Her Name Sounds Like


“Who chooses black women first and wins?” — Esther Armah

“Video helps us scan events; film expresses a worldview.” — a very beloved professor of mine

My friend and I were stopped by the police while sitting in his car, edge of Brooklyn, last hours of June.  Their car confronted ours, lights flashing and all. I cursed and immediately got into a look calm, no sudden movements pose. Irritated and mildly resigned and probably really scared.  I let him answer all the questions.  What are you guys doing here?  Where are you from?  You don’t have anything in the car do you?  I just stayed silent.

It was over as quickly as it started.  We pulled off, minutes later, in search of milkshakes. We both tried to act like we weren’t scared, but I know the deal.  Even if nothing “happened” to us, the climate right now is one of terror.  I haven’t known what to say in the wake of Charleston.  Maybe, like many, I’ve been shocked into a silence.  I have gone about my daily existence. I have taught black kids.

The school year was bookended by the murders of a black boy in the street and black women and men in the church.  I know this because I have read article after article, watched video after video. Analysis and analysis and analysis. And then I have pretended to have enough where with all to be able to help kids in Newark process remote black death in the midst of their own turmoil. I hope I did okay.

Like many of you, my days involve scanning “news” and noise.  We know a lot and I don’t know how much we can really absorb.  When I moonlight as a filmmaker, I know that some of my job has to be to break through some of the noise and present something that’s capable of being digested. A way of seeing the world.

So, here’s what I can say, as a black female filmmaker: black women are primary. Not as a point of defense, not as point of division.  As an expectation that black lives mattering means all of us.  When I went to the #sayhername event in downtown Manhattan several weeks ago, a group of us said the names of black women who have been targeted by police.  The moment I posted pictures from the event, I was challenged by a brother who felt it was a divisive distraction. I challenged him back. He didn’t let up and when I got tired, one of my girls chimed in.

Voice, everyone’s voice is so important right now.  The attached video is all about voice, sound.  We have to say these black women’s names, we have to acknowledge their our humanity. Being vocal about that cancels out no one and only strengthens this burgeoning, painful, critical moment.  No one’s silence, like Audre Lorde said, will protect her or him.  Nor will it protect a movement.

Those cops only silenced me temporarily.

Standing to My Left and My Right: The Limits of Music Video Feminisms


Music has long been a fueling component to political struggle. That one of fully recognizing the personhood of women is no exception. And this is what I find profoundly intriguing about singer Willow Smith. A music video she released last year presented a challenging mix that was both representative of a tradition of contemporary black female artists who can effectively use the format to communicate their experiences as females and a simple visual moment that spoke volumes about the challenges facing contemporary women’s liberation–at least the visual presentation of it–in present state of advanced and collapsing capitalism.  That asserting one’s independent, female self means you will be by yourself.

It’s not a new message, that one of self-love. But the vehicle, of an 11-year old female celebrity, who declares it amidst a (arguably) boyish presentation of herself is unique. The video’s simple style and message gets complicated once put in the real-world context of who Willow Smith actually is–the daughter of celebrity royalty, as Jada Pinkett and Will Smith’s daughter. With shorter hair, the resemblance to her father is more than striking. She looks like a miniature Will Smith. And yet there’s an important message she’s trying to communicate about her desire to not have limits placed on what her outer appearance ought to be, very much in line with an intentional move on her and her team’s part to present and perform as a powerful, brilliant, creative, independent black girl. If that’s not a feminist act, I don’t know what is.

And it is still a music video. Like other media formats, it has limits. And, why wouldn’t it? Music videos were initially conceived as visual entities to promote recording artists and sell units. Period. For artists who are female, this has created a structure where, in order to use the promote themselves, they must present themselves in a way that sells. They must be made attractive.  Though this predated the music video, the video codified it, and an entity like YouTube has created endless potential for consumption.

It’s more than a little complicated to talk women’s liberation in the framework of a music video. With the emergence of the Internet, and the unlimited potential of music and image sharing, we are fairly removed from the days of media outlets like Viacom owned MTV, BET, and VH1 being at the center of discussions about music videos. But the argument that something’s being sold still has to be a part of our understanding of music videos.

That’s what we’re working with. The sentiments of any video that espouses feminism in any way have to be understood in this vein. This is true, even with the advent of social media that puts the videos much more in the hands of consumers, who can watch on demand. As such, it isn’t such a causal relationship between music video and units sold. It’s a much more webbed relationship. And yet, there has been a regular stream of black female music artists who have slipped in themes of empowerment and liberation within these vehicles where they ultimately are trying to sell not just their music, but themselves as product. What’s compelling about a Willow Smith video is the extent to which her visual contribution to this tradition appear to be a troubling indictment of what the new terrain is for women’s liberation.

Currently, the black female music video landscape–in which we are always trying to grapple with our female lives–appears to consist of women who taken a decidedly anti-female stance rather than actually challenge men or structures of sexism. To adopt the logic of male domination and female inferiority–a far cry from Queen Latifah’s UNITY:

The feel of the video reveals every bit of the nearly 20 years that have passed. Still, I know the lyrics by heart. Defiant, Latifah spits out almost every lyric to the jazz saxophone backdrop (emblematic of that period in hip hop that seamlessly finds it way into the theme song of her hit television show at that time) and demands respect for women within the framework of a song who’s title addresses the separation that sexism wields between women and men. Not bad. Not surprisingly, however, to execute this message with conviction, she has to do it within the confines of bravado, power, and threats.

