23 November 2010

For Colored Girls: Tyler Perry's Invitation to Lament

No bad news
No bad news
Don't you ever bring me no bad news
'Cause I'll make you an offer, child
That you cannot refuse
So don't nobody bring me no bad news
Those are the lyrics sung by Mabel King in her role as Evillene in The Wiz, the all-Black adaptation of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The irony, of course, is that Evillene (the wicked witch of whom kids were actually afraid) was the epitome of bad news. So is it strange, then, that this song leaped into my head when I thought about the resistance of some Black men, particularly Black male pastors, toward seeing Tyler Perry's latest film, For Colored Girls?

Just to avoid misunderstanding, I am not labeling Black men or Black male pastors as the epitome of bad news for Black women (although some folks might, in the case of the latter). And I confess that I have leveled a fair share of criticism at Tyler Perry for his portrayals of African American women and African American romantic relationships. Earlier this year, in a post about Why Did I Get Married Too?, I wrote:

The essence of both Why Did I Get Married? films remains the same: Black romantic relationships are screwed up because: (1) there are a lot of no-count black men out there (i.e., the abusers, cheaters, etc.); and (2) black women are ball-busting bitches who don't know how to appreciate a good thing when they find it.
Of course, I'm not alone in my criticism. Tyler Perry is to the blogosphere what George W. Bush was to late-night comedians. He provides plenty of fuel for the self-righteous indignation of...well, just about everybody.

As a teenager, I cut my womanist/feminist teeth on Ntozake Shange's choreopoem, For colored girls who have considered suicide/When the rainbow is enuf. I've never seen the Broadway production, but the PBS film adaptation starring Lynn Whitfield and Alfre Woodard (as well as Shange herself) occupies a prominent place in my DVD collection. So I was more than skeptical when I learned that Perry had acquired the rights to Shange's work and would be writing, directing, and producing it. Yet I also remained hopeful that he would somehow avoid butchering Shange's elegant and heart-wrenching treatise on the lives and loves, struggles and triumphs of African American women. I wanted and needed Perry to do well with this film. And as the film's release date neared and some positive reviews came pouring in, I became even more hopeful.

Since the film's release, the feminist blogosphere has been afire with the criticisms of Perry's adaptation, which has been labeled as a weak and undeserving imitation of Shange's masterpiece. Other critics (read "probably White critics unfamiliar with Shange's work") have excoriated the film for its jumpy quality and lack of a cohesive storyline. Quite frankly, I disagree with all of them. Shange's work is a highly artistic, complex piece that defies easy categorization. Perry took a feminist choreopoem aimed at a 1970s theater audience and produced a 2010 film that was relevant, accessible, and profitable. That's not an easy undertaking. But he did it. And in my opinion, he did it well.

I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed the film. I went to see it with my colleague and fellow womanist theologian, Dr. Cheryl Kirk-Duggan. And I expected that we'd leave the film with a listful of complaints. Instead, we both walked out saying, "That was great!" But my delight met with another source of resistance: the individual boycotts of African American men who refused to see the film because of its assumed depictions of African American men as predators.

I heard the protests most frequently among male students and colleagues at the historically Black Baptist seminary at which I teach. At some level, I understand. After all, I am an African American woman, member of a racial-gender group whose images are routinely assassinated on the large and small screens. These days, a Black actress can hardly buy a job. But I digress...

I found a few ironies in the refusal of Black men who were leaders in the Christian church to watch the film. First, I doubt that many (any?) of them were basing their protest upon a careful reading of the original work. They were objecting to what they had "heard" about the film, not upon any concrete data. Second, it was the same stance which was articulated against The Color Purple in the 1980s and Waiting to Exhale in the 1990s. It seems that whenever a Black female writer's narrative of Black women's pain is adapted for film, some brothers turn into Evillene, mad at the possibility that someone might bring them some bad news. And as a consequence, the struggles of Black women's lives are silenced behind a wall of Black male denial. "Don't make brothers look bad" becomes a weapon of silence waged against African American women by Black patriarchy.

In the case of For Colored Girls, this is especially disheartening. For Colored Girls is an invitation into lament. It shatters the myth that Black women have transcended the burden of racism and provides a glimpse of the gendered forms of oppression that uniquely and/or disproportionately impact Black women in America: rape, incest, domestic violence, child abuse, HIV/AIDS, lack of social support, and problems in relationships of all kinds. In contrast to his prior work, Perry makes no attempt to wrap everything up in a nice, neat little bow at the end. The characters' lives and pain are unresolved. There is no prince in shining armor coming to save the day. There is no quick fix. As an audience, we are simply invited to sit alongside these women (as well as the men) and to hear their stories for two hours. To cry with them, to hold them in our hearts, to see ourselves in them, and to see them in ourselves and in the women we know.

The church could learn a valuable lesson from that. Perry's characters may be imagined, but they are also real. And they are in the church, sitting in the pews every Sunday morning, outfit tight and hair and makeup just right. They go to church, at least in part, hoping to receive a balm for their wounds, but also terrified of letting anyone see just how wounded they are. Perhaps they think that no one cares. Or maybe they don't want to be the ones to bring their pastors "no bad news."

