Rhetorics and Ambiguity

As a black woman I rarely have the privilege of perceiving nakedness and lack of direction as “freeing”—quite the opposite. The point is not to evoke an essentialist stance, but to caution against the potential for a type of solipsism born of white heteronormative neoliberal paradigms. There’s good reason as to why black churchgoing women’s unique testimony involves being “clothed and in our right minds.”

Directionless-ness

Compelled to respond in the mode of cyberflâneus—as opposed to the flâneur, her masculine counterpart—the creative and critical endeavors I pursue seek and receive pleasure from visual, spatial, and tactile sensations, as the deliberate fashioning of online and real world personas across the darker parts of the rainbow. The constraints of respectability politics, of course, compel the performance of citizenship of the industrious and productive variety—in other words, that of a crafty black woman whose labor constantly threatens cooptation. Dwelling in this space as a woman otherwise, risks the designation of “digital streetwalker.” Feminine bodies, we’re told, must caution against following blind wanderlust, whether virtual or real.

Smart ways to use poetry in a street fight

Johan Deckmann (graphic artist)

Rhetoric is the battleground of ideas and budding composition teachers should be encouraged to recognize the stakes in such battles. Intradisciplinary contests between cultural studies and technical writing, now being fought over critical approaches to highly politicized issues, are actually a strong sign of the intellectual vitality of rhetoric and composition education. On either end of the spectrum, digital humanities needs to be applied creatively, as foundational to academic inquiry. 

I guess this is why I insist on playing with elements of rhetoric to resist, even antagonize, systemic instances of neoliberal misogynoir at times. At the same time I acknowledge my habits/impulses to respond productively in online spaces. A digital libertine, I am not for being rotten with the Protestant work ethic… and so I think of haiku headlines as another digital composing strategy.

November 18, 2016. art, Blackness, communication, persuasion, politics, teaching, professional writing, composition, design, digital literacy, education, feminism, information design, literacy, media, multimodal, poetry, rhetorics, school, teaching, visual literacy, White Studies, writing. Leave a comment.

Professional Black Girl: Video Series Celebrates ‘Everyday Excellence’ of Black Women

Professional Black Girl: Video Series Celebrates ‘Everyday Excellence’ of Black Women and Girls and explores the love language shared by black women, and how we twerk and work with unmatched professionalism. 

Episode 1

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#ProfessionalBlackGirl

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DURHAM, N.C. — Dr. Yaba Blay, renowned activist, cultural critic, and producer, launches Professional Black Girl, an original video series created to celebrate everyday Black womanhood, and to smash racist and “respectable” expectations of how they should “behave.”

Seventeen Black women and girls ranging in age from 2- to 52-years-old were interviewed for the series. Each episode features a candid discussion with personalities such as Grammy Award-winning recording artist, Rapsody; Joan Morgan, author of the Hip-Hop feminist classic When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost; and 13-year-old world traveler Nahimana Machen, sharing what it means to be a “Professional Black Girl.”

“‘Professional Black Girl’ looks like Taraji P. Henson at the 2015 Emmys jumping up to hug Viola Davis. It looks like Mary J. Blige and Taraji and Kerry Washington in that Apple commercial. It looks like me rolling up to a room full of people in Berlin to speak with my bamboo earrings on,” explains Tarana Burke, a non-profit consultant and fashion blogger featured in the series.

Limited edition Professional Black Girl merchandise, created in partnership with Philadelphia Printworks, is available now onphiladelphiaprintworks.com. The first full episode, featuring Dr. Blay, will air September 9, 2016, with an episode airing each Friday onYouTube and yabablay.com until December 23, 2016.

The terminology that is often used to describe and define Black girls—such as bad, grown, fast, ghetto, and ratchet—are non-affirming and are words that are intended to kill the joy and magic within all Black girls,” says Dr. Blay. “We are professional code-switchers, hair-flippers, hip-shakers, and go-getters. We hold Ph.Ds and listen to trap music; we twerk and we work. We hold it down while lifting each other up, and we don’t have to justify or explain our reason for being. This is us.”

Follow #ProfessionalBlackGirl across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to celebrate and affirm the everyday excellence of Black women and girls.

For more information, or to interview Dr. Yaba Blay, please contact Shakirah Gittens at 718-687-6231 or by email at info@DynamicNLyfe.com.

September 9, 2016. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , . #ProfessionalBlackGirl, African Americans, beauty, communication, persuasion, politics, teaching, professional writing, composition, cute, cuteness, design, digital literacy, ethos, fashion, feminism, feminity, gender, hair, media, play, politics, professionalism, race, rhetorics, sexual politics, style, technology, video, visual literacy, YouTube. Leave a comment.

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.

#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.

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.

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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.

How Racists Cynically Exploit “Cute”

This anti-abortion billboard targets a black community in Oakland, California.  It’s  just been recently covered over because the actual mother of the little girl featured in the ad complained so much to the press that it led to a bit of an outcry.  The mother of this child obviously didn’t think she was signing up to support the suggestion that her child is in any way unwanted (though she gullibly signed the modeling release form).

Similar billboards have appeared in Atlanta, Georgia and Brooklyn, New York too.  I can see why the mother was so offended.  It’s a slick political tactic that appeals to certain religious and nationalistic discourses promoted in the African American community.  The idea that black people are endangered or are otherwise inherently self-destructive (as though there is some perfectly coherent racial “self” to destroy in the first place) is a common white supremacist trope that — perhaps not too surprisingly — circulates throughout some all-black discursive communities, like barbershops and beauty parlors, not to mention far too many black churches.