Latifah, like any black female performer (or any performer for that matter) can’t necessarily be seen in that vacuum, particularly in that time period; the theme music of Living Single is clear:

“My homegirls, standing to left and my right/True blue, it’s tight like glue”

It’s an ethos missing from many current strains of “girl power” music, much of it infectious, but nearly all of it devoid of a sense of sisterhood, and a joyous at that. This isn’t to disregard a video like Destiny Child’s Girl, which is as much a celebration of all things opulent as girl “power.”  Central to their (and Beyonce’s individual) visual presentation has always been to look good while you’re doing it.

That very idea of looks, however, isn’t a benign entity when we’re talking about images intended for mass disemination. And what limits the liberatory potential of Beyonce and Destiny Child’s women’s agenda is an adherence to a visual which has been used to globally oppress and diminish women. So much of our internal and external realities as females is consumed with our external appearance. Theorist Guy DeBord once wrote of the image being the pinnacle of advanced capitalism, and it is that image that has continued to be a crucial tool of sexist institutions, in ways both overt and subtle, from the beautification industries to marriage. Overly sexualized images of women in hip hop and R&B videos informed India.Arie’s song Video, released over ten years ago. Though it stood primarily as an oppositional response, it is hard to deny it’s importance, particularly at that time.  Like Willow’s video, there is the message of standing up to the images as a single-entity rather than a “crew.”

Indeed, music video feminisms appear to be limited to being sexy savants who can have it all, and run the world, or oppositional and fighting for a profoundly basic desire to be who you are. Each is actually an important concept–but within the vehicle of media intended to sell music, they adhere to some of the very pillars of our economic system that make exploitation possible–that idea of domination or that of isolation. The idea of a joyous, united sisterhood of women, regardless of look, shape and class, fighting united for our collective liberation, isn’t likely to be presented in a mainstream music video.

Whitney Houston, of all people, came close.

I’m haunted by Whitney’s voice and memories I’ve attached to her and her music. By how her fame and wealth, compounded with being female and black ultimately lead to the fact and nature of her death.  No one says it quite that way, but when I think of reading somewhere her corpse belied the remnants of a famous woman who had the means to do the sorts of things to your body that you can do when you got money and time like that. Like old boob jobs, whitened teeth. Stuff like that. I imagine her dying alone in that bathtub and am wracked with mental juxtapositions of what I’ve long decided is my favorite song of hers.

It’s emblematic of that 90s house inspired dance music…the build up of tension in the beginning before all hell breaks loose and the real beat starts. There’s even a very young TLC (who absolutely shouldn’t be left out of any discussion about music video feminisms) dancing gleefully with scores of other black women and girls. Dancing like we do. Voguing and posing. Just being delightfully and unabashedly female.  I want to get up and dance most every time I hear this version of Chaka Khan’s classic.

I think this video should inform Willow’s next one.

And the Beat Goes On: Chris Brown, Too $hort, and the Disposable Conscience of Consumer Society (repost)


by Lisa Guerrero, reposted from NewBlackMan

Last week while still reeling from the controversy put into motion by Too $hort’s avuncular primer for young black boys on how to violate young black girls, people momentarily paused to consider, and by “consider,” I mean “rush to judgment,” on Rihanna’s decision to collaborate with Chris Brown, her former abuser, on a remix of her song “Birthday Cake.”

As one of my friends on Facebook put it:  “Rihanna needs to sit down and have a talk with Tina Turner.”  I can’t say that I necessarily disagree.  The idea that a woman would choose to invite her abuser back again to play a role in her life after having broken free from his abuse is seemingly unfathomable to many people, men and women alike.  What seems ungenerous in many of the criticisms of Rihanna circulating around this decision is that she isn’t the first woman to make such a choice, and sadly, won’t be the last.  The cycle of codependency isn’t one that is neatly broken, not even by the act of the dissolution of the relationship, which is “getting away” only in terms of physical proximity.
I can say to myself that I would never make such an obviously silly choice, but then, it’s only “obviously silly” to me because I’m not in that situation. However, what I do know of Rihanna’s situation, and why I feel that her decision is more complicated than people assume that it is, is this: much of the rest of the world seems to have forgiven Chris Brown his trespasses, if they ever held him accountable in the first place.  So why is it the sole responsibility of Rihanna to withhold her forgiveness and force his accountability?  Why should she be anymore forceful than a legal system that apparently felt that his domestic violence merited no jail time?  Or a fan base that apparently feels his talent far outweighs a little thing like beating his girlfriend?
Yes, she is his victim.  Yet she is no less his victim than she is the victim of a society who so cavalierly and quite systematically ignores, dismisses, and erases the violence enacted by the day, the hour, the minute against black girls and women.  Chris Brown violated her.  But she has since been continually violated ideologically and discursively by an excessively self-centered consumer public who has never demonstrated a sustained outrage against Chris Brown long enough to stop buying his albums, but has enough outrage to go around for Rihanna that she would ever choose to collaborate with him.
This latest flap over Rihanna and Chris Brown comes on the heels of the furious flurry of ever more outrageous manifestations of a problematic performative black masculinity that anchors itself in the unapologetic denigration of, and dominance over women generally, and black women in particular.  Let me say upfront that this critique is not a new one.  The ongoing critical narrative around the misogyny and homophobia of, for example, the singular arena of hip hop is, on its own, a media and scholarly cottage industry, and not without good reason.  But my interest here is not necessarily to rehash this well-trodden and well-deserved critique of commodifiable black masculinity.  My interest is in thinking critically about the relationship between the discursive moves within media culture that work to serve consumerist desires while ideologically and materially sacrificing the safety and subjectivity of black women.
Read the rest at NewBlackMan.