Brothers - get your heads out of the sand. Go see the film. And if you're a pastor or minister, take a few women with you. And after the film, sit with them for a while. Hear their stories. Cry with them. Hold them in your hearts. See yourself in them and see them in the women that you love. Don't try to fix it. Don't let your black male ego raise its defenses. Just lament.

11 October 2010

Speaking Out: An Ally Confesses

It has been eighteen days since Tyler Clementi reportedly killed himself. Clementi was a freshman at Rutgers University. He leapt to his death from the George Washington Bridge one day after his roommate and another Rutgers freshman secretly broadcast a live video stream of Clementi having sex with another male student. I cannot imagine the embarrassment of having one's sexual activity displayed for public consumption. It's a humiliation that would likely drive most of us into a deep depression. With the exception of the most brazen, most of us would worry that we could never again show ourselves in public. Just the thought is terrifying.

For Clementi, the shame must have been exponentially greater. Only one month into his first year of college, he may have feared the prospect of going through the next four years known on campus as "that guy." And in an era when social networking blends one's professional and personal existence for all the world to see, he may have worried how it would impact his future employment prospects. And then there's the fact that Clementi was not just engaged in sex; he was having sex with another man. If Clementi was closeted, I can imagine that he saw no other way to resolve his anguish than to end his life.

I feel my heart breaking each time that I think of Clementi and the many gay youth who commit suicide each year, and the many more who attempt to end their lives. As a Christian, I feel responsible for each loss of precious life. I feel responsible for every hateful look, word, or deed that drives my LGBT brothers and sisters to such despair, especially those acts of hatred lobbed at them by people who proclaim to be followers of the merciful and loving Christ.

I feel responsible because I once threw the insults. Raised in the South in a conservative Christian family and church, I believed that homosexuality was a sin worthy of eternal of damnation. Oh yeah, I also thought it was a trick of the white man designed to annihilate the descendants of Mother Africa (look, it was the resurgence of black nationalism, okay?). Like many of the people I knew (none of whom were gay or lesbian, conveniently), I thougth that homosexuality was learned behavior, a product of a sick society that was moving further and further away from God. And as long as I stayed around heterosexual, conservative Christians, there was no one to argue otherwise. I could and did join in the chorus of "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" without witnessing the impact that the spiritual assault had upon the lives of homosexual men and women.

But living on a college campus made it impossible to keep the emotional distance necessary to maintain my ignorance. Away from the watchful eyes of their parents, same-gender-loving peers were much freer to express their affection publicly. So too were the Bible thumpers, the emotionally immature, and the sexually insecure (who often were the same people). After a few university-newspaper headline-mkaing incidents of heterosexist harrassment, it dawned on me: "Who in their right minds would choose this life?"

Gradually, I became convinced that sexual orientation, at least for the overwhelming majority of the population, was not a matter of conditioning or choice. It was innate and largely out of one's control. Still, I thought it was a deviancy, a biological mutation that could and should be cured, sort of like diabetes or nearsightedness. And while my resolve was weakening, I still thought it was sinful, just no more sinful than any other behavior that the Church doesn't like. I was a softer, gentler heterosexist. At least, I was until Susan and Gloria happened.

Susan and Gloria were clients in the substance abuse treatment program at which I worked part-time during my second year of graduate school. The program was intensive - six months in a residential facility with limited outside contact. The women were nearly all long-time drug users who had tried and failed in other treatment programs. Our program was often their last hope.

Susan and Gloria had entered the program within less than two weeks of each other and were in the final month of treatment. During their stay, they had become close. Really close. Now close friendships among the women were common, but this one was different. And everyone noticed. Other clients openly accused them of being lovers. They were adamant in their denial, but admitted that their love for one another had grown beyond friendship. "We don't know what we are," Gloria once said resignedly.

The staff was less confrontational. The general consensus seemed to be that if we ignored it, it would disappear. Maybe it was that head-in-the-sand mentality that prevailed during the women's last few weeks of treatment, when the the administration decided to issue twelve-hour passes to both on the same day so that they could begin searching for jobs and housing in preparation of their transition back into society.

I came to work the day after they had gone out on their passes. Panic was in the air. "They didn't come back," one of the women said softly. The normally boisterous group was quiet. For the entire day, they sat just outside my office, jumping expectedly every time a door opened or the phone rang. With this group, failing to show up after a day pass meant only one thing - relapse. And for women who had managed to accrue almost six months clean after decades of addiction, that was a fate akin to death.

Finally, with just two hours left on my shift, the pair returned. They explained that after registering Susan's daughter in school and finding Gloria a new apartment, they were overcome with excitement about their impending graduation. "We couldn't help it," Susan said, her eyes focused on the floor of my tiny office. "We did it."

"You did what?", I asked, praying that she would not say the dreaded R-word. "We were together," was all that she could muster. Guilt weighed heavy in her voice. "Together how?", I queried, putting to use the clinical skills I was learning in my psychology program. I knew exactly what she meant, but I wanted her to say it. Like everyone else, I had seen the love that had grown between the two women. I wanted them to own the moment in which they had consummated their love, rather than hiding behind ambiguities. "We made love," one finally said. Before I could utter the cliched "And how did you feel about that?", Susan continued, "Then we figured that since we're going to hell anyway, we might as well go all the way." And just like that, they went out, bought some crack, and threw away six months of hard recovery work.

