On Seeing Black Women’s Genius: For Whitney Houston

One of the things that surprised me most about the death of Whitney Houston was the vitriol directed at her in some White mainstream Internet spaces. Many of the comments struck me as being both racist and sexist.  I understand that both racism and sexism exists, but I always leave room for myself to to be able to wince when someone comes out of their face sideways. I also try to occupy the space between acknowledging the pain caused by sexism and racism but to also not spend hella emotional labor reacting to the fact that it does in fact exist. It is what it is.

Two books by Black women scholars and professors have helped me to think about the public reaction to the death of Whitney Houston. The first is The Suffering Will Not Be Televised by Rebecca Wanzo and the other is If You Can’t Be Free, Be A Mystery by Farah Griffin.

I have been thinking about Griffin’s book because it is about how the genius of Billie Holiday is perpetually overlooked because of her struggles with addictions. I read this book nearly two years ago and was really floored by how Black women’s knowledge production and Black women’s genius tends to be largely overshadowed by their struggles with addiction in ways that the genius of Black men historically has not been. ( This isn’t limited to only Black women, as I remember comments around Amy Winehouse’s addiction struggles and trust, Frank was genius.)

For example, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane historically have had very public struggles with addictions, however their genius has not been denied.

Black women’s history is central to US history. To erase or deny their genius is to erase US history, and I am not having that.

To reduce their genius to their struggles with addictions is to fail to see them as whole human beings who are both fragile and dynamic.

Listen to the first 90 seconds of her version of  “I Will Always Love You” in a quiet room on a Sunday morning. #genius.

Having watched Oakland become consumed by the crack epidemic as a kid in Oakland I saw the city that I loved eaten from the inside out in many ways by the dope game. I watched many family members struggle with addiction, recovery and addiction and recovery again. You want to go through some pain, watch a family member relapse after watching them claw their way, one day at a time to sobriety.

As I watched people on in social media spaces speculate about who is responsible for Ms. Houston’s “downfall” I couldn’t help but think that is this what people who don’t know how to grieve? What does grieving look like in this moment? What does it mean that it is easier to emote in social media spaces rather than to look at ourselves, at our own dark side’s or to call a family member who is struggling with dealing with an addiction right now and let them know that they are Loved and that you want them to stay alive.

As I stated earlier, Wanzo’s The Suffering Will Not Be Televised helped me to make sense of a lot of the comments around Whitney Houston’s life and death. In her book Wanzo argues that,

some stories of African American women’s suffering in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are widely circulated and others dwell in obscurity. African American women are frequently illegible as sympathetic subjects for media and political concern, and unpacking the difference between the widely disseminated suffering stories and the invisible ones demonstrates why some stories of suffering gain prominence and others never gain a national stage.

After Ms. Houston’s death I thought, why was it so hard to see her as a sympathetic subject? Why didn’t she have “political currency”? Does she have political currency in Black online spaces? White online spaces? Why or why not?

I’ve had a theory for about three years about shiny Black girls. Shiny Black girls are talented, ambitious and fly. Their hair stays whipped, faces be moisturized and when they enter a room, they turn heads. #blackgirlsarefromthefuture.

Ms. Houston was a shiny Black girl. In our current cultural climate shiny Black girls have to protect themselves, their bodies and their spirits in order to stay whole human beings.

I guess, at the end of all of this I am wondering how many shiny Black girls are in our midst at this very moment who may need our help but don’t want to or don’t know how to ask? What is our obligation to them?

What do we do?

Thoughts?

Some Thoughts on Yunus’s Social Businesses

It is tragic, yet obvious, illustration of how our economic system fails it’s mission to serve the needs of all humanity. Millions of people around the world are suffering because a few speculators blindly grasp at profits. ~Muhammad Yunus, Building Social Business

I have to admit, I was ready to dismiss Yunus’s ideas around social business when I first heard about them, because for me, it appeared to be that he institutionalized a form of lending that has been present in many Black churches in the US and in Caribbean communities for eons. Folks saving and pooling their money together, allowing each member who contributed an opportunity to use to funds. Folks coming together to serve as their OWN bank.

However, I also know better than to dismiss something I haven’t read yet. o.0

Yunus states that there are four key features of a social business.

First,  it is distinct from social enterprises, social entrepreneurs and socially responsible businesses because the aforementioned organizations place earning a profit as a main priority and doing social good as a second or third.

I also know that according to corporate bylaws in the US corporations are legally required to make their shareholders the most money possible.