Teaching White Boys to Dance and Other Solutions to the Black Marriage Crisis (repost)

black women, dating, global capitalism, racism, sexism

This was, hands down, one of the most brilliant, spot-on, and engaging pieces I’ve seen on a topic that happens to be the flavor of the moment. (Quickly being surpassed by the Sh*t _______ Say explosion) Read on and check out the Crunk Feminist Collective’s site.

This morning, while reading Kate Weigand’s 2001 book Red Feminism in preparation for a book I’m writing, I ran across a fascinating story in her chapter on Black women’s participation in the Communist Party.

In 1934, Black female communist organizers asked the Party leadership to outlaw interracial marriages in the Party ranks. Many of the Black men in the Party had married or begun dating white women, and white men were not showing comparable interest in Black women, which severely restricted Black women’s dating options.

In response, the Party asked a Black leader named Abner Berry to deal “with the problem.” Berry, himself married to a white woman, was staunchly opposed to outlawing interracial marriages on the grounds that this move would be “counterrevolutionary,” but he did institute some sessions on Black women’s triple oppression of race, class, and gender. Apparently, they also tried to teach some of the white male communists how to dance so they would be more comfortable approaching Black women at parties. Seriously. Lol.

There are a few morals in this somewhat comic story:

At least the CP had enough sense to talk about the social causes of Black women’s singleness, rather than blaming the sisters for being loud, attitudinal, too independent and unattractive. (Perhaps some preachers, comedians, and alleged scholars could get a clue; and perhaps some sisters should stop blaming themselves for a problem that began before we got here and will probably outlast us all.)

Continue reading at Crunk Feminist Collective

On John Mayer (And Apologies That Don’t Really Offer Clarity)

black women, blonde, media, music, pop culture, racism, sexism

Upon a few hours of trying to process reports of offensive remarks that popular musician John Mayer made in the current issue of Playboy magazine, I tried coming up with a few clever Facebook status-updates, my favorite being that Mayer sorely needed a Racism and Sexism course. (I didn’t publish that, but I still think it’s true) Though a pornographic magazine is the (very overlooked) context for all of his statements about who he’s had sex with, how it was, and who he won’t–there remain key issues in this media event.

Jessica Simpson

Superficially, it’s another example of a celebrity making a “gaffe” on race, (which never gets old) getting caught up in it, “apologizing” for it, melting down, having a moment of “clarity“.

But on another level, it’s a particularly vivid example of the freedom, if you will, afforded him, as young, white, heterosexual, and male, to freely espouse his sexual proclivities, debase women period, race be damned, claim identification with black people, promptly get hated on, have a breakdown, and in the end, remind us that he “just wants to play his guitar.” And in a span of 48 hours, no less.

Kerry Washington

The racism of his sexual aversion to black women, I’d argue, is coupled with the sexist entitlement abound in his retelling of the sexual details of his relationships with Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Aniston, who as blonde-haired white women, already receive a particularly stifling type of media treatment. That entitlement helps explain why he was able to candidly explain the types of black women he’s attracted to, and even debase women, like actor Kerry Washington, whom he’s never had a sexual relationship with.

Without even reading his entire Playboy interview, the widely-publicized excerpts are textbook examples of intersections of racism, sexism and male domination–comparing his penis to white supremacist David Duke, crude as it is, is simultaneously as clear as many of Mayer’s most popular songs.

Global media culture has long thrived off of narrowly defined notions of who’s racist (white men only) and who’s sexist (black men only) vis a vis characters like a Don Imus or Ludacris. So when Mayer, someone outside of those types, who has built a career and image solidly as a non-threatening and introspective artist, acts out, we take notice. For those paying any attention, it’s an important moment that should have us recognize the myriad of ways that domination can be made visible.

Part of what’s critical about Mayer’s moment is that even after speaking as he did, he will be allowed to use that image as his cover. This is where nearly all public “apologies” are rendered useless–as a comedian once remarked, “He’s just sorry he got caught.” What’s really evident is that the entitlement of racism and sexism will enable John Mayer to “breakdown”, come to “terms” with his transgressions and return to modest guitar-playing.

But will Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Aniston, and Kerry Washington be allowed a (public) breakdown? I doubt it.

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