As I delivered the director's decision that they were both ejected from the program, I wept with them. And I felt responsible. I knew that it was the rhetoric of folks like me that made them believe that their lovemaking was an unforgiveable sin, as opposed to an act of beauty. I knew that Susan and Gloria had confirmed what I was beginning to suspect for many of the program's clients - that their substance abuse was an attempt to mask their struggles over their sexual orientation. On that day, I realized that my position had to change. I made a conscious effort to get to know to stories of people who identify as gay and lesbian. As I heard their pain - the many ways that they tried to deny their sexuality, their unanswered prayers to God to "fix" them, their stories of depression, substance use, and suicidality - my heart opened up. So did my mind.

At some point, I realized that I could no longer consider homosexuality sinful. I could no more imagine God punishing someone for a sexuality that they could not change than I could imagine God sending someone to hell for being born blind or deaf. I became convinced that the real sin was the hurt inflicted by so-called "people of faith" unto our homosexual sisters and brothers.

It is a theological risk, to be sure. I am fully aware that I could be wrong. But I accept that risk, prayerful that if I am wrong, God will forgive my error as one born out of my desire to emulate Christ's love and compassion for the "least of these."

But it is not enough. In the fifteen years since saying goodbye to Gloria and Susan, I have been too invisible an ally, especially when revealing my stance would risk the rejection and condemnation of those who I hold most dear - my family. I have been silent too often when heterosexist comments have been made by people whom I love. And my silence may have made the Tyler Clementi's of the world feel that they are alone. Enough.

I am heterosexual. I am Christian. I am an LGBT ally. And I will be silent no longer.

15 August 2010

Single Black Women: The Miner's Canary

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem?, they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town - W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk
How does it feel to be a problem? The question famously articulated by W.E.B. DuBois is well suited for single black women in 2010. There's been a lot of chatter this year about the seeming crisis of singlehood among African American women, especially well-educated, middle class African American women. The issue has been the focus of an ABC Nightline special, a Washington Post story, and countless blogs.

The latest entrant into the conversation is CNN's coverage of a debate sparked by author and relationship columnist, Deborah Cooper. Cooper recently wrote a post arguing that the black church is responsible for the low marriage rates among African American women. The crux of her argument is that the black church teaches women that the only suitable marriage partners are men who are "equally yoked," in other words, fellow Bible thumpers and avid churchgoers. Cooper thinks this is problematic since there are many more black men who do not attend church than those who do. Her solution: black women need to skip Sunday services and head instead to the local sports bar in their best go get 'em outfits.

On the face of it, it might seem like a decent argument. After all, Cooper is saying that women need to expand their notions of appropriate romantic partners. I'm not one to quibble over that point, given that most women's lists of desired attributes in a romantic partner are based more upon fantasy than reality - Disney movies, romantic comedies, and Harlequin romances.

Cooper overlooks the fact that religious identity and involvement are not arbitrary characteristics but are central to many people's sense of self. They form the core values and beliefs about who we are and how we related to other people. And while all forms of religious practice, including the beliefs and practices of black churches, have some problematic aspects, Cooper's criticism of patriarchy within the black church overlooks the ways in which black women find sustenance to cope with racism, sexism, and classism within the walls of the church. So admonishing women to loosen their religious ideals for the sake of marriage is short-sighted and irresponsible.

Still, that's not my main contention with Cooper's argument. I have the same issue with her column that I have with every article and television report on this topic: they are trite, specious, and unrevelatory.

Most of these discussions are based on a single, faulty assumption: black women's singleness is an abnormality. Often there's a second assumption: this abnormality is the result of some deficiency, most of which resides in black women themselves.

Maybe. But there's another phenomenon occurring that is repeatedly overlooked in these discussions: there is a pervasive cultural shift underway in America with respect to beliefs about and practices of marriage. The high rates of singleness among African American women are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. They are not an abnormality but rather a prediction of the direction in which the rest of the country is heading.

In societies stratified by systems such as race, class, and gender, those groups on the lowest rungs of the sociopolitical ladder are particularly vulnerable to social shifts. Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres say it well in their book, The Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy:
"Those who are racially marginalized are like the miner's canary: their distress is the first sign of a danger that threatens us all. It is easy enough to think that when we sacrifice this canary, the only harm is to communities of color. Yet others ignore problems that converge around racial minorities at their own peril, for these problems are symptoms warning us that we are all at risk."
When it comes to marriage in the United States, African Americans have been the miner's canary for a long time. According to Census reports, there has been a consistent decline in marriage across race and gender since 1950. While the decline has been more pronounced among African Americans, it is not unique.

Notice that rates of marriage among black Americans have always been lower than rates among white Americans. Also notice that rates of marriage among white Americans in 2009 were similar to the levels for black Americans in 1950. Perhaps in another sixty years, the percentage of white Americans who are married will be akin to the 2010 rates for black Americans.

