Women’s Health: Team Pink v. Team Purple?

I’ve always thought it strange how Breast Cancer Awareness takes place during the same month as Domestic Violence Awareness — both in October, signified by pink and purple ribbons, respectively. Aside from the feminized color palette (pink and purple = “girly” colors), it’s also unfortunate because this timing seems to pit one vitally important women’s health issues against the other. Make no mistake about domestic violence being as much a health issue as breast cancer; up until the Affordable Care Act was passed, both were considered pre-existing conditions for which women were routinely denied health insurance!

IMG_0776-1.JPGIndeed, the concurrent timing of these awareness campaigns almost seems to suggest that no more than one month can be devoted to women’s health at a time. The manner in which we talk about cancer and abuse differ considerably. Breast cancer’s impact on the women and loved ones of those afflicted by the disease tends to be viewed far more sympathetically than matters affecting women dealing with physical and emotional violence at the hands of their romantic partners. Women who’ve overcome cancer are rightfully called “survivors,” whereas women who have triumphed over the tolls of physical and emotional battery are more often than not referred to as mere “victims,” at best. Worse yet, society often holds domestic abuse survivors in disdain and personally blames them for their situations. In terms of which of these two awareness campaigns receives the most media attention and fundraising dollars, unfortunately, it’s pretty clear: boobies trump bruises every time.

These are among just a few of the reasons why I decided to take up the cause of domestic violence by spearheading and organizing the English Matters Colloquium (EMC) Town Square this evening. Finally, after months of planning, the EMC Town Square culminates our months-long cell phone donation drive in partnership with the Fayetteville alumni and Fayetteville State University’s undergraduate chapters of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity in hosting a forum with local area activists and experts in the area of domestic violence.

I’m especially delighted because this is the largest community outreach event the FSU Department of English has ever sponsored. For me, it’s important that humanities departments assume a leadership role in shaping conversations of this magnitude and scope. I think it’s crucial that cultural studies help society rethink the discourses of domestic abuse in terms of the way the media singles out communities of color. It’s valuable work for English departments to help in removing the shame and stigma associated with domestic violence.

Because of the particular circumstances faced by our campus community, topics we’ll be discussing include:

* issues in HBCU and African American contexts
* military families and wartime environments
* cyberstalking and computer safety
* gender stereotypes (e.g., same/opposite sex couples)
* support and understanding for victims (not judgment)
* local advocacy programs and intervention opportunities

And, since it’s homecoming week, we’re looking forward to a major turnout tonight too.

#FSUNOHOE

October 30, 2014. Tags: , , , , , , . African Americans, children, colors, education, family, feminism, gender, higher education, media, parenting, politics, rhetorics, sexual politics, time, visual literacy, visual rhetoric. Leave a comment.

Blowing Up or Selling Out: Carol’s Daughter & Scents of Nostalgia

A Black Cosmetic Company Sells, Or Sells Out? : Code Switch : NPR.

I remember when she started as an apothecary in Brooklyn on Atlantic Avenue. It was in the early 90s… She used heavy mason jars, essential oils of ylang ylang, bergamot, sandalwood with *actual* jasmine flowers — all made to order and combined to heal. Her potions and balms were an indulgence and were more than affordable considering the quality. I used her baths and oils to pamper my young babies and spoil myself whenever I could and could not afford it. (She was artisanal before artisanal was a “thing” and the originator of what Joan Morgan’s doing nowadays.)

A Black Cosmetic Company Sells, Or Sells Out? : Code Switch : NPR

Fast forward a decade and a half
==>>  Department stores began carrying Carol’s Daughter after word caught on. Once time had passed I noticed a decline in more than just the packaging and now I can’t tell the difference between Tui Oil and Hot 6

Though to be perfectly fair, I’m not the same hand-dyed-gele-headwrap-wearing-radical-vegan these days, m’self… I’ve made more than my fair share of personal adjustments over the years trying to pay bills just like everybody else.

Who am I to criticize? And if I really think about it, it’s been Carol Daughter’s — whether it be her originally sourced ingredients or outsourcing to L’oreal — that has inspired me to get back into my kitchen with my butters, mixers, and essential oils to indulge the scents and sensuality of my personal beauty routine and grooming habits.

So I say, Play on playa! Go on with yo’ bad self, Sista Lisa and tua u.  That last part means “thank you” in early 90’s Black Brooklyn speak. (And if you have to ask, you’ll never understand!)

