NB: This talk was originally given on 5/12/2016 at the EYE Film Museum as an introduction to the film “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986) by Spike Lee, as part of the Looking for America: Black Lives on Screen series. You can watch a segment of this talk via this clip.
Note that you may find some of the images used below distressing.
Furthermore, in the UK Morris (or Moorish) dancing continues to be popular in certain rural locations. This tradition, which is said to date back to the Medieval era, arguably depicted the Moor, through the blacking up of the face and so-called “exotic” dancing and costumes. In the image below, you can see former UK Prime Minister David Cameron posing happily with a group of Morris dancers in 2014.
Quite often, when we think about the history of blackface, we immediately think of the American blackface minstrel of the 19th century, which depicted Africans and African Americans on stage accompanied by music. Below you can see TD Rice’s interpretation of a black man for his stage show.
Minstrelsy was like television back then. This is how the average person got to know about enslaved people’s everyday lives. However, these shows made a mockery of the very humanity of people of African descent. Black people were being portrayed as lazy, stupid, filthy, violent, over-sexed, happy to serve, etc. Therefore there was no reason for them to be granted their freedom or equal rights – so the argument went.
It’s no surprise at all that when minstrelsy groups toured Europe, their shows were very popular. And it’s within the context of US minstrel shows and Dutch slavery, that Zwarte Piet was reintroduced into the Sinterklaas festival.
Above, in an illustration printed onto a postcard but originally from the book ‘Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht’ by Jan Schenkman, Piet’s image is consistent with portrayals of black servitude in the mid-19th century.
By the end of the 19th century, the popular story book Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog had been released in the UK. The illustrator of the book, Florence Upton, was said to have been heavily influenced by the blackface minstrel shows she had seen as a child.
Minstrelsy complemented the misinformation inherent in European infotainment and advertising. Golden Shred is a type of jam in the UK and the Golliwog was their icon from 1910 to the early 2000s. Banania is a hot chocolate brand and has used a caricature of a Senegalese man as its mascot since the 1920s. This image is still in use today.
And by the mid 20th century, not only was the Golly increasingly prominent in British arts and entertainments – as we can see by his inclusion in various Enid Byton books, Zwarte Piet was being portrayed also in a more minstrelesque way.
However in the early 20th century, it was not only in books and food packaging that these images of black people could be observed.
D W Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915. This film is some serious wish fulfilment but it had dire consequences for black Americans. In the film, black characters are seen preventing whites from voting and also exhibiting anti-social behaviour in public. When one of the characters (a white actor in blackface) attempts to rape a white female character, he is hunted down by the KKK and lynched.
This film basically promoted the idea that black people cannot have equal rights because we’ll take over society and begin brutalising white folks. As a consequence, the release of Birth of a Nation actually led to an increase in lynching for the most trivial of actions. It was basically a way for whites to keep blacks in their place after slavery.
Photographs of real lynchings of black people, would have been printed on postcards and in local newspapers following the murder of a black individual, or as in this case, groups of blacks. This circulation of imagery of dead bodies, essentially informed the American public that the lynching they had seen in The Birth of a Nation could happen in real life, and was perfectly justifiable. It acted as encouragement for whites and a warning for blacks.
The very first Hollywood film to feature sound was The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jonson, who sang jazz songs in blackface. Indeed, in the 1920s black actors such as Josephine Baker would themselves also wear blackface. Eventually, blackface in film and on stage in the US became less and less tasteful due to the work of groups such as the NAACP. However, the same stereotypes of black people – as witnessed throughout the minstrelsy period – were omnipresent within cinema.
Popular characters between the 1930s and 1940s included Stepin Fetchit, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and of course, Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel won an Academy award for her role. While this was an incredible moment for McDaniel, as she was the first black American to win an academy award, she won it for her convincing portrayal of the happy servant.
This stereotype in particular was pervasive during the period. In cartoons, the behaviour of a character was completed with exaggerated facial features reminiscent of the blackface era. The above character from Disney’s Fantasia, was removed when the film was reissued in 2000.