There is, however, something interesting happening with African American women. Between 1950 and 1960, the percentage of women who never married were similar (and low) for blacks and whites. Likewise, black and white men had a similar likelihood of never being married. Since 1950, the chances of never marrying have increased for blacks and whites. However, the rates for blacks increased at a faster rate. And the percentage of black women who never married have risen so dramatically that they now approach the rates for black men.
Again though, notice that the chances of never marrying for white men and women in 2009 are actually slightly higher than black men and women's chances of doing likewise in 1950.

Marriage, in general, is on the decline in America. So if being single is a problem, it is the nation's problem.

So, how does it feel to be a problem?

Note: I have constructed these charts based upon a very brief (and not very scientific) analysis of Census data.

06 August 2010

A 12-Step Program for Strong Black Women

If this were a 12-step meeting for StrongBlackWomen, I'd be saying, "Hi, my name is Chanequa and I'm a StrongBlackWoman. I have been in recovery for almost eight years now. But at most, I've probably only accrued a few days of being clean at once. I relapse constantly, maybe even daily. I don't know if I'll ever break free of this thing. But I'm here. And just for today, I will make at least one decision in favor of my physical, spiritual, emotional, and relational health. Just for today, I will try to let go of my need for control, to become aware of when I need help, and to ask for help when I need it. Just for today, I give myself permission to cry when I'm sad, to scream when I'm frustrated, to smile and laugh when I'm happy, and to dance like I've got wings when the Spirit moves me. Just for today, I will reject the mandate to be a StrongBlackWoman. Just for today, I will simply be."

Being a StrongBlackWoman is an addiction, a force of habit ingrained in many of us from childhood. Moreover, it is reinforced by our families, friends, co-workers, and churches - all those people who praise our strength and continuous self-sacrifice. And it's especially lauded and reinforced by those who benefit from our caretaking. Our healing, then, is not a one-time event, but rather a lifelong process. It seems appropriate, then, to develop a 12-step program for StrongBlackWomen. Here's my first attempt:

1. We admit that we are powerless over our compulsion to be strong — that our physical, spiritual, emotional, and relational health are suffering.

2. We acknowledge that we are not divine, that there is a Power greater than ourselves who can restore us to right relationship with ourselves and others.

3. We make a decision to turn our will and our lives, and those of the people we care for, over to the care and protection of the Divine.

4. We practice self-awareness, making a searching inventory of ourselves and our relationships.

5. We admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our compulsions and the traumas and fears that drive them.

6. We are ready to have the Holy One heal us.

7. We humbly ask the Almighty to remove our need for control and to nurture in us a commitment to self-care.

8. We make a list of all persons we have harmed and continue to harm through our excessive caretaking, and we become willing to make amends to them all.

9. We make direct amends to such people wherever possible by allowing them to assume responsibility for their own lives.

10. We continue to practice self-awareness and when we relapse, we promptly admit and correct it.

11. We seek through prayer, meditation, and journaling to nurture our connection with the Divine, praying for knowledge of Her will for our lives and for faith in Her protection and care.

12. We try to carry this message to the strong Black women in our lives and to embody these principles as an example to them and to the generations that follow us.

04 June 2010

Reading and the Black-White Achievement Gap

Since childhood, I have been an avid reader. In elementary school, I almost failed fifth grade because of my love of reading. When the teacher gave the first worksheet of the day, I'd finish it as quickly as possible so that I could reach for the book that I had stashed in my desk. Every now and again, I'd look up to see what the rest of the class was doing. If they were still working, I kept reading. I always marveled at how long it took my classmates to complete a worksheet. It wasn't until the "D" appeared on my progress report that I realized that my peers had been moving on to new assignments while I was reading.

With a toddler around, I don't often have the luxury of becoming so engrossed in books that I'm oblivious to what's going on around me. But I am addicted to books in the way that some women are addicted to shoes. Give me a free minute and there's likely to be a book in my hand. When I leave the house - whether it's for a day of work or for extended travel - I often spend more time agonizing over which book(s) to take than what to wear. I swear I get a contact high when I walk into a bookstore.

So it's probably no surprise that I would really, really, really love to have one of the new e-readers on the market now. The idea of being able to carry thousands of books on one device is euphoria-inducing. And to be able to buy and instantly read a new book no matter where I am…OMG! Given the number of books that I have to buy for my classes and research each year, the comparatively low cost of e-books could mean a pretty significant savings. Well, in reality it'd just mean that I could buy more books for the same amount of money. Okay, but it'd definitely be less weight to carry around, which would help my chronic back pain. Not to mention it'd save on shelf space.

But every time I think about these miraculous devices, I experience a twinge of reluctance. There's just something about a physical book that can't be replaced. I tried to convince myself that I'd adjust to an e-reader over time, but I still couldn't imagine switching over to a virtual library.

A few days ago, I finally realized why a Kindle, Nook, or iPad could never replace physical books for me. It's because my library is not just for me. It's for my children.

For years, I've been trying to accumulate a library that includes books that I think all progressive families should own. There are certain books that I want to have sitting on the shelves so that my children might be compelled, in a moment of boredom or curiosity, to pick them up and read them. These include books like Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Carter G. Woodson's Miseducation of the Negro, W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk, Harriet Jacob's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship. Not to mention Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, Lewis' Narnia series, and the entire Harry Potter series.