In social business, a dollar is a dollar, and this applies even for adjustments for inflation. So if you invest $500 in a social business, you get your $500 back, as an investor, #nointerest.

Second, social businesses treat their beneficiaries with more dignity and respect and autonomy than charity. Even a well meaning charities may take away from the initiative from folks who are toiling away to step back and think collectively about how to solve their problems. Sometimes charity is necessary, but there should be more tools in the toolbox.

Third, Yunus contends that “people create culture” AND that “culture creates people”. He goes on to say that “to experience progress, human society needs to move on, evolving and creating its own new culture, step by step.

Fourth, there are two kinds of social businesses “One provides goods and services to advance a social goal while being owned by people who are not themselves poor or underprivileged. It generates no profits or dividends for its owners; any surplus is reinvested to finance the growth of the business and to expand the benefits it provides to society. Another is “actually owned by poor people ( as is the case with Grameen Bank), or owned by a specifically created trust to deliver benefits to the poor”.

While the idea of folks coming together to solve their own problems through working collaboratively and leveraging capital from corporations who want to help there is something fundamentally flawed with Yunus’s thinking around the end of poverty. He states,

Social business has the potential to reverse this disparity because it addresses the poor directly and deliberately. By bring the poor into the economic mainstream, it helps their piece of the pie grow independently.

In some ways it is naive because it fails to take into consideration how the wealth of some nations is tied to the subordination of others. For example, there has been a lot of talk in mainstream media about the problems with Apple computer and global corporations, and the working conditions of Chinese folks who put together our beloved iphones, ipads etc. Apple employs (largely through subcontractors)  nearly a million people in China. Now, for me, it is clear that an economic system premised on innovation that normalizes paying people wages so low that they can’t afford to buy the objects that they put together for a living is problematic and unsustainable at minimum.

Henry Ford once paid his workers, many of whom were Black men and women living wages with the expectations that they would turn around and buy his products. #fordism.

They did.

Apple’s fourth 2011 fourth quarter revenue was $46.33B and their profits were $13.06B or $6.43 cents per undilluted share.

Which leads me to ask, how is this sustainable? What if Apple were employee owned?

So, to round this back out, the idea folks getting together to create social businesses in 2012 and beyond is awesome. However, I think it was important to be honest about how corporations make money, and by being honest about the fact that poverty is profitable for many corporations, 501 c 3′s included.

Thoughts?

On How “The Secret Life of Bee’s” Used 4 Black Women to tell a White Girl’s Story

I saw The Secret Life of Bee’s (TSLB) yesterday and I couldn’t helped but be struck by two things. First, the tone of TSLB was extremely similar to the tone of The Help. From the color palate of the sets, to the language and how folks moved and the music.

TSLB was directed by a Black woman, and The Help was directed by a White man.

This morning when I got up I KNEW that I had to write about TSLB. I am good for watching a movie and telling the screen “I don’t believe you Gina”. Meaning I don’t believe the characters, the story is underdeveloped, the character is underdeveloped, that the editor was being lazy, the director was being lazy or the actor was being lazy. That someone didn’t push it to a space to take it there.

The moment that I didn’t believe in the film was in Dakota Fanning and Jennifer Hudson showed up at Queen Latifah’s door, and Fanning had done all the talking. Now Hudson had just gotten beat publicly beat a White man for pouring sun flower seed hulls on his feet in public and threw her to the ground and demanded that said apologized. She refused and was taken to jail. This scene is a direct nod to the scene in The Color Purple where Oprah’s character hits the White woman who asks her if SHE will be her maid…let’s just say that it was traumatic to watch.

So when they show up to Latifah’s door, and Hudson just kinda stands there letting Fanning talk, I was like what the fuck is this Gina. This woman has just gotten her ass beat, and head cracked open by White men, and given the time period she was probably raped, consequently she is lucky to be alive, and she can’t speak for herself. I was not interested in what Fanning had to say to Latifah, I wanted to hear what Hudson had to say for herself and to Latifah. It rendered Hudson a child in that moment.

This morning, I knew what fucked me up about The Secret Life of Bee’s. In this movie four Black women serve as a midwife for the spiritual transformation of a young White girl who has been abandoned by her mother and verbally and physically abused by her father.

Why in the hell is an all star cast of four awesome and talented Black women serving as fodder for the spiritual transformation of a little White girl. When was the last time we saw four Black women serve as fodder for their own spiritual transformation? Cough, Waiting to Exhale? Cough.

Movies matter because they tell us what is important. Movies also matter because they tell us how some people see history.