Having said this, the above characters were kept in the film.
This version of black womanhood – the hypersexualised, exotic, plaything – continues to be common in various forms of media to this day (such as music videos, reality TV, soap operas). In the Netherlands, the film Alleen Maar Nette Mensen (2012) became infamous for its derogatory portrayals of black women, black female sexuality and black motherhood. Instead of offering actors of colour an opportunity to appear in a mainstream film, it contributed to existing negative and harmful ideas about life in Amsterdam Zuid Oost.
The black maid or the irresponsible and abusive black mother is also still a commonly rewarded role for black actresses according to Hollywood standards, which is clear when examining all of the actresses of African descent who have won an Academy Award so far (see below).
Furthermore, the troubling depictions of Zwarte Piet are still shown on television in the Netherlands. As for the UK, blackface should have stopped with the cancellation of the Black and White Minstrel Show in the late 1970s. But it reappeared as recently as 2006 in Little Britain. And all over the world, so-called slapstick comedy sketches in film and on TV portray people of colour as good for nothing morons. All in the name of fun, right?
US, Dutch and British blackface traditions are being used, even in 2016 to establish socio-political barriers that threaten the rights of non-white citizens and promote white supremacy. When Trump won the US election with his discourse of hate and racism, people celebrated with blackface. Dutch police brutalise protestors for their attempts to remove a blackface character – which explicitly mocks the victims of the Dutch slave-trade and their descendents. After voting to leave the EU, certain UK citizens believed Britain would become a white country again, using the “wog” character to illustrate this desire.
This obsession with white dominance can be directly linked to images and narratives we’re exposed to from a young age – be that in history books or in films. Mainstream film critics praised 12 Years a Slave, and overlooked Amma Asante’s Belle (based on the life of the very real Dido Elizabeth Belle) because they’re more comfortable with the notion that a black women’s place in history is firmly routed in slavery, not Georgian aristocracy.
Melvin van Peeples, who directed Watermelon Man (1970) – the film in the intro clip that employed whiteface – also wrote and narrated the documentary “Classified X” (1998). This is what he has to say in the documentary, about black characters in US cinema:
“The coloured folks in the movies were always quaking and “Yassir” bossing and shuffling. They didn’t bear any resemblance to the majestic, hard-working black folks, strutting around the South Side of Chicago where I was from.”
He goes on to say that:
“Black movies, made by African American filmmakers, were extremely popular with black audiences, tired of seeing themselves portrayed as slaves, servants, mammies and dumb bucks.”
For a more detailed history of racism in US cinema, you can see the full documentary here:
My favourite filmmaker right now is Ava DuVernay. Her work consistently puts black resistance to racial inequality at the centre of the narrative, striving to depict human experiences that are relatable to black audiences. DuVernay’s characters do laugh, dance and sing but they also fight, argue eloquently, teach and learn.
To conclude, I’d like to come back to Spike Lee. The first film I saw by Lee was Malcolm X. This film really changed me. Everything I’d been taught about the various black nationalist movements that took shape in the US throughout the 20th century was challenged. The film educates its audiences about the life and work of Malcolm X by humanising him and his experiences. He is neither glorified nor vilified, and the importance of his legacy is at the centre of the narrative.
When we think of the rest of his filmography, part of Lee’s genius is the nuance in his satire. I’ll let you all decide for yourselves what Lee is trying to say with She’s Gotta Have It, which was his first feature length film. But it is clear, from films such as Jungle Fever and Bamboozled – while his humour might seem like a form of crass self-deprecation, the simple fact is this: you need to understand the very real history of the stereotypes on the screen, to understand the criticism inherent in Lee’s storytelling.
Lee has no time to break it down for those who don’t know better; his unapologetic concern is to speak to the folks already living what he is showing.
“Black lives on screen” is more than mere entertainment. It’s a reflection of reality. And who’s reality we’re talking about is a very important matter indeed.