Last week, as I was writing in the journal that I'm keeping for my son, I felt compelled to list these books, and others, as required reading for him to be a thinking Black man (I'll post the list sometime soon). It turns out that I was making this list in the same week of publication of a study showing that the number of books that a family owns is a better predictor of children's academic success than the education, occupation, and socioeconomic status of the parents. Children who grow up in a home with 500 books complete an average of 3.2 years more schooling than children who grow up in homes without books. And the effect is even greater for children from the poorest families. For parents with only primary-school education, having as little as 25 books in the home means that children will complete 2 more years of schooling than their counterparts with no books. USA Today has a brief article on the study, which appears in full in the June 2010 issue of the journal, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility.

While the study didn't look at race, I can't help but to wonder about the impact that a family library can have on academic achievement among African American children. Studies like these often focus on poverty (and they should). However, there's a long line of research documenting a significant and persistent achievement gap between middle-class black and white children in America. As one researcher states, "the school performance of middle-class black children is closer to that of poor white children." By the age of 5, black children in middle-class homes own an average of 60 books; their white counterparts (i.e., children of parents with similar levels of income and education) have 100.

More than once, I have visited the homes of middle-class African American friends and family and have noted that there are few, if any, books in the household. In contrast, these homes are usually well-stocked with DVDs and state-of-the-art entertainment and gaming systems.

A few months ago, when I proudly posted a video of my then 20-month-old practicing his alphabet, a few family members asked what our secret was. Quite simply, we limit his television consumption and we read to him often. We take him to story hour at the library, buy at least two new books each month (at not quite two, he has at least 60 books), and have read a minimum of 4 books per day since infancy (the current average is 6-8 books per day). In fact, 99% of the time, if he brings a book to us, we will stop whatever we are doing and read it. Even if he brings 12 books in a row (which he likes to do), we read all of them. You might call us a child-reading-centered household.

Does it mean that he'll be smarter than other kids? No one can predict that. There are a ton of social factors out there waiting to influence him as he grows up. We may not be able to combat all of them. But hopefully, our attempts to raise a reader will give us a head start.

06 April 2010

Another Look at Tyler Perry

Yesterday I went to see Tyler Perry's new film, Why Did I Get Married Too?. Of course, I didn't go to see it purely for entertainment's sake. Since he debuted on the major film circuit a few years ago, Perry has tended to elicit one of two responses from black viewers: rabid loyalty or seething hatred. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. To date, I have seen nearly all of Perry's films, one of his stage plays, and even a few of his filmed stage productions. Granted, Perry's work is not likely to garner an Oscar nod anytime soon, but it's always entertaining. The play that I saw, What Goes On In the Dark, was the best laugh I've had at a live show since Cedric the Entertainer's set during The Kings of Comedy performance in Miami over ten years ago.

I'll pass on the television shows though. I tried to watch The House of Payne, but its oversimplified story lines, clich├ęs, and overacting (reminiscent of the SNL skit, "The Overacting Negro Ensemble") became painful.

Why Did I Get Married Too? is vintage Perry. Once again, he uses his "everything but the kitchen sink" approach - mixing slapstick, romantic comedy, and drama with a few gratuitous hot body shots (even Janet Jackson's cleavage, which was uncharacteristically demure in the original, makes quite a few appearances). The film's many plot lines include divorce, domestic violence, adultery, grief, financial hardship - in sum, nearly every possible catastrophe that could happen. With this film, Perry seems to be taking himself a little too seriously; he went to an epic length of 2-1/2 hours, a good 45 minutes too long.

The overall verdict? It was...entertaining. I laughed, sometimes in spite of myself. And as I walked out of the theatre, I thought, "Maybe I should just leave Tyler Perry alone and not write about this one." Did I mention that Perry inspires a sort of rabid loyalty? Writing anything negative about him causes a knee-jerk reaction among his fans, who immediately accuse the critic of being an intellectual elitist snob who clearly doesn't understand his work and therefore has no business writing about it.

The irony is that I often receive the opposite reaction when I ask students in my undergraduate classes to watch and write about one of his films. More than one student has responded, "You want us to do what?! What are we supposed to learn from that? His movies are stupid." Even those students who secretly enjoy Perry's movies question the idea that there could be anything worth intellectual engagement within them.

The last time that I wrote about Tyler Perry, I critiqued his treatment of women's roles, which have a pretty heavy patriarchal lens. Perry's films are usually part-entertainment and part-morality play. Why Did I Get Married Too? doesn't have the preachiness of his earlier work and it's easy to assume that the film has no message. But it does. And it's an important one.

The essence of both Why Did I Get Married? films remains the same: Black romantic relationships are screwed up because: (1) there are a lot of no-count black men out there (i.e., the abusers, cheaters, etc.); and (2) black women are ball-busting bitches who don't know how to appreciate a good thing when they find it. Now, here's where you need to read carefully before you press the comment link: Perry does not paint all black men and women in this light. In this series, Mike (played by Richard T. Jones) clearly represents the former, while the rest of the men portray the latter. Even Marcus (played by Michael Jai White) seems to have reformed his philandering ways in this one.

