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.
And since weed advocacy isn’t exactly my ministry, I added a top portion to her ‘fro and replaced a #BLM logo instead of the original cannabis leaf… Decriminalization of marijuana will be part of the DNC platform this election cycle. I’m looking forward to seeing how partisan Democrats will present their case next week. Anything has got to be better than this #RNCinCLE sh!tshow.
Whatevs. To each their own. In the meantime, I’m just doing what I can to keep up morale for the cause.
Earlier this month, Fayetteville State University’s internet radio station, Bronco iRadio, asked me to come in and talk about cuteness and blackness to help kick off Black History Month. Needless to say, this is my favorite subject and I had plenty to say (even during commercial breaks).
Since it was a live broadcast, a few folks (mostly family, friends, and students) asked if they could listen to the show on their own time, so I thought I’d do one better and post this video of our uncut, on-air conversation. Because we spent so much time discussing rhetoric and its connections to professional writing, we ran out of time before I could draw more connections to civil rights and anti-black racism. So I’ll be sure to post another video podcast dealing more directly with cuteness’ relationship to mass incarceration and racial profiling in the near future.
The “teddy bear effect” is something I’ve touched on beforein this blog and is now, more than ever, the topic of exigency. The slayings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, among many others whose names are yet fully known bring to mind the work of one of this year’s MacArthur Genius Award winners: Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Deathworthy” study about how the dark skin and African looking facial characteristics of black defendants are highly correlated to the likelihood of their being sentenced to the death penalty.
The spontaneous memorials, such as the one pictured above, have popped up at sites where police (or wannabe cops) have murdered unarmed, often adolescent black males all speak to teddy bears as a visual and spatial phenomenon of race. Alongside the realities uncovered in the Deathworthy study, is another study by Robert Livingston. Coined the “teddy bear effect,”researchersdemonstrated how and why our society can enact the“postracial” iteration of Jim Crow in the form of mass incarceration and all these brutal police killings directly alongside the amazing success of the Barack Obama presidency.
It seems, according to the evidence, that successful African American leadership —beyond impressive credentials, competence, and diligence — is accompanied by certain “disarming mechanisms” such as physical and behavioral traits that attenuate perceptions of black threat held by the dominant culture. It appears that some black men have developed an extraordinary psychological capacity to affect the feelings of comfort engendered by persceptions of cuteness in order to assuage white racial anxieties about black men’s purported criminality. Among these disarming mechanisms is that of “babyfaceness,” which some African American men physically possess (and may intentionally play up) because they realize how whites experience their “cuteness” as helpful in reducing the perception of black aggression. White experiences of fear or intimidation may actually be a cultural form of subconscious projection due to the realistic threat suffered by blacks because whites’ possess such inordinately higher levels of social power vis-à-vis their black counterparts in most cases.
Deathworthiness versus babyfaceness serves as empirical evidence of the quantifiably predictable quality of “cuteness” as a racial construct that too often means life or death for our black brothers, partners, and sons. It’s interesting that both studies, particularly in the case of Livingston, make clever nods towards the heavily anthologized Brent Staples essay, “Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space,” in which the essayist refers to his habit of coping with whites’ perception of black male threat as a “tension-reducing” tactic meant to assuage white fears and and offer a sense of racial comfort in the public sphere. The kicker comes when Staples admits how “warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is the equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country” and speaks most eloquently to the strange dilemma of masculine empowerment and racial entrapment experienced by black men when moving through public space.
Teddy bears in bear country, sadly, is the perfect trope for the beastly outcomes derived from the unchecked racist policies and legal processes of white American culture and jurisprudence. #BlackLivesMatter
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?