A younger and much loved cousin contacted me recently, worried about the rising prices of Afropunk festival tickets for this year’s Brooklyn edition, which will be hosted this weekend. She reached out to me as I had told her of my plans to attend the festival with a friend. Besides her more general concerns that I should try to get an early bird ticket to avoid spending too much, she was also worried about the affect an increase in price would have on who would go on to attend the festival. Specifically, she was worried that less local Brooklynites would be able to attend due to the cost, paving the way for more (white) hipsters and yuppies. Communicated here, is the much wider concern over the level of white appropriation of spaces and cultures of colour at the same time as non-white individuals being prevented from enjoying their cultures and spaces. For example, there are numerous tales of black women and girls who have been criticised for or prevented from wearing natural hairstyles to work and school, such as braids, twists or afro-puffs. While it is not known whether or not white women are criticised for wearing braids to work, we do know that in recent times, white celebrities have been credited for starting trends such as “baby hair” or cornrows.
Meanwhile, we are already well-versed in the discourses highlighting the appropriation of various musical styles by white artists established within black communities (from blues, to jazz, to rock and roll to hip hop, etc). Furthermore, neighbourhoods such as Brooklyn in New York, Brixton in London and the Bijlmer in Amsterdam suffered from few resources and bad reputations, before hipsters moved in, removed local institutions and drove up property prices, thereby forcing out families who had been living in these neighbourhoods for generations.
These examples each correspond with my cousin’s fears for Afropunk festival as it becomes more popular and also at risk of becoming the next Coachella, i.e. a moment of recreation for the bored, rich white kids in their tunics and beaded jewellery, rather than an event of expression and celebration for people of colour. I will discuss in a later post on how Afropunk is a sort of pilgrimage for me to make, given my history of event and campaign organising, however for now, I’d like to focus on the politics of using certain spaces for mere amusement.
I’ve become increasingly interested lately in the imperial nature of globalisation and its link to the tourism industry. As someone who loves to travel (as hinted at since I’m going to New York for a music festival), this is often quite an awkward thought process for me to contend with. However the more I am confronted with the unbalance of space politics and cultural appropriation, the more I realise how much the material implications of the tourist industry (and other leisure industries) should be unpacked, discussed, critiqued and properly resolved.
As I have discussed in an earlier Rants & Raves post as well as in my recent article on The Clearing, the use of Roma caravans to sell a romantic sense of remoteness and isolation rings hollow when juxtaposed with the stark realities of isolation and remoteness experienced by Romany and Irish Traveller families due to NIMBYism and caravan site shortages. Furthermore, treating the cultures of caravan-dwelling communities in such a manner serves as a mechanism that diminishes their actual presence within society as well as undermining their socio-political exclusion. While many Roma caravan accommodation companies might argue they are honouring Roma culture, they do the opposite (albeit unwittingly) by feeding into existing discourses, which claim “real” Travellers live in bow-top wagons surrounded by pristine rural conditions, sustaining themselves by picking fruit in the summer. Anything deviating from this idyllic narrative simultaneously insists the culture is not authentic and therefore, the individuals are undeserving of their civic rights.
While I had noticed a certain level of space privilege and socio-economic unbalance when vacationing, the above conceptualisations surrounding the use of Roma caravans for “glamping” parks was a turning point in the way I understood the blatant cultural exploitation involved in tourism. No room is left for a fair exchange in many situations and thus instead of local communities benefitting from the money being poured into their nations and neighbourhoods by tourists, these spaces in fact become more of a playground for the apathetic and insensitive, who proudly seek to further their own personal geo-foot print.