The women, on the other hand, almost universally fall in the category of too strong for their own good. Angela, Marcus' wife as played by Tasha Smith, is still a twenty-first century depiction of the Sapphire stereotype - the loud, abrasive black woman who loves to belittle black men. Patricia (portrayed by Jackson) is classic Strong Black Woman - a repressed psychotherapist who spends all of her time fixing other people while her own life is in shambles. As for Diane and Sheila, the characters played by Sharon Leal and Jill Scott, respectively...well, I don't want to give the movie away.

Whether it's the Why Did I Get Married? or Madea films, Tyler Perry's works are a form of social commentary. The question is, what kind of comment is he making? Is Perry simply depicting what is? Or is he pointing to what ought to be? Those of us who critique Perry usually assume that he's doing one or the other, oftentimes both. But I think there's another way to look at Perry. His art (and yes, I believe it is artistic) exposes what many people believe to be true about the state of African American relationships. Simply put, he's just depicting what many African American men and women believe to be true about black relationships - that black men are dogs and black women have too much baggage.

Perry's meteoric rise to success is evidence that he's a genius as a businessman. He knows how to tap into the psyche of his audience and to give them what they want to see. So the question is not why he keeps playing the same tired old story, but why we as African Americans keep believing that story and what impact it has on our lives.

10 February 2010

Reggie Bush and the Essence Cover Controversy

In all the turmoil over the Vanity Fair "Hollywood Issue," another magazine cover controversy has gone relatively unnoticed. It seems that a lot of Essence readers are upset over the magazine's decision to feature Reggie Bush on the February cover, the "Black Men, Love and Relationships" issue. The problem? Essence is supposed to be black women's magazine. And Bush just happens to be dating a white woman - Kim Kardashian, to be exact (although part of the controversy involves whether Kardashian's Armenian ancestry qualifies her as "white"). It seems that in crossing the color line in his romantic relationship, Bush has failed the racial litmus test. By at least one segment of the population, he has been deemed as insufficiently black.

Here's the kicker: among the names that have been bandied about as more appropriate cover choices is Robin Thicke. Yep, that one. The ivory-skinned, soul-singing son of Growing Pains star Alan Thicke. The younger Thicke is married to African American actress Paula Patton. It seems that qualifies him to be an icon of black love, according to some Essence readers.

Confused? Okay, the equation goes something like this:

Black man + white woman = Rejection of all black women
White man + black woman = Affirmation of all black women

Of course it's madness. But the easy thing to do is to scoff at the women who think like this. My first reaction upon reading about the "controversy" was to do my best Bill Cosby impersonation: "Come on people!" My second reaction was embarrassment that some of my sisters (assuming that these are actually black women making these comments) are so publicly living into the stereotype of the Angry Black Woman.

But there's an important question here, I think. What has American society done to make the self-image of some black women so fragile that they equate interracial relationships involving black men with personal rejection and view interracial relationships involving white men as a form of validation? The answer to that question is not simply, "They got issues." It implicates all of us, regardless of our race and gender. And it's not just a historical question. It certainly starts in slavery. But it doesn't end there.

05 February 2010

Vanity Fair and the Light/Dark Thing

There's been quite a buzz in the blogosphere these days about the lack of diversity in Vanity Fair's annual "Hollywood Issue." The fold-out cover features nine of Hollywood's up-and-coming actresses. And wouldn't you know it? All nine happen to be very thin, fair-skinned white women. Notable exclusions include Zoe Saldana, who starred in two of the year's biggest films ("Star Trek" and "Avatar") and Freida Pinto, star of the runaway hit, "Slumdog Millionaire."

But most of the controversy over the lily-white cover has centered upon the omission of Gabourey Sidibe, the Oscar-nominated star of "Precious." Sidibe was not completely ignored; she appears inside the magazine. But her exclusion from the cover has a lot of folks talking about the magazine's bias against people of color. One writer bluntly questioned whether Sidibe is "too fat, too black" for the magazine's cover. The fact that Sidibe graces the March 2010 cover of Ebony magazine seems to underscore the charges of racism. A lot of folks, many of them non-black, are pulling the race card on this one.

But not so fast. I discovered the Vanity Fair controversy the same way that I learn about most popular culture these days - via Facebook. The posts started flying the same day as the Grammy's, which inspired quite a few comments as well. So between reading people's thoughts about the Vanity Fair cover, I also got my fair share of interesting tidbits such as: "Beyonce didn't call Jay-Z by name because he doesn't really love her"; "Michael Jackson's kids don't look like him because they're not his kids"; "What is she wearing?"; and "Doesn't Lil' Wayne look like a cockroach personified?"

Oh wait, did I forget to mention that all of the Grammy posts were by African Americans? Now, I'm not going to make the argument that Lil' Wayne should be a contender for the male version of "America's Next Top Model," but a cockroach? Come on people. Let's not get it twisted. There is only one feature of Lil' Wayne that makes such a comparison fathomable - his blackness.

The cockroach insult is not a new one. It has been used as a racial slur for a long time. But among African Americans, it is an epithet typically reserved for dark-skinned blacks. No matter how "unattractive," medium and fair-skinned blacks are immune from it. It is the slightly subtler version of the "African booty scratcher" insult leveled on school playgrounds. And in the vast majority of cases, both the perpetrator and the victim are African American. After all, let's face it - the only white people who would dare enunciate such obvious racial epithets are the hood and swastika wearing varieties.

