--experiences that have been largely ignored in Hollywood until now.

Of the sparse commentary that exists on this public feud, I was particularly struck by Keith Josef Adkins' op-ed article at the Though he agreed with Lee's assessment of Perry's depictions of African Americans, he spent the bulk of his time critiquing Lee's penchant to cast light-skinned blacks and Latinos as his black leads' love interests. This is not to say that Adkins' observations about Lee miss the mark. The pattern that Adkins identifies is surely evident in Lee's work and should be held up to scrutiny, especially given the extent to which Lee has engaged colorist, caste, and class politics in his films. The conspicuous gap in the essay, of course, is a serious interrogation of Perry's work. And, here, I'm not simply talking about a critique of the coonery and bafoonery to which Lee refers. To borrow my mother's phraseology, a blind man could see the resemblances between Perry's depiction of black folks and the minstrelsy tradition that Lee's ascribes to his work. In other words, we needn't waste precious time debating this issue. As a cultural critic recently remarked, if Perry were white, the black receptivity would be radically different. Rather than celebrating his achievements, they would be boycotting his movies and lampooning him as a racist.

I'm nick-picking Adkin's article to highlight our collective reticence as a community to both hold what we deem "good black men" accountable for their actions and, more particularly in this case, to confront the pain that such demeaning, comical images mask. More to the point, my proverbial dog in this fight has to do with the extent to which Perry's meteoric rise pivots on exploiting--consciously and unconsciously--the unhealthy ways that blacks cope with suffering.

The late writer-activist Toni Cade Bambara once wrote that black folks have been socialized "to ignore or laugh at the [spiritual] damage" that we have suffered historically under white supremacy in the U.S. On some level, this dynamic explains why blacks reacted so intensely to Hurricane Katrina compared to whites. Conditioned as we've become to dodge our hurt, many of us were emotionally ambushed by the magnitude of black suffering that was paraded before us on a daily basis. When Kanye West broke with the prepared script during the Hurricane Katrina Fundraiser and declared to the world that George Bush didn't like black people, many of us cheered him on--not because what he said was profound or even well-articulated, but because he vomited up his hurt, confusion, and anger over the events in a raw, uncensored way that we could relate to on a visceral level as oppressed people. Indeed, his speech became such a spectacle, in part, because it has become so rare in our hyper-bling era to see artists, athletes, and even preachers (think Rev. T.D. Jakes and Rev. Creflo Dollar-Bill-Ya'll) risk tarnishing their marketability potential--i.e, pissing off a segment of their fan base--to address such hot-button racial issues in the public domain.

Spike Lee was addressing this phenomenon, albeit indirectly, when he pointed out that when artists like John Singleton make movies like "Rosewood"--which dramatized a horrific racial massacre in 1923 of a small black community in Florida--black people didn't show up to support it. (I happened to see "Rosewood," by the way, and it was a good movie, if not one of Singleton's best.) Though I have no way of confirming this, my suspicion is that African Americans tend not to patronize these movies--not because they are poorly made--but because they throw back at us issues of suffering and pain for which we have no adequate language and for which we dare not allow ourselves to feel. Though Kanye West managed to emerge from his political ordeal with his career still firmly intact (which was due in no small part by his counseled decision to keep his mouth shut about the issue afterward), the media attacks that followed--most notably from the political Right--offered a stark reminder to West and the rest of us that confronting the (white) sources of black pain comes at a high emotional, social, and economic cost.

So, when Perry talks of making movies that cater to the needs/tastes of "the people,"--that is, black folks furthest down the class hierarchy--he is speaking truthfully. The problem, of course, is that he is not necessarily contributing to a healing and empowering discourse as much as he is capitalizing on our unhealthy coping mechanisms with lingering white oppression. Consider the fact that his last installment of the Madea series--"I Can Do Bad All By My Self" topped all movies in September, grossing $24 million in the first weekend. Clearly, if not predictably, black folks were not the only ones interested in the "dysfunctional" images of blackness that Perry was peddling. To be honest, I have difficulty watching Perry's movies to this day--not because they are poorly made, though some surely are--but because I recognize the emotional cover-up masked in jocularity. This cover-up for me is the real "House of Pain" for black folks.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

When Keeping It (Sur)real Goes Wrong: How Hip Hop Distorts Black Suffering and Why We Should Care