Often the tourist industry also encourages blatant ignorance and insensitivity at certain locations. Take for instance the reported sale of golliwogs – an enduring symbol of British racism and imperialism – in a gift shop situated opposite the slavery museum in Liverpool, perhaps the UK’s most important institute to deal with this chapter of our history. Then there is the slave trail in Middelburg, The Netherlands, which instead of providing a damning critique of this chapter of Dutch history, glorifies the period and the economic gains established from it. Similarly is the “Africa Room” in a Belgian B&B, located in Brugge, which displays colonial posters and various other so-called African artefacts, which were (according to the owner) collected at various jumble sales and local auctions. The owner admitted he himself had never been to the continent and did not know very much about Belgium’s colonial history in Africa, let alone more general facts related to any African culture or history. The tour guides at Cape Coast and Elmina slave forts in Ghana do their best to honestly portray the horror of their sites of employment, however the gift shop makes light of the historical purpose of the fortresses.
Southern plantations have been opened up in the USA for tourism, which (for the same reasons as the slave forts in Ghana) doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing if these artefacts can be used to properly educate people about this shocking and brutal history. Unfortunately, influential publications such as the Lonely Planet books give a more romantic image, with one edition stating:
“Designed in 1741, this plantation’s vast gardens are the oldest in the US. One hundred slaves spent a decade terracing the land and digging the precise geometric canals…The bewitching grounds are a mix of classical formal French gardens and romantic woodland, bounded by flooded rice paddies and rare-breed farm animals.” – Page 358
Meanwhile, the Maritime museum and lighthouse in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil barely deals with slavery or the true nature of the Portuguese invasion at all. Some details are shoved in as an aside, however the wording on the display implies that these incidents were so long ago that they are not relevant anymore, Brazilian society is entirely interracial and equal. This of course could not be further from the truth.
These issues within the tourism industry became magnified for me by Dutch immigrants in both Tamale, Ghana and Kapas Island, Malaysia (interestingly, former colonies of the Netherlands) who set out to create their own versions of “paradise” in these distant lands. While I only reviewed the website for the Dutch-owned resort in Kapas, I actually stayed at the gloriously described guesthouse in Tamale, where I was greeted by rude owners, who barked at their staff, displayed Zwarte Piet iconography and had furnished their rooms with dirty, broken items from IKEA. These people were not interested in making the best of their opportunity; they appeared to take it for granted that they could hang out, make a decent living and control the livelihoods of local people.
Another immigrant I did meet in Malaysia, was a guy from Den Haag who helped out with a market tour and cooking course in Georgetown. While his enthusiasm and welcoming nature were really great initially, things became awkward when he began correcting and contradicting the chef. Of course, the chef could well have been wrong about key ingredients to recipes in her own cook book or the history of the local market she had frequented for years before this Den Haag dude showed up with a backpack. But it’s unlikely, isn’t it? This year, I attended another market tour (which is also part of a cooking course) in Den Haag with my husband. Truth be told, the tour and course were a wedding gift to us. We never would have picked it out for ourselves on account of the fact that I hate fish (and the chef only uses fish) and the tour is at our local market, which turned out to be very awkward when we began walking passed our usual vendors. Furthermore, the chef and tour guide turned this neighbourhood shopping space into a site of intrigue and exploration for the suburban set who came to gaze at the “coloured” urbanites in their natural habitat. One telling moment included us going over to a Caribbean vegetable stall to just look at the produce. The chef openly admitted that he didn’t know what any of the products were used for and did not engage with the vendors at all to find out, instead showing off his knowledge of onions and potatoes. Moreover, he insisted that I “must know” – even after I explained that I was English and not of Caribbean descent.
In our neighbourhood, we have Turkish restaurants, Moroccan bakeries, Hindustani dress-makers, Ghanaian braiders, Polish delis, Dutch florists, Iranian jewellers… all before getting to the well known and much loved Haagsemarkt. There is real cultural vibrancy and exchanges in our quarter however as the above example illustrates, this provides plenty of opportunity for appropriation, gentrification and voyeurism.
This brings me back to the concerns for Afropunk festival.