October 28, 2014. Tags: , , , , , , . African Americans, apothecary, beauty, Carol's Daughter, cute, economics, family, fashion, gender, hair, parenting, race, rhetorics, scents, sentiment, style. Leave a comment.

Dear White Interviewer

I’ve not seen it yet, but I’m looking forward to seeing Justin Simien’s film, Dear White People this weekend. Nevertheless, I’m already annoyed by the media’s tone in discussing the film. I’ve already picked up on a small sampling of apparent [white] media blind spots… It’s always disappointing, though unfortunately never too surprising.

Winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival's Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent, Dear White People is a sly, provocative satire of race relations in the age of Obama. Writer/director Justin Simien follows a group of African American students as they navigate campus life and racial politics at a predominantly white college in a sharp and funny feature film debut that earned him a spot on Variety's annual "10 Directors to Watch."

Winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent, Dear White People is a sly, provocative satire of race relations in the age of Obama by writer/director Justin Simien.

Case in point: I’m listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross and her interview with Simien today and hear the part of the interview where Gross describes the lead female character, Samantha White (played by Tessa Thompson). Ironically, even as Gross is asking Simien about the film’s themes on racial labeling and putting black people “in a box,” she refers to the black female character’s frustration and exasperation with white racism as “just angry” and “militant.”

In contrast, it’s difficult to imagine Gross so thoroughly disidentifying with, say, the depiction of a white protagonist (who is portraying a fellow radio host, no less!) and choosing to apply gender stereotypes like “unreasonable” or “just depressed” to a female character without at least attempting to take seriously the cultural and emotional (albeit, satirically portrayed) experiences of the character. I find Gross’s language choice indicative of how middle-American (read, white) moviegoing audiences are conditioned by the media to perceive black creative output so negatively. It seems to me, under different circumstances, Gross would strive to use more empathetic, nuanced language and go a little deeper than lazy, flat, racialized labels when talking to writer-directors about movie characters. It doesn’t seem too unreasonable an expectation since, ostensibly speaking, this is a quality for which Gross is so celebrated for as an interviewer. But nope… Gross instead selects reductive and dismissive language to frame topics related to the experiences and creativity of black people.

Anteeway… I’m going to check out this movie over the weekend and will post my thoughts depending on how the film strikes me.

October 16, 2014. Tags: , , , , . African Americans, film, gender, race, racism, rhetorics. Leave a comment.

Middle Passenger Seating?

What does one do with this kind of ignorance? Sometimes all we have left is poetry.

Robert Hayden, “Middle Passage” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1962, 1966 by Robert Hayden. Copyright © 1985 by Emma Hayden. Reprinted with the permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.
Source: Collected Poems (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1985)

September 17, 2014. African Americans, cartoons, history, politics, race, slavery, visual literacy, visual rhetoric. Leave a comment.

#Grateful for the Life of Maya Angelou

Last week we lost another great one: Maya Angelou. Or, rather, Dr. Angelou, as she preferred to be called. When it came to addressing her by her honorific/title, nobody got a pass — not even Oprah.

Maya Angelou was awarded an honorary doctorate from Wake Forest University where she was Professor Emeritus and resided in Winston-Salem, North Carolina from her latter years up until her final passing. As a longtime North Carolinian, it seemed I was never more than one degree of separation from the artist-activist and attended several of her lectures and guest appearances over the years.As a public figure, Angelou was a towering presence — a descriptor that goes far beyond her once elegant frame. In her role as private citizen, apart form her public persona, I had a few occasions to partake of her charm and wit, though I also gleaned how Angelou could pose a rather intimidating — and at times downright disagreeable — presence.

It didn’t take much to note that Dr. Angelou would have no truck with any type of behavior she viewed as disrespectful or inappropriate. She had no problem whatsoever with instructing those around her in the correct manner by which they should conduct themselves in her company if they ever found themselves in the unfavorable position of not living up to her exceedingly high standards. Like all of us, she was a work in progress and maintained her strong ideals as something she expected herself and those around her to be continuously striving toward. Angelou was perfectly transparent regarding her own struggles to become a good Christian and decent human being.