Honestly, those women were reduced to four mid-wive mammies, to the extent that the White Hollywood imagination see’s Black women’s bodies in film. You all KNOW I Love watching Queen Latifah. I sat in a hotel room in North Carolina on Christmas and had the time of my life watching Latifah. THAT FILM WAS ABOUT A BLACK WOMAN’S PERSONAL TRANSFORMATION. HER JOURNEY, not someone else’s.

This is not to say that Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okendo (check out Skin if you haven’t) did make it twerk, because they did. In fact Latifah is able to work in some #blackgirlfromthefuture juju with the story behind her honey business and Okendo story was probably the most developed and most emotionally textured.

In someways The Secret Life of Bee’s objectified Black women in some of the similar ways that rap music video’s do, because it treats them as objects that are merely there to move the story along and not as subjects with their OWN STORY TO TELL.

You see the movie?

Why do we move other people’s story along but not our own?

Don’t we do the same shit in real life too? Putting our children, our husbands, our girlfriends, our wives, our boyfriends, our work, our mommas ahead of us, and never us first? When will this stop?

Why Black Women Film Directors?

NY Times article on Black Film in the early 1990′s titled “They’ve Gotta Have Us” by Karen Grigsby Bates

Note: There will be a few blog posts on Pariah and Black women’s directors over the next few weeks as I move like a squirrel with a flashlight trying to finish this paper. I cannot have boss bear calling me trifling.

 

The trouble with being erased for so long is that you come to think of your erasure as being natural. ~ Lorraine O’Grady in “The Cave, Lorraine O’Grady on Black Women Film Directors

Last week my homie James asked me why it was significant that Cooper and Rees fundraised to make Pariah when Black filmmakers were doing that waaay back in ’91.

The early 90′s were interesting years for Black films, but these films were primarily by black men directors featuring the narratives by and large of Black men and boys. To my knowledge and correct me if I am wrong the only films  that had major theatrical distribution that was directed by a Black woman were Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the IRT and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust.

The fact that Harris and Dash are the only Black woman from that era that directed a feature length film with major distribution must be noted. Furthermore, the other side of the Harris- Dash coin is the quasi over-representation of Black women’s stories in the recent economic market place.

I say quasi over-representation because we see stories being produce that feature Black women’s bodies but they are not the directors.

Chris Rock, Tyler Perry, Lee Daniels, Bill Duke and Tim Story are 5 black men who have released films in the last 3 years that feature stories about Black women. Which begs the question, where are the Black women directors, directing features with major distribution?

Then there is the Black Woman Can’t Get a Man industrial complex where “The Washington Post”, “CNN”, “MSNBC”, The Economist, scholars (Ralph Banks) and various other magazines explore possible reasons for the “low” marital rates for US heterosexual Black women. #jesusbeaFence. Every time I look up somebody has some something to say about the Who, Where, When, How and Why about Black women’s dating lives. I personally think that the these stories function as a way to make us seem deviant in this current historical moment.

Have Black women directors of feature films been erased for so long that we consider their erasure natural?

Hortense Spillers says that Black women are the beached whale of the sexual universe and that we are awaiting our verb.

Honestly, when I think about the politics of listening to Black women’s stories I am reminded of a scene in Ava Duvernay’s documentary “My Mic Sounds Nice” on women in rap music. In this documentary there is a moment where Stephen Hill states that in some ways the reason why there are very few Black women emcees rapping is because rap music is a male dominated genre where many of the stories are talking about women, so in other words, why would rap audience members want to hear these women speak back?

#Peace to Kasi Lemmons.

On Black Women’s Sexuality

 

The second time that I saw Pariah I decided to change my paper’s title, or even to give it a proper title because of the direction  the paper is taking. The working title is “I am Not Broken, I am Open: Toward  Hetergenous Representations of Black Women’s Sexuality”.

After walking around with a notebook and several drafts two Saturdays ago, and reading and re-reading what I wrote, it became clear that I was not only interested in how Black women make choices about their sexualities, but that I was interested in the politics of Black women’s storytelling both on a day to day basis and on film. In fact, my interest in the politics of Black women’s storytelling is probably why I chose oral interviews as one of my methods of the paper that I have been working on.

There is a parallel between Black women’s lives and Black women’s films when it comes to how and when we are able to represent ourselves. In fact, now that I think about it, I am completely invested in interrogating how public and private marketplaces shape how Black women make choices about their sexualities AND how they shape the stories that Black women are allowed to tell publicly, on a large scale to other Black women.