Of course, blacks are no more endangered than the rest of humanity, but it’s hard to convey that to our folk when we only see social disintegration on a daily basis while, unfortunately, lacking a critical analysis that myopically attends to a world view which highlights personal agency as the end-all-be-all of human interactions. Such assumptions are mistaken because they ignore the various forms of structural and social violence that occur routinely within and across black communities — of which this billboard is a perfect case in point.

Most insidious about this billboard campaign is the suggestion that black people don’t love their children like everyone else (and by “everyone else” I mean white people). And because of this underlying pathos, I believe the billboard’s combination of words coupled with this particularly cute image is patently racist. Moreover, this ad is clearly designed to garner culturally conservative votes from the typically liberal African American voting block. This is a wedge issue similar to that of gay marriage, which has proven to be an effective political ploy to encourage portions of the African American electorate to vote against their own social and economic interests.

Unfortunately though, too many black voters are duped by the disingenuous politics of this conservative agenda. By feigning a concern for the lives and well-beings of black women and children, the right wing can claim to subscribe to a “colorblind” concern for the lives of “all humans” when, in fact, they couldn’t care less. Indeed, if the right wing anti-choice lobby really cared about the lives of women and children — regardless of race — they would make gestational and infant nutrition measures, as well as early childhood education and daycare an integral part of their political platform. If they really cared about women and children, they would make extended parental leave the norm and not just a luxury for the well-situated few. And no woman would ever get fired from her job for being pregnant. Ever.

In the end, it would stand to reason that the only way to reduce abortions is to assure expectant mothers that they will be able to safely bring children into the world without jeopardizing their own futures as well as those of their already living children. Instead, the right wing engages paranoia and fear tactics in order to impede a woman’s right to determine her own outcomes and not be condemned to breed against her will.

The poem below is from 1945 and is called “The Mother.” The Poetry Archive has posted a beautiful recitation of it in Gwendolyn Brooksown voice.

Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.

I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed
children.
I have contracted. I have eased
My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.
I have said Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized Your luck
And your lives from your unfinished reach,
If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches,and your deaths,
If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,
Believe that even in my deliberateness
I was not deliberate.
Though why should I whine,
Whine that the crime was other than mine?
— Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead, You were never made.
But that too, I am afraid,
Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.

Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
All.

February 28, 2011. Tags: , , , , . abortion, advertisemnt campaign, African Americans, children, civics, cute, economics, family, feminism, gender, literature, parenting, poetry, politics, rhetorics, sex & sexuality. 1 comment.

February is Black History Sneakers Month!

Aside from the much publicized irony of Black History Month being celebrated in the shortest month of the year, I generally relate to certain other criticisms about these four weeks of commemorative celebration having become pretty much absurd at this point in contemporary popular culture.

But don’t tell that to Foot Locker. These sneakers are from the 2011 Collection of Black History Month Sneakers from Nike and Converse.  No seriously, this is an actual genre of athletic shoes.  There’s also the Negro League sneaker collection from Nike.

I have sometimes held the opinion that sneakers are a sort of cute rhetoric that signifies on certain essentialist claims made about African American men. Of course I’m talking about the troping on the “run, nigger, run”  metaphor from African American literature and folk-tales, which I suspect is informed — at least somewhat — by the 19th and 20th century historical references to youthful black male flight from Southern slavery and Jim Crow lynching.

Certainly, in the sports and entertainment media, young, athletic, African American male bodies are fetishized and made objects of white, middle class, heteronormative spectacle as in the case of baseball, football, and basketball. This emphasis on youthfully playing games  is a “cute” rhetoric. Arguably, sneakers are the cutest menswear shoe style available and, for good or bad, remain a staple of hip-hop style and urban fashion.

And sadly, even up until now many young black men still view professional sports as the only legitimate avenue to wealth and fame, as the frames of black athleticism are narrowly interpreted as the optimal performance of African American masculinity. The popular sports legacy of Michael Jordan’s endorsement of Nike Air Jordans and his influence on urban fashions associated with the late 90s style of dress when grown black men dressed in over-sized jersey tank tops, low-hanging, ankle-skimming shorts, and yes — sneakers. Grown black men wearing play clothes.  The issue of concern for me is that “black” must be modified by “grown” and I’m curious as to how this is related to the performance of gender.

Spike Lee as “Mars Blackmon” parodied this child-like mannishness in his first and highly acclaimed independent film, She’s Gotta Have It, and in his numerous Blackmon reprisals in several Nike ads back in the late 80s and early 90s. Today, there are blogs and chat-rooms populated by intelligent, educated, technologically savvy —  literally well-heeled — black men who spend hours comparing their sneaker collections and discussing the intricacies of limited editions, latest trends, and architectural designs. Within these digital communities, rarely is the issue of exploited overseas sweatshop child labor ever raised. Personally, I don’t claim to understand what motivates sneaker enthusiasts. I guess I’m not much of a sports fan either.  However, I do think the question is worth asking: is this a part of what Carter G. Woodson warned about in The Miseducation of the Negro?

February 16, 2011. Tags: , , , , , . African Americans, cute, fashion, feminism, film, gender, hip-hop, history, masculinity, sports, style. 2 comments.

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