At some point in their lives, many dark-skinned African Americans have heard the term "black" hurled at them by other African Americans with such venom that it makes them feel lower than low. The color complex is the wound of internalized racism that African Americans try to keep concealed from whites. We may have come a long way since slavery, but we've yet to learn to love our blackness. I once heard activist John Perkins say that black people hate ourselves so much that we required an entire movement to try to convince ourselves that black could be beautiful. If the continuing (and perhaps rising) popularity of skin lighteners is any indication, that movement still has a way to go.

Oh yeah, we're not supposed to talk about skin lighteners anymore, especially in mixed company. But if you open that Ebony issue featuring Gabourey Sidibe, I'm sure you'll find plenty of ads for them inside, their number likely rivaled only by the number of ads for hair straighteners.

I'm not opposed to critiquing the Vanity Fair cover. But quite frankly, I'm less interested in convincing white folks to love blackness than in helping us to love ourselves.

09 January 2010

The Fascination with the American Negro (Episode 1)

I have spent much of my life being the first, the only, or the youngest. It comes with the territory as a black person in the academy and as a woman in ministry. When I began my current position at a historically black seminary three years ago, it was the first time since elementary school that I had been in an academic setting (either as a student or professor) that wasn't dominated by whites (although my high school was predominantly black, the AP classes in which I was enrolled were decidedly not, but that's another story).
My husband's experience is similar, albeit in reverse. The day that he graduated from college was his last time that he spent his days in a majority black setting. Over the past 15 years as an engineer, he has always been one of a small handful of people of color at the firms at which he's worked.

So it's not surprising that by virtue of our socioeconomic status (as well as our commitment to racial reconciliation), we spend a lot of time in places populated mainly by whites. In our home city of Durham, we're part of the granola crowd. We shop at Whole Foods, are members of the NC Museum of Life and Science, and take our son to classes at the Little Gym.

Herein lies the challenge. Because we are usually the only African Americans (or among a small minority) in the contexts that we inhabit, so is our 18-month-old son. As a result, he's become something of a celebrity. Being the "only" makes you highly noticeable and recognizable. When you play the go-around-the-circle-and-introduce-your-child game, everybody remembers the name and face of the solitary black child. It's not uncommon for my husband to have unfamiliar white women greet our son by name at the grocery store or museum. We've gotten used to it.

But it makes for some very strange moments at times. Take this week's gym class, for instance. There was one little girl who had apparently never seen a black person. Or at least black hair. Or at least a 1" Type 4B Afro that had been packed under a winter cap (I admit it, the boy looked like who shot john). For the bulk of the 50-minute class session, this little girl followed my child around the room, pointing to and patting his head. He seemed oblivious to it and kept playing. But his mother, who has some major hang-ups around race and hair, was not.

"Oh here we go," I thought, "It's time for another 'fascination with the American Negro' moment." Since the majority of African American women do not wear their hair in its natural texture, when we do, it is often a source of heightened attention and discussion by folks of all races. But with whites, there is an added element (especially if you have locs, which I did until two years ago) - morbid curiosity:

"How did you get your hair like that?"

"I didn't. This is what God gave me."

"I've never seen hair like that."

"That's because it's usually hidden under relaxers and weaves."

"Ooh, can I touch it?"

Hell no.
Sorry, that was a flashback. Post-traumatic hair syndrome, I guess. But having absolute strangers or casual acquaintances try to turn you into a hands-on museum exhibit is beyond maddening.

I once spent a week at a retreat for black women. Toward the end, after days of spending every waking moment together, one of the women said to me, "Your locs are so beautiful. Can I gather them?" I could tell her motives were pure, so I said yes. My spine tingled as she stroked my locks from crown to nape, pulling the wandering strands - in the most gentle way possible - into a single stream flowing down my back. In that space, surrounded by women trying to love ourselves and one another, that was an act of love.

Of course, none of that - the dehumanizing-museum exhibit moments or the intimate acts of sister-love - means anything to a blond 18-month-old who thinks the fact that her new friend's hair looks and feels like a cotton swab is cool. Her mother was clearly embarrassed, trying unsuccessfully to make her stop. "Don't worry about it," I told her, "he doesn't even seem to notice."

Meanwhile, I thought to myself, "Okay, this is really the last straw. He won't sit still long enough for us to pick it out, it gets messed up anyway, we have to get soy nut butter and applesauce out of it twice a day, and now he's getting harassed by little white girls."

He was in the barber's chair three days later.

02 January 2010

Resolutions for Revolution (or, What Black Folks Need to Do in 2010)

Another New Year has arrived. If you haven't done it already, it's time to make those New Year's resolutions. Never mind the fact that you may not keep them past March. Making them - and even breaking them - is an important exercise. It encourages us to spend some time reflecting on the lives that we would like to live, the persons whom we would like to be, and the values and practices that we hold most dear. It helps us to embody, in word and deed, God's ongoing creative activity in our lives. Even our failures are important. They remind us that our transformation is not entirely under our control; we must lean into God's grace and strength for real change to take place.