The rhetorician in me is the part that will miss her most. As a scholar interested in the power of public address, it is her voice and the historical moment it represents that fascinates. Hearing the sonorous tones in her speech will always recall for me memories of the elderly church mothers I grew up listening to and imitating. The first row of churchgoing women took a special liking to me because of my ability to emulate their speaking when it was my turn to read the Sunday School card-class lessons, making me the happy recipient of whatever butterscotch or peppermint hard candies their patent-leather clutch handbags held. The way these white-gloved church mothers pronounced their words with such precision sharply contrasted with the staccato short-hand of my hip-hop contemporaries. Their earnestly delivered announcements of the weekly “sick and shut-in” list and hyper-proper recitations of Sunday scripture were uttered as if each syllable was deserving of its own special pew.

Maya Angelou’s high African American rhetoric, I believe, held audiences with rapt attention in a similar way. The expressivity of Angelou’s speech embodied sonic vestiges of late-Victorian epistolary inflections no longer found in most African American communities. The radical eloquence demonstrated by Maya Angelou’s speaking style effectively operated to appropriate the “master’s language” and audibly articulate black agency in order to subvert de jure segregation and race-based educational discrimination. Her manner of speaking was meant to celebrate the tenacity of African Americans’ collective will not to merely survive, but indeed thrive — and with a flair for the erudite, to boot. With Maya Angelou’s passing this covertly political style of black speech will be missed in mainstream American media. Regretfully, for many, a pithy soundbite and a Hallmark card aphorism is all that is left.

picture of Mahogany greeting card with Maya Angelou quote: "Do not reject. Do not demand. You can have life in the palm of your hand."

Maya Angelou’s “Mahogany” line of Hallmark greeting cards.

Though in my mind — as an African American mother, and a scholar of writing and rhetoric — Maya Angelou posed much too significant a figure for the occasion of her death to be marked with nothing more than a social media hashtag or image file of her glamorous, youthful heyday, accompanied by little else beyond one of her many well-turned phrases. Whereas she was most popularly known for her short poems, I don’t think a cut-paste of “Phenomenal Woman” will do her justice. As Angelou herself often noted, she was clever with words. The subject of her attention to craft was at times a topic of great debate among other African American poets. Whether this is fair to Angelou’s literary contributions, I cannot say. Although I have studied and thought about poetry slightly more than the average American reader, I don’t fancy myself an expert on what constitutes “serious poetry,” nor do I necessarily assume expertise about assessing one poem as “good” and another as “bad.”

As a casual reader of memoirs, however, I most value Angelou’s talent as a writer of the autobiographical form. Of course, her first autobiography is also her most celebrated work.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings powerfully conveys Angelou’s gift for personal narrative. Her socio-historical account of individual capacity for greatness and resilience in spite of childhood trauma is rightfully recognized as a well-crafted memoir. It is through this genre of her writing that Angelou’s prose emerges with a special resonance. She shows herself to be a foremost chronicler of the latter part of the Jim Crow era in her story of growing up in Arkansas. Her rich anecdotes beautifully capture the turbulent times that led toward her fulfilling her unique cultural niche, and prepared her for the space she would eventually find herself occupying in the singular role of vernacular dance performer, civil rights activist, political fundraiser, and occasional agent provacatuer.

Maya Angelou as vernacular artist or self-described "shake dancer"

Maya Angelou as vernacular artist or self-described “shake dancer”

Perhaps because of my own experience as an expat and having once been a young, single mother living in Accra, Ghana, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes is by far my favorite of all her autobiographical works. In this book, she describes how she took on the role of personal host and special consort to the likes of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, among many other literary, political, and diplomatic luminaries of the Black Power and African Independence movements — all too numerous to name in this short reflection. Through this richly textured account of Angelou’s decade of wanderlust against the backdrop of mid-twentieth century Africa’s global decolonization movements, All God’s Children proved to be an indispensable companion during my sojourn year following the 9-11 attacks leading up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Angleou’s writing helped me better contextualize what I was encountering in the social and political turmoil I personally experienced while toggling between West African airports, local guesthouses, and gated estate communities. Fed up with stateside jingoism and hawkishness, reading Angelou’s prose provided me with meaning and gave context to the social and historical forces I saw in play. Her writing gave me the much needed explanatory power I sought for a better understanding of the cultural dynamics that I was seeing and experiencing first-hand: the coup d’etat in Ivory Coast, Liberian living conditions at UN refugee camps, and Ghana’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings, to name just a few of these life-changing events. Reading All God’s Children offers the perfect vantage point for understanding the ground that was laid by her generation of black woman cultural workers and gave me the strength to return home to North Carolina and assume my local share of the work required for bringing about a more expansive vision of global ethics as a black woman and as an American. Yes. This is what Angelou’s gift was to me, and to us all. She showed us how to strive to become better, more responsive Americans and citizens of the world.