In the most controversial sketch in the first season of “The Dave Chappelle Show” Chappelle plays Clayton Bigsby, a black white supremacist. An underground celebrity and prolific writer within the white supremacy movement, Bigsby is blind and has no idea that he is African American. Orphaned at an early age and before he develops a racial consciousness, Bigsby is taken in by a white orphanage for the blind and told that he is white by the head mistress in a twisted attempt to protect him. As an adult, his racist propaganda is so effective in rallying support for the movement that white supremacist leaders let Bigby continue thinking that he is white, while shielding his true racial identity from his throngs of followers. At one telling point in the sketch, Bigsby unleashes a racist tirade on a group of 20-something, white men dressed in hip hop garb and blaring hip hop music that he encounters while being driven to a Klu Klux Klan rally. Assuming because of their blaring hip hop music that the occupants of the car are African Americans, Bigsby lashes out,“Why don’t you jungle bunnies turn that music down. Niggers make me sick! Boogie, boogie niggers!” After Bigsby drives off, the driver of the convertible turns to his friends in the car and says, “Did he just call us niggers?” He then dawns a smile, high-fives his friends, and yells, “Awesome!” The joke, of course, cuts both ways politically and racially. For his part, Bigsby is not only blind to the whiteness of the middle-class white men in the convertible, but to the fact that dominant consumers of hip hop music in the twenty-first century are not blacks, but white men between the ages of 18 and 35. Metaphorically speaking, the white men in the car are just as blind as Bigsby. Perversely wedded to one-dimensional notions of blackness and black manhood, they confuse Bigsby’s racist rant as an authenticating gesture, solidifying their “street cred.” What Chappelle captures brilliantly in this comedic moment is the unsavory relationship between white supremacy and what Tricia Rose calls “commercial hip hop”--industry driven music that compromises artistry and responsible race politics to appeal to white consumer's fixation with black social dysfunctions. (Rose--who, like myself, remains a fan of politically responsible rap music--makes clear in her book that all rap music is not created equal) While it might seem odd to some to even mention white supremacy in the same breath as hip hop, they are, in fact, compatible to a degree. In Hip Hop Wars (2008) Rose opines astutely that "[s]omehow, so-called black dysfunctional culture has become its own self-fulfilling prophecy, even though the power and seduction of hip hop images—for blacks and everyone else—is significantly driven by the desire, voyeuristic pleasure, and consumption of middle-class whites. Why are these consumers, who are key to the creation of a larger and more profitable market for hip hop images and street styles, not considered part of a “dysfunctional” culture, too—and why are they not charged with being some of “real black-folk killas”? (72). Far from letting the artists who perpetuate his "black dysfunctional culture" off the hook, Rose argues that both the white corporate structure that produces and perpetuates "black dysfunctional culture" and the white consumers to whom this culture is ultimately marketed, should be exposed and put on notice alongside the complicit artists for their roles in destroying the black community. Making these white entities visible is particularly crucial in light of the ways that many young black and brown folks associate black authenticity--i.e, "keeping it real"--with the images of black gangstas, pimps, hos that are glamorized in hip hop music. We should care about these issues because they inform and complicate how African American boys and girls determine their social value, perform in school, think about gender, sex, and sexuality. I'm reminded here of a rather illuminating experience I had a few years back teaching in a summer program in Knoxville, Tennessee. The program was designed ostensibly to encourage low income children from high risk school districts to attend college. The class I was teaching--which was made up of mostly high school sophomores--was on black popular culture and gender identities. Seeking to generate class discussion, I asked an African American male student how he would deal with a certain circumstance of black-on-black violence. In short, I presented him with a boys-in-the-hood-esque scenario wherein he had to make a decision whether to "ride" with his boys to avenge the death of an innocently gunned down friend. Not thinking that the scenario I put to the student was morally difficult to answer, I expected an immediate response. Instead, I received stunned silence. The student looked as if he'd been ambushed; sweat began to bead up on his forehead and he started to squirm uncomfortably in his seat. After about a 15 second span of silence--which I imagine upon reflection must have felt like an eternity for the poor guy--he wiped the sweat from his forehead, shrugged his shoulders, and put the question back to me. "I really don't know, Prof. Ikard. I mean, if he were my friend and someone killed him ... I mean, what . . . what would you do?" "I would contact the police," I said, patting him lightly on shoulder. "Gunning each other down is not only morally wrong, but it perpetuates structural inequalities and destroys our communities. You might as well join the Klu Klux Klan." That the scenario I put to this African American student was so perplexing and stressful underscores in rather dramatic fashion the difficulty that many of our young people have making what should be easy social and moral choices. And, make no mistake, commercial hip hop is but one of many institutional forces at work in the destruction of our children and communities. Pathologizing black people and consciousness are not new phenomena in U.S. culture, to be sure. In fact, taken from a historical perspective, one might even venture to say that doing so has been American's favorite past time. But, while we cannot protect ourselves against all the multiple forces at work against our children and communities, we can take an active role in monitoring the media that our children consume. According to bestselling parenting book Nuture Shock: New Thinking About Children (2009), children begin to process racial difference and establish their social values as early as three. In fact, by nine years old, children have already firmly established their the racial attitudes and values. What does this mean for us? It's time to get to work. We simply don't have time waste!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