It remains as critical as ever for people of colour around the globe to have access to safe spaces where we can express our cultures and our politics undisturbed and without threat of violence, especially given the level of brutality and control exhibited towards black bodies, be it in the USA, Europe, North Africa or South-East Asia or Australia. It is worth reiterating that white people have been able to travel unhindered and unharmed to all of these aforementioned spaces, turning them into their own adventure wonderlands, with very little regard for the socio-political unbalances that they may contribute to by just showing up. It must be easy to ignore that the USA and Australia were stolen from indigenous people and founded upon racist ideals for the purpose of white gain, if all you want to do is have a good time. But is it right? Especially given the current institutional racism of both countries?
Where we have the opportunities and resources to understand how our histories connect to present conflicts, we should make the most of them, which from a tourism and leisure perspective, requires us to divert attention from foolishness and promote healthier knowledge systems. We should for instance, support conscious and collaborative tourist projects such as the One Africa resort in Ghana – who take a critical approach to the West’s effect on Africa and promote a better understanding of West African culture and history. We can also contribute to and promote critical travel blogs and journals, which give a much needed counter narrative to mainstream tourist rhetoric. Furthermore, we should be more open to learning simple points of information, such as where to stay, how to behave, when to travel (during the calendar year) as well as how to spend money responsibly. Finally, we should ensure that when we launch projects that are supposed to be for our communities, be they for entertainment or education, that they remain accessible to those communities and that their cultural and political essence is sustainable.
Just a quick update from me with some interesting pieces on the current refugee crisis in Calais and how this is being used in the UK debate on whether or not the UK should remain within the EU. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this situation is being used as a reason for us to leave the EU as some claim we are currently too attractive and accessible to asylum seekers and other (apparently) unwanted immigrants. Also, there appears to be a highly regarded myth that the UK has “its fair share” of refugees already, so we should just send “them” back… Ahem.
Obviously there is another, better informed and more balanced side of this discussion. For instance this piece from the Independent which succinctly undermines 10 myths in frequent circulation with regards to the refugees at the camp in Calais as well as immigrants coming to the UK in general. For those who will continue to be in doubt after reading that one, they should follow it up with a similar piece in the Huffington Post. Still not convinced? Travel blogger Jaz O’Hara (of Worldwide Tribe) recently visited the camp at Calais to interview refugees and document their living conditions for this piece, also published in the Huffington Post. She plans to go back to make a documentary on the situation too and is currently delivering much needed resources to the people she met there. Another great piece on Britain’s current attitudes towards migrants and increasingly explosive xenophobia – which in itself reveals the mounting fascism sweeping through Europe – was published by the New Statesman last week.
So there we have it. Some of the reasons we should be more sympathetic to the plight of the individuals and families in Calais and the implicit reasons we should continue to be in the EU and keep our borders open to our neighbours as well as to those in need. Moreover, what the anti-immigration rhetoric reveals about the shifting – and terrifying – political views of today.
I’ll be back again soon with more updates so stay tuned and much love and peace!
This response is in keeping with what has been part of Monáe’s entire philosophy since entering the music industry as well as made most explicit by Yoga. She recognises institutional racism and sexism and makes a point of kicking over the hurdles such social inequalities present. Much has been made of the lyrical declaration “You cannot police me, so get off my areola!” that features in the song. To me, this expression of female independence and power was imbued with the ongoing struggle for women to truly own their bodies and more specifically, those nine words communicated the complete physical exploitation of the black woman.
More generally, we can argue that such a statement is a promotion of the “free the nipple” campaign – a movement that started in New York and has been gaining ground by addressing the public banning of topless women in the USA, including during breastfeeding. Across the world, women continue to fight for the right to breast feed in public and for this entirely natural act to be acceptable in the workplace. Certain governments – such as in Venezuela – have been more supportive of women feeding their children on the job alongside the more general promotion of breast feeding infants over the use of baby food (Pearson 2013). Meanwhile, on the other side of the world actress Alyssa Milano recently drew attention to the UK’s policies on public breastfeeding, when milk she had pumped was confiscated at London Heathrow Airport, despite claims that she followed the airport’s guidelines (Zeilinger 2015). This example of public violation and humiliation demonstrates a continued hyper-sexualisation of the female body in addition to how far we need to go to socially normalise breast feeding once and for all. Apparently the fight for women to own their bodies is still necessary 15 years into the 21st century if we literally need to ask how, when and where we can feed our children (Valeii 2014).