June 3, 2014. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , . African Americans, art, children, Civil Rights Movement, economics, feminism, gender, history, poetry, politics, race, rhetorics, sex & sexuality, style. Leave a comment.

Being Mary Janes or Being Moral Mules?

While partaking of various items in my websurfing diet I often find myself struggling not to get sucked too deeply into the veritable smorgasbord of mind-numbing, click-through slideshows. At the same time, I value and congratulate sites like Madame Noire and the constellating blogosphere within its close orbit. I like how it provides a viable platform for young black women to cultivate their voices and share opinions. So let me borrow a quote from one of the blog’s contributors when I say there’ll be no stank face over here.

Anyway, having recently found myself in the throes of binge-watching BET’s newest dramatic series, Being Mary Jane, I came across this blog post in today’s newsfeed. And as hyperlinking would have it, I found myself clicking to one content contributor waxing blogosophical about the social import of Being Mary Jane as somehow representing a cultural leap for black women. (Of course, I’m all too aware of the debates surrounding the applicability of “social import” when speaking of popular television shows and other trending media; that’s a blog post for another time.) The assertions about the show’s dramatic realism regarding the title character’s character match the general commentary made about the Kerry Washington vehicle, Scandal. For instance:

Being Mary Jane gives black women something shows with predominantly white casts have been hip to for a while now:  Our very own Walter White.  Dare I say, our first anti-hero.  She’s the woman we hate to love because she’s the perfect validation of the fact that villains have feelings too.

I understand the sentiment behind such perceptions, but beneath the accolades lies a flawed logic. The impulse to praise any opportunity in which black women can see their lived realities portrayed on screen, projected as multi-dimensional, nuanced leading characters is a temptation to be sure. However much beyond that, claims about cultural groundbreaking are farfetched. The concept of an educated black woman emotionally supporting her parents and extended family by succeeding through hard work and tenacity all while looking fabulous breaks new ground — really?

Mary Jane’s agonizing over the health of her living and unborn nieces, reciting the Lord’s Prayer on behalf of a terrified nation on live television, and baking awesome cakes from scratch for her mother’s birthday somehow makes her a villain of the highest order. Clearly, this assessment provides further evidence that assumptions about black female malfeasance have become so pervasive in our culture that other black women are themselves actively engaged in the vilification of black femininity. The logic doesn’t hold; black women having normal human appetites and unapologetically striving toward the fulfillment of those desires does not a monster make. As a black female character looking for love, good sex, and professional status, is Mary Jane an antihero? Does the shoe actually fit?

Yeah, okay. Mary Jane is evil because naughty noogy is exactly the same as being a meth-cooking, neo-nazi affiliated child-killer à la Walter White. I’ll buy that.

No, really I am buying it… every single month through DirectTV on demand. ”She pulled up her black fishnets and called in Verizon to come and watch…” It’s possible that I may not have gotten that quote absolutely correct. Oh, Zora, you were so wise! (I don’t care one bit about Richard Wright calling you a handkerchief head opportunist.) Indeed, “de nigger woman is de mule uh de world” as far as I can see too — especially when it comes to shouldering America’s social and moral burdens. Oh well, onward and upward! Episodes 4 through 8, here I come! And please, dear mother-goddess Afro-d!te, I promise I’ll be good if you don’t let Gabrielle Union kill anybody this season.

Ayy-Man!

February 16, 2014. Tags: , , , , , , . advertisement, African Americans, cute, gender, race, rhetorics, sex & sexuality, TV. Leave a comment.

Hold Paula Deen Accountable If You Care About Justice

Clarence "Sunshine" Thomas
Clarence “Long-Dong” Thomas

In my last post I made an appeal to forgive Paula Deenfor her use of the word “nigger” because I was feeling a sense of charity given that my general attitude toward her was already one of low expectations. I glossed over key points also due, in part, to generate a post with brevity and levity. The mild sense of sympathy I felt, however, was countered by a generalized snark and outright cynicism that comes from living as an African American woman living in the South and being a frequent observer (and occasional target) of some individuals behaving like rude, misanthropes all up, in, and through the public sphere. Granted, Southerners are generally very polite people — profusely so, in fact. Southern hospitality is an ethos that most strive to uphold. Though let us not forget, by its very definition, hospitality is a stance that is meant for dealing with strangers or outsiders. Southern hospitality is only an outward appearance; something I call, bless your heart and watch your back. Therefore, for the most part, feelings of snark overtook charity — Christian charity — Southern style.