Gina, this is not what I set out to write about, but this is what nags at me both in my day to day life, and it keeps coming up as I read the paper, so rather than fight it, I will embrace it. I realized, only two weeks ago, that the paper is about these two things. I am not sure what to do with it, now that I have recognized it, but I know or at least I hope that there is some way for me to address it in material ways.

I chose the I am not broken, I am open for a few reasons. First  because it is a line of a poem that Alike says in Pariah. I also use it because Dee Rees wrote the poetry for the film. The third reason is because that line in the film speaks to a previous idea that I have stated which is that “Being read as deviant has fractured the space for Black women to discuss their sexuality”. I have a host of ideas about saying this both on my blog and saying it publicly. I am simply not certain that Black women can re-claim something that has suffocated their humanity. Even as I write that I ask, is that binary thinking, do the films that I have watched, the interviews that I have conducted and even the conversations that Ih ave had with my friends about Black women’s sexuality tell me something different?

I don’t know.

You Make Money Doing What?: Musing on the $1B Facebook IPO and Wage Labor

via Huff Post article “Majoring in Debt

There have been three things on my mind this week. The first is the labor of graduate students and adjuncts. The second is student debt. The third is the Facebook IPO and who makes money off of what. Yup, it’s going to be one of those kinds of posts.

Yesterday, I mentioned the amount of labor that is going into teaching and she sat me down and she told me that her momma saw the amount of work she was doing as an instructor and student and said “Honey, you are an indentured servant”.

Breathe.

She went on to tell me, yes #allcity you need to teach and you Love it, but you are here to leave with a finished product. Your work is brilliant, write and keep writing, find a finished product by someone in your field and decide how much attention your teaching will receive. Learn what the unstated rules are and proceed accordingly. #jesusbeaFenceforBlackgirls.

I was both relieved by her words because I did plan on writing all day, even though I have a slight temperature. I tend to have some of the best ideas about writing when I have a temp. I was also bummed out by her words, because I thought, what if she were not there to say these things to me. But she is, and I am grateful.

I know that the US graduates more law students than there are lawyer jobs, and I would imagine that there are more undergraduate students graduated than their are entry-level jobs. The fact that there are more trained people than their are jobs allows for employers to pick the employee who is willing to accept the lowest pay. How is this humane?

Inside Higher Ed had an interesting article up earlier this week titled “Among the Majority” by Michael Bérubé about the state of academia and how 70% of jobs are taught by people who have part-time contracts.

The article has several nuggets.

The first is that,

Adjunct, contingent faculty members now make up over 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges and universities.

The second is that,
40 years ago, 80 percent of America’s college teachers enjoyed the protection of tenure, whereas now only 54 percent do.
In the third point, he quotes John Rhoades saying,
 colleges promote themselves, especially to first-generation students, as a pathway to the middle class — but, increasingly, colleges do not pay middle-class wages to their own faculty members. The contradiction is deepest at the lowest tiers of the academic hierarchy, where, Rhoades said, underpaid adjunct faculty members are effectively “modeling what is acceptable as an employment practice.”
I think that what many people are unable to see is that the status of graduate student workers and adjunct employees isn’t an exception to the rule but more like the rule in 2012 and beyond.
In a culture were undergraduate students are routinely saddled with tens and thousands of dollars up debt upon graduation, how can this not be a version of indentured servitude? School loan debt is greater than credit card debt in the US. Yet, if you are working class, and the first person in your family to go to college, who in the hell is going to tell you that Sallie Mae and them are going to want their money rain, shine or earthquakes.

Which brings me to the Facebook IPO. As a scholar I do political economy, so I am always paying attention to how money moves. I had several questions after having seen the $100B IPO numbers.

How is it possible for company to be “valued” at 100 billion dollars when it doesn’t make a material product?

What does it produce? I will wait. #SmoothesSkirt. It doesn’t produce anything material, you do. It is your personal information, or the personal information of the nearly 800 million users.

If a corporation’s primary duty is  to it’s shareholders what is to stop them from compromising user data for profit?

David Rushkoff states that,

the more money Facebook takes on, the more like money it will become. In other words, when a social media company is a social media upstart, it will have vastly different motives than the motives it has when it’s responsible for acting in the best interest of its shareholder — a requirement for being a publicly traded company.

I am not sure what to make of all of this, however I do know that it isn’t sustainable.

1 million of the 1.5 million college instructors are teaching on a contract as temporary employees, student debt is higher than credit card debt and Facebook just IPO’d with a 1 billion dollar valuation.

Thoughts?