On the other hand, Monáe’s song expresses a sense of physical freedom, strength and pride for women, encompassing the way we dress and move, combating a male gaze that views women as merely the consumable counterpart to men rather than individuals in their own right. The very idea that women can dress how they want and go where they like without fear of chastisement or attack seems to be quite a radical one when we consider victim-blaming discourses in anti-rape policies, audible from the UK (Glosswitch 2015) to India:
As we can see, these attitudes towards how women should dress and behave in public, as well as the controlled road to motherhood, creates a social environment which poses serious hurdles for women and especially women of colour, for whom this becomes much more of a conversation about basic survival. This is not to take anything away from the enormous fight that women have engaged in for suffrage and enfranchisement – on a global scale – in order to obtain the faintest glimpses of equality, nor is it to dismiss the hard-won victories.
However, we cannot ignore the vast disparities in the rights afforded to white women compared to women of colour. At a very basic level, it is made easier for white women to fight for their rights than it is for women of colour, as actress and comedian Mo’Nique discussed recently in a radio interview.
Black women and girls are considered to be so unusually difficult that they receive higher sentencing for the same crimes committed by white women and face harsher discipline in schools (Vega 2014). At the same time – on the diagonally opposite side of the socio-political spectrum – white men are free to exploit the image and public fascination of the black female to their own devises, as white, all-male, metal band “Black Pussy” are currently illustrating (Aplerku 2015), just as the Rolling Stones did with their 1971 song Brown Sugar.
Take also for instance the historical institutionalised sexual and physical assault of the black female body during slavery and imperialism, which also carries on today at the hands of the police (Batista 2015 and Fierce 2015). Having said this, whereas the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray (to name so few) in the USA have been met with a national as well as international fury (Woolf et al 2015), the deaths of African American women and little girls, such as Rekia Boyd, at the hands of police go largely unnoticed, failing to rally a sustained outcry (Foster 2015)*. As the black male body is policed on both sides of the Atlantic using stop and search policies, the female black body is policed through control of sexuality, motherhood and also hair. The TSA only recently declared that they would cease to single out black women with big hair at airports for additional checks (Dalrymple II 2015). This news can only be taken as a small victory when one considers that in 2013, a school in Ohio had banned afro hairstyles (BGLH 2013), in spite of their historical and global usage by people of African descent (BGLH 2015). Meanwhile, as people of African descent in the West are marginalised, punished and demonised for their blackness, whites benefit via frameworks of cultural re-appropriation, especially within the music and fashion industries (Chang 2014 and Clifton 2015).
The black female body – in the white, Western, capitalist and hegemonic gaze – is merely a site for the production of labour; it does not exist for the pleasure or purpose of the woman herself. When black women deviate from this, they incite fierce punishment. This may come across as a rather radical or extreme statement to make, however the compelling evidence of a long-standing legacy that links back to the global European colonial era between the late 15th and early 20th centuries makes it difficult to argue against. The European consumption of the black female body has been viewed as both sampling the exotic and pursuing a smart business venture for centuries, as is alluded to in the Amma Asanta film Belle (2013) and explored vividly in literature, such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and Andrea Levy’s The Long Song (2010).