At any rate, it’s the thing I’ve learned to cope with, dealing with all the craziness of living and working in the South. My first instinct to blow off the gravity of Deen’s actions is the result that comes from years of battle fatigue while trying to avoid bitterness, hypertension, and the gout. For years, I’ve been teaching, learning, working, and living with folk who are oblivious to the privileges and luxuries they derive from inadvertently creating the range of minor inconveniences and insurmountable disasters in the lives of the people of color surrounding them. It happens regularly, without thought, as a simple matter of routine habit. It’s something you simply become accustomed to when you’ve been living in the Carolinas for as long as I have. But of course, as we all know, feelings are emotions. And emotions have a tendency to distort clear thinking. So I write this post to say that my last post (June 25, 2013) is wrong… or at least not entirely correct. That’s right. McFarlane was wrong.

Forgiveness is a good thing, but redress is too. The reason my earlier post missed the mark is because I, like most others, was focused on the media hype. Whereas attention to the more sensational aspects of Paula Deen being politically incorrect and quite possibly rude is one thing, the fact of the matter still remains that Deen was engaging in flat out employment discrimination, which far exceeds the problem of poor interpersonal skills or bad manners. The deposition that brought Deen’s behavior to light involves sworn testimony about Deen using the power of her corporation to place white employees in the front of her business while keeping black employees in the back. In other words, Deen practiced racially discriminatory institutional policies as a matter of workplace procedure. What this means is that Paula Deen actively assigned people to differential labor categories on the basis of race — if not soley, at least partially. In so doing, Deen actively made the decision to foreclose on people’s lives, thereby limiting individual employees’ economic and social chances in life — both long and short term — including (and by no means limited to) their ability to secure reasonable housing, attain decent educational opportunities for themselves and their children, as well as achieve dignified retirements free from poverty. This is the significant issue at hand and flaws in Deen’s individual personality are only tip of the ice burg.

To look at the case of the Paula Deen, here is racism and this is how it works. It works through the material benefits and tangible privileges received by one phenotypical group at the expense of another, wherein you work other folk to death and hurt their children and their children’s children into perpetuity . However, the claim of employment discrimination is seen as altogether different from proving it, says the U.S. Supreme Court. We can thank Clarence Thomas for this little nugget of injustice. Back before Thomas was on the Supreme Court, he headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (through the auspices of a Ronald Reagan affirmative action appointment, no less) it became federal policy to disregard claims of racial discrimination based solely on outcome. Merely demonstrating (statistically, or otherwise) that all the employees who happen to be African American get assigned to the back kitchen is irrelevant. The burden of proof demands more than that. Recent politicization of the judicial branch has resulted in numerous close split decisions. This was the EEOC policy that was legitimized once Bush 40 appointed Clarence Thomas to the high court. From the SCOTUS bench, Thomas continues to rule with other conservatives. Thomas’ record of decisions for key racial discrimination cases tends to favor the accused/offending parties. Burden of proof  rest with victims. The plaintiff/victim must not only show damages or unfavorable outcomes, but must prove it’s being done on purpose. Paula Deen’s funny little nigger jokes show how she intentionally disqualified black employees from receiving fair labor compensation. The point is this: it does matter that Deen used the n-word, but not for the reasons the media would have us believe. The outcomes of personal and symbolic racism, such as the derogatory language used by Deen in the institutional context of a public, corporate establishment effectively translates into actual and real institutional racism and substantively proves intent to discriminate. In this particular context, Deen’s use of the word “nigger” equals the kind of racism that causes infant mortality and malnutrition, premature death from stress and overwork, destroys families, shatters dreams, perpetuates intergenerational poverty and social unrest, and fundamentally undermines what it means to live in a civil society based on democratic values. Therefore, if we really care about what we allege America to be, then we have no choice but to hold Paula Deen accountable for saying nigger— even if it was in the context of telling stupid jokes.

When all is said and done (and I think we can all agree at this point that a lot was said and even more was done), the bottom basic point is that Paula Deen ought not be allowed to use the power and wealth of corporate systems to institutionalize social caste groups—not if we are to live in an ethical, fair, and meritocratic society.