This year, the celebration of the New Year and the impending observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday are inextricably intertwined in my mind. Perhaps it is because I am still haunted by my last visit to my hometown of Atlanta. It's been 15 years since I left Hotlanta and each time I return, I am reminded why the city has become one of America's black cultural capitals. There is so much to do, see, and experience of the Black diaspora in the city - galleries and museums, cultural centers, civic groups and organizations, historical sites, and soul food and Caribbean restaurants. Even the walk through the airport was enjoyable; the walkway to baggage claim in Hartsfield International currently has an installation of sculptures by Zimbabwean artists. A trip home is always a striking reminder of just how far African Americans have come in the 45 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But during my ride through the city, I noticed something else, a reminder that the struggle is far from over, even for those who have ostensibly "arrived." While traveling down a major thoroughfare on the south (code word for "black") side of town, I realized that I was in the largest collection of beauty supply stores, car accessory shops, and chicken wing shacks that I had ever seen. I had no idea that it was possible for one street to sustain that many beauty supply stores, a large one on every block. And there were rims galore. For rent, no less! And the chicken - the air was permeated with the smells of grease and sauce (okay, I'm exaggerating, but there really were a lot of them).

While Atlanta's chicken wings have a special place in my heart and I have many memories of scouring beauty supply shops for the perfect product, the whole scene was mildly depressing. I could almost hear a voice emanating from the shops: "Come to us. There is a hole inside of you that we can fix. You are not enough. Come to us, my daughters, and we will give you hair to cover your insecurities. Come to us, my sons, and we will cover your alienation with rims that you cannot afford. And if that doesn't fill the emptiness, come to us, my children, and we will fill your stomachs. Come to us and we will make you enough."

I have often heard African Americans say that integration destroyed the fabric of the black community in America. But what has been known as "integration" - the end of legalized segregation and the granting of access to education, housing, and employment - was never meant to be the final destination of the Civil Rights Movement. It was simply a road marker, and an important one, on the journey to beloved community, a society where reconciliation, redemption, love, and justice would be realized. Dr. King envisioned the beloved community as an America where we would adhere to the two greatest commandments: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, our mind, our soul, and our strength; and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (cf. Matthew 22:34-40).

But as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, many African Americans still have a lot of difficulty loving ourselves. Centuries of racism has inculcated within us a sense of self-loathing. Most often it's an unconscious impulse. That is, most of us don't go around thinking, "I don't like being black." Rather, we have a deep, abiding sense that "I am not enough." We try to make up for not being enough by doing more, getting more, and consuming more. We take on superhuman personas, trying to live into the ideologies of the StrongBlackMan or StrongBlackWoman. Or we spend a disproportionate amount of our income on visible signs of "enoughness" - hair, nails, clothes, purses, shoes, rims, cars, TVs, bluetooth headsets, cell phones, etc. Or we eat...and we eat...and we eat. Sometimes we do all of the above. And the struggle continues.

So as you make your resolutions for 2010, consider the inner revolution that still needs to take place for the liberation of the African American mind. Make resolutions that will help to free you and your family from the vestiges of internalized racism. Sometimes societal change demands marches and legislation. But oftentimes, it needs the decision and determination of individuals to be differently.

And just in case you need help, here are a few ideas:

First, take charge of your health. In 2007, 35.6% of African Americans were obese, according to CDC data. For too long, our knee-jerk reaction to such statistics has been to say that the weight charts do not take into account African American "bone structure." That's all well and good, but somebody needs to send that memo to our cardiovascular and endocrine systems, because they seem to think that our bodies can't handle that weight. We have the highest rates of hypertension and Type II diabetes of all ethnic groups, with some rates rivaling those of people in the poorest countries in the world. Who needs Jim Crow and lynch mobs when we are committing slow suicide with overeating and underactivity? Not to mention epidemic rates of HIV/AIDS and homicide. Let this be the year that you develop and sustain healthy diet, exercise, and sexual habits.

Second, regain (and retrain) your righteous mind. A 2004 Nielsen study shows that, on average, African Americans watch 40% more television than all other ethnic groups, a whopping 11 hours per day! It's bad enough that we spend that much time being physically and mentally inactive. It's even worse when you consider the values and images that are being transmitted by television shows, videos, and commercials. No wonder we continue to believe that we are not enough! In contrast, only 37% of Arican Americans read literature. A few years ago, I read a study that showed that by the age of 5, children in white, middle-class homes have an average of 100 books; their black counterparts had only 60, even though the parents had similar levels of income and education. I don't want to underplay the impact of racism and poverty on racial differences in academic and occupational achievement. But let's be honest - we aren't helping the cause by willfully neglecting our intellectual development. Make this the year to increase your reading and decrease your television consumption.

Third, get active for justice. Commit, in at least one tangible way, to striving for justice and equal opportunity for all of God's children. You might volunteer at a food bank or homeless shelter, mentor a child, organize a clothing or book drive in your community, attend vigils against the death penalthy, clean up a neighborhood park, or raise funds for a local nonprofit. Just do something.

Maybe if we make a collective attempt to fill the emptiness with health, knowledge, and service, we won't be so inclined to fill it with weaves, wheels, and wings. And then we will know what the Great Spirit has been trying to tell us - we are enough.