Notably, the lead characters of both Beloved and The Long Song are women, based in the USA and Jamaica respectively, who were not raised by their mothers due to the institution of slavery. This same institution prevents both characters from raising their own children with Beloved’s Sethe (based on the real life tale of Margaret Garner) killing her daughter to prevent her from being taken back into slavery, and The Long Song’s July (herself the product of slave rape) losing both of her children to the perversities of the slave trade. As Levy almost comically describes July’s forced conception, one cannot find even a hint of humour in Morrison’s accounts, which depict the brutal mutilation of Sethe’s mother and the horrific study carried out on Sethe herself by Schoolteacher and his nephews. In short, white societies have consistently attempted to restrict black (female) sexualities and motherhood while exploiting both at their will, for the purposes of poli-pleasure principles and cheap labour-forces respectively. The body of the black woman has also been the site of prolonged scientific experimentation, such as that foisted upon Sara Baartman (1790-1815) in life as well as in death and that which is depicted by Morrison when Sethe proclaims “And they took my milk!” (pg. 20).
The legacy of these dark times is carried into the present day by the systems of control over black female reproductive rights in the US, with the mass incarceration of African American mothers accused of drug abuse, lack of continued support for mothers on welfare who choose to have additional children and coerced long-term contraception methods, as written about by Dorothy Roberts (1997). Additionally, reports surfaced last year of a decade long programme of the forced sterilisation of imprisoned women in California. Nikolas Rose noted that 21st century epistemological concepts of illnesses make claims regarding the prevalence of certain conditions within certain groups (2006: 19). Alana (Helberg-)Proctor advances this argument within the intersectional discipline of medicine and race, stating that in the Dutch context ethnicity is a highly constructed concept but is used as a factual variable in scientific inquiry, leading to knowledge production on ethnic minority groups and the public conceptualisation of problem groups that need to be controlled and saved from themselves (Proctor et all 2011: 1844-1845)**.
Moreover, health policies especially refuse to acknowledge alternative perceptions and/or constructions of the female body that would otherwise recognise female agency. The British National Health Service recently announced that it would begin to record all (female) patients with genital piercings and incisions as ‘suffering female genital mutilation’ from this month forward (Saul 2015). This categorisation of mutilation in itself demonstrates an unwillingness to give women complete control of their bodies and also refers to Western attitudes towards non-Western body-making practices. If white Western normality rests upon ideas of general black deviance (Collins 2004: 120), the whole concept of female genital cutting is considered an abomination that needs to be stopped at all cost, conveniently ignoring the ritual role it may play in certain socio-cultural settings (Khazan 2015). As Western activists build a platform against FGC it is at times unclear if they wish to aid the women who are speaking out against the practice throughout Africa and Middle East, or if they are more cynically merely furthering their own feminist agendas based on cultural specific ideas of what and how the female body should be. Also, the fact that FGC might actually be as much of a choice for some women as it is a horror to others is obscured in a manner that is inconceivable within discourses around piercings or even the body-hair waxing industry. The same can be said with regard to European political discourses, which have (in some cases successfully) argued for the banning of the burqa. This further illustrates how non-white bodies are not afforded even a theoretical claim or interpretation over themselves.
Monáe’s stance against racialised sexualisation echoes the movement of the late 1990s, which saw artists such as Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu lyrically defend their right to own their sex alongside their statuses as mothers, without one comprising the other (Collins 2004: 133-134). More contemporary examples of this include singer-songwriter Teedra Moses, whose independence, motherhood, sexuality and creativity is consistently placed at the forefront of her music (Punjabi 2015), as well as Jhené Aiko whose music has been noted as being inclusive of these themes.
Most famously in recent times, global superstar Beyoncé Knowles released her fifth and self-titled album to critical acclaim and feminist praise as she lyrically and visually grappled with marriage, death, motherhood in addition to a lot of sex. Knowles demands listeners and viewers recognise her equal roles as wife, mother and diva in a combination of moving and yet problematic ways. As cultural critic bell hooks discusses the career of Knowles’ so-called spiritual mentor Tina Turner, she urges caution to women of colour who attempt to subvert white, male gazes by exploiting them for notoriety and financial gain, at the risk of the re-perpetuation of long-standing racist stereotypes about black female sexualities. hooks elaborates that Turner’s hot, black woman reputation was the result of her husband’s ‘pornographic fantasy’ of the (white patriarchal) wild and animalistic black woman who also looks white (1992: 67-70). hooks muses over the contradiction between this image with the reality of the abuse Tina suffered at the hands of her husband, and the continued use of her stage persona following her divorce from Ike. Knowles and her husband, Jay-Z (Sean Carter), have their own musical partnership of sorts and even famously (if some-what tastelessly) compared themselves to Ike and Tina Turner in their song Drunk in Love, referencing the abuse instead of the talent.