June 28, 2013. Tags: , , , , , , . African Americans, civic culture, Civil Rights Movement, communication, communication, persuasion, politics, teaching, professional writing, discrimination, economics, ethos, history, information design, media, persuasion, politics, race, racism, religion, rhetorics, SCOTUS, Southeners, space, space & spatiality, spatial rhetorics, Uncategorized, White Studies. 1 comment.

Quvenzhané Wallis and the Sad Truth

If you’re like me, the way you watch tv has shifted and your consumption of movies and television is now heavily mediated through social networks like Twitter and Facebook. More and more of us are likely to be in the know about the latest infotainment buzz through trending tweets and the latest status feeds. In fact, since I haven’t been too gung-ho about pricey visits to movie theaters these days,  I hadn’t even heard of Quvenzhané Wallis until last week. I learned of the precocious child actor like most others when she became the youngest person ever to earn an Oscar nomination for her lead acting role in the critically acclaimed fantasy drama, Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Image

In a ceremony on the night of November 14, 2012, Quvenzhané was acknowledged and honored with the key to her hometown, Houma in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Of course, though not too surprisingly, the media commentary that followed in regards to the young actor’s breakthrough film performance was heavily burdened by the usual laziness of poorly thought-out racist mainstream media tropes in the form of celebrity gossip, ignorance, and out-and-out refusal to pronounce Wallis’s first name correctly. No surprises there. This sort of thing happens like clockwork and is understood as par for the course among even the most casual African American media watchers. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YB8CGNbrI4c But I admit that I was taken aback and was quite unprepared for the social media firestorm that ensued on Oscar night when the satirical news organization, The Onion, issued a tweet referring to this little girl as a cu*t. Now let’s get this straight: that’s the “c” word that rhymes with “hunt” and not “hoot” and is definitely not the type of descriptive one would normally expect a decent human being to use in the labeling of a small child, not even in the most extreme circumstances. Likewise, the Onion tweet was not a hoot – wasn’t in the least bit funny. And as though on the hunt, the Onion’s slur of choice (along with the fake news organization’s snide and snarky follow up apology) was issued in the same mean spirit as the sexually predatory racial politics that black women in this country have faced for centuries. Though unlike the verbal attacks that many black women have come to expect and subsequently learn to live with, few of us were ready for this particular incident because… well… because Wallis is a child. And children, we thought (hoped?), are supposed to be off limits when it comes to show-business’ usual racism and misogynistic feeding frenzies. But then again, she is a girl…  and a black girl at that. Unfortunately, violence against women is normal in our culture and youth exploitation is ordinary. It continues to be the case that for most African Americans – whether child or adult – neither cuteness nor the genuine innocence of childhood will fully provide our folk refuge from the casual viciousness of racism. The basic ideas of merit and the routine presumption of innocence in the case of black folk hold little sway in the history of US politics and culture. Because the fact still remains, no matter how smart, how talented, or how earnest you are or strive to be, in the eyes of far too many white adults, if you are both female and black you can only ever be nothing but a c-word(even if you’re an adorable, Academy Award nominated prodigy). And that’s the sad truth.

April 3, 2013. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . African Americans, age, children, cute, family, feminism, film, gender, history, parenting, politics, race, racism, rhetorics, sex & sexuality, toys, TV, YouTube. Leave a comment.

Cute No More?

Barack Obama started 2013 off with a new swagger. It began with the Fox News generated “Benghazi-Gate” and all the hullabaloo surrounding the non-nomination of Susan Rice for Secretary of State. From that moment, it seemed like he was down for a brawl with congressional Republicans during the first press conference after his reelection win, saying if the GOP’s leadership didn’t like the ambassador’s handling oobama-shoot_2469253bf things, “… then they’ve got a problem with [him].”

Then there’s the issue of Obama’s continued defiance in the face of House GOP members’ budget demands, which stands in clear contrast to his demeanor after the last fiscal crisis. And now with Obama’s more strident approach to gun control legislation following theNewton school massacre and other shooting incidents, there’s this recent revelation that he’s a skeet-shooting enthusiast…?

Dad jeans notwithstanding, it seems the world’s about to witness a gruffer, rougher, less cute second-term Obama. I also think the POTUS now feels less need to traffic in racial cuteness and is more comfortable moving toward a more formidable leadership image — and this could be a good thing on some level. (Not that I’m thrilled about gun sports or drone attacks or extra-legal assassinations or that sort of thing.)