“Watch Your Mouth (Uncle) Tom: How Our Black Pride in the President Works Against Us”

The morning after the Democrats were trounced in two significant gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, Tom Joyner remarked on "The Tom Joyner Morning Show" that a large part of the blame rested squarely on Barack Obama’s shoulders. The Democrats lost, Joyner argued pointedly, because black people stayed home. And they stayed home because Barack Obama has basically ignored them since he’s become president. Noting sardonically that Obama was “around all the time” on the show during his historic run to the presidency but had yet to appear on his show after being elected, Joyner issued a warning to Obama. If he expected to get elected again in 2012, he’d better not forget about black America. When Joyner went to the phone lines, allowing his listeners to weight in on the topic, he was roundly lampooned. Recalling the heat that Tavis Smiley—a longtime commentator on Joyner’s show—took from the black community after admonishing then Democrat candidate Obama for failing to address black social concerns in his political agenda, Joyner found himself in the proverbial hot seat. One caller went so far as to label Joyner an “Uncle Tom” for his criticism of the president. The message that was coming across the lines was loud and clear. Criticizing Barack Obama—especially if you are black—is off-limits. Politics be damned.

The salient problem with this posture is that it confuses strategic political agitation with betraying the African American community’s best socioeconomic interest. It is not, in fact, a contradiction for one to be both proud of Barack Obama’s accomplishments from a cultural perspective and fiercely demanding of him on a political front. Maintaining such a posture is not only healthy for the democratic process, but necessary if one expects the black community’s concerns to get aired and taken seriously in the public domain. The uncontested king of the sound bite Al Sharpton put it best on Joyner’s show when he quipped, “We elected a president not a Messiah.” Unlike Joyner, however, Sharpton hoisted the blame for the gubernatorial losses onto the black community, arguing that blacks at the grassroots level need to become more active in the political process—namely, by supporting the president’s initiatives such as healthcare—if they expect their circumstances on the ground to change. And, perhaps on some level Sharpton and Joyner are both right. However it shakes out, the cold, hard truth is that the black community is in serious trouble economically and socially and nobody seems to notice. In their recent op-ed article, “The Destruction of the Black Middle Class,” acclaimed writer-activist Barbara Ehrenreich and inequality researcher-activist Dedrick Muhammad sound the alarm about the downward socioeconomic spiral of black middle class. Debunking the widely held notion that the socioeconomic circumstances for the black middle class are steadily improving over time, Ehrenreich and Muhammad point to a study by Demos and the Institute for Assets and Social Policy that reveals that at the start of our current recession—which officially began in December, 2007—“33 percent of the black middle class was already in danger of falling out the middle class.” They write that for the black middle class the recession actually began in 2000. Between 2000 and 2007, “black employment decreased by 2.4 percent and incomes declined by 2.9 percent.” During this stretch, “one third of black children lived in poverty and black employment—even among college graduates—consistently ran at about twice the level of white unemployment.”

The major headline a few days ago was that the national unemployment rate had tipped over the 10% mark. Quiet as its kept, the black unemployment rate at the beginning of the recession was already around 15% and will, in all likelihood, eclipse the 20% mark before the year is done. Moreover, the income gap between African Americans and whites is widening rather than narrowing. Suffice it to say that Africans Americans across class lines have very little reason to have hope at the moment. Not only should Tom Joyner be speaking up and out, but the black community should be backing him up rather than shouting him down. Insofar as Washington politics go, the squeaky wheel of mass public agitation gets the grease of media coverage and political attention. "Silence," however, as House Majority Whip James Clyburn warns us, "is consent." While the symbolic capital of having a black family in the White House and a black man at the helm of the presidency fills many of us with hope for our future, the reality is that hope won't explode structural inequalities, end poverty, secure jobs in the black community, improve our educational system, or pay our bills. "When you pray," goes the ancient African proverb, "Move your feet."