April 2, 2013. African Americans, Barack Obama, civic culture, cute, Obama, political campaign, politics, rhetorics, Uncategorized, visual rhetoric. Leave a comment.

Portrait d’une negresse: Artfully Remixed?

benoist-louboutin-obamaThe painting furthest to the left is called Portrait d’une négresse by Marie-Guillemine Benoist. The artist, a daughter born in 1768 to Parisian civil servants in 1768, created this painting in 1800 — only six years after the French ended their part in the African slave trade. Now housed in the Louvre, Portrait d’une négresse has since become a symbol of women’s rights and freedom for black people.

This iconic image has inspired countless imitations. A notable example is the Christian Louboutin 2011 Fall Lookbook based on several classic portraits photographed by Peter Lippmann. More recently there’s been the cover of Magazine Fuera de Serie (a lifestyle supplement to Spanish newspaper, Expansión) featuring a composite image of Benoist’s young slave girl, re-imagined as America’s first lady seated on the stars and stripes.

The reference is easily recognized by anyone who’s even vaguely familiar with the canon of fine art. Unfortunately, given the impoverished state of humanities education in America, the iconic meaning of this image has gone completely missed in the popular blogosphere.

The message, as Benoist originally intended it, represents the black woman as a figure of innocence and mercy. For the Hispanic world, deeply influenced by Catholicism, this representation of Michelle Obama inserts itself within the richly historical iconography of Our Lady of Guadalupe (or the Virgin Mary). The Spanish magazine article speaks of the first lady in glowing terms through the use of descriptive language like “intelligent, strong and classy” in order to convey the idea that Michelle functions as the president’s political backbone and social conscious.

Recent viewings of the magazine’s cover image have been mis-recognized by the American media. This, I think, is related to America’s cultural puritanism, which assigns any display of black female nudity to the field of anthropological curiosity or places it strictly within the domain of the pornographic. This point is aroused (all puns intended) whenever the subject of the black female nude is raised. Most American media outlets have obscured the offending nipple with strategic pixel placement or otherwise subjected the chocolate-colored areola to some other arbitrary redaction method. (Coverage of Mrs. Obama’s breast with a huge red star is among the most curious editorial objects noticed.)

This latest media dust-up reminds me of Janet Jackson’s Superbowl “wardrobe malfunction” controversy and demonstrates, by extension, America’s cultural fascination with the black breast — brown nipples, in particular — and highlights the racist American obsession with the sexual commodification of black women. Clearly, we can look at America’s antebellum exploitative labor practices of “employing” black women as wet-nurses for the children of white slave holders and understand this as a profound historical example. More generally, the cultural denial of breasts’ primary function for purposes of basic nutritional sustenance and the sexual fixation on this particular part of the human anatomy as an erotic object, when juxtaposed with the Eurocentric fixation on the gradient of colors from brown to black as signifying dirt or evil, might explain why this paradox still persists. Reactions to this Michelle Obama composite image easily call to mind a host of racist discourses surrounding black bodily hygiene.

What I find most interesting is related to the dismal state of visual literacy among Americans, which proves that critical approaches to reading images are so badly needed today. Alongside the nipple being perceived as indecent and improper, there is the problem of an overemphasis on appearance and form over contexts and content. (One gets the distinct sense that the same folk who can’t hold it together over a few misplaced commas and semicolons are the same individuals who are losing their minds over the sight of a little brown areola.)

As previously mentioned, so much ado surrounding the Spanish magazine’s supposed bad form has the unfortunate effect of overtaking the particular logos of the article and the collective ethos of Spanish religio-cultural aesthetic sense, in general. Moreover, and most egregiously, it seems to ignore the artistic pathos of Karine Percheron-Daniels who is known for her nude figure celebrity mash-ups. In fact, not only does the online version of the magazine article feature a nude likeness of Michelle Obama, but also featured are those of Princess Diana, Kate Middleton, and (yes!) Barack Obama too — all portrayed as classical nudes in repose.

August 31, 2012. Tags: , , , , , , . African Americans, art, Barack, Barack Obama, beauty, design, Karine Percheron-Daniels, politics, Portrait d’une négresse, rhetorics, sexual politics, sexual politics, visual literacy, visual rhetoric. Leave a comment.

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