We could on the one hand argue that Knowles should be free to express her sexuality however she chooses. However, even the most blatant of these expressions (such as in Blow and Partition) cater strongly towards male heteronormative desires and a literal thirst for the black woman. This thirst is not a harmless concept, implying a taste for an exotic adventure, using the black female body as its vessel, as suggested by Lambs Spiced Rum with the characterisation of Aurea in a recent publicity campaign:
“London, 1828. Population: over a million – many of them living in poverty. The populace marvelled at the strange wonders in the capital’s soon-to-be-famous zoo for the first time…And down in the docklands, Alfred Lamb was born…Having reached the heights of urban respectability, with a house and a handful of servants to protect and care for wife and children, something stopped Alfred from settling into the life his father could only have dreamt of. The Londoner knew there were fresh worlds to conquer, and they lay across the sea…in the vaults deep beneath the Thames where the Lambs stored and aged their barrels of rum, some brief fragments of Alfred’s Caribbean journal were found…They speak of a golden-eyed lady called Aurea, a beautiful enchantress who seems to have bewitched the straight-laced Victorian…Travelling from island to island, deep into the hot night-time darkness, she took him to places no respectable European would ever go…The chains of the rigid bounds of propriety that London life enforced were shattered, his mind opened to new thinking, fresh ideas, wild inspiration…The inspiration for the exotic, golden-amber, excitingly aromatic spirit that we know today as Lamb’s Spiced.”
Here Aurea is presented as not only exotic but also potentially dangerous as she “bewitched the straight-laced” Alfred taking him “to places no respectable European would ever go.” This quote from Lambs Spiced’s campaign reminds me of the routine Othering of non-whites in order to create an idea of European (in this case Victorian) normality. Alfred is so inspired by his adventures with this spicy, brown woman that her very essence is embodied by the rum that the Lamb family would produce and sell for European consumption. Given Jamaica’s tortured racial history, it is curious that Lambs Spiced would choose to use the image of a Jamaican black woman to sell rum. There doesn’t appear to be any irony in the message of their campaign, which openly traffics the concept of a brown temptress, who can be bought, sold, consumed and enjoyed as easily as an alcoholic drink.
Of course, Knowles’ album in and of itself is still a valuable artefact in the road towards women of colour truly owning themselves in every sense (especially with songs like Blue), which is why black women have been so defensive of the album in the face of any criticism. All the same, Beyoncé is not the be all and end all: as black women we need so much more. After all, within the Brazilian multi-racial and socio-historical context (which Knowles attempts to evoke with the accompanying music video for Blue), what good is the legend of Xica da Silva given the present-day treatment of women of colour (cf. Batista 2015)? This is not to rest that responsibility on the shoulders of Knowles or even Monáe, even as the latter artist fulfills the paradigm of “radical body love” as set forth by Radio Redmond in greater ways than the former.
Beyond fully owning our own bodies and sexualities, we need to reach the political position where our bodies and lives mean more than merely the pleasure or pay check of another, generally a white man. We should be working towards breaking out of the existing racialised moulds that we know so well in order to create new opportunities and possibilities for future generations to take advantage of. It is a scary prospect and given the tortured history black women have had in confronting the stereotypes applied to them in all facets of their being, it is understandable why so many of us do not speak out. As shown in the Mo’Nique clip above, simply standing up for one’s self can be viewed as speaking out of turn for black women and therefore in its own way, simply surviving is indeed its own counter-narrative, especially given that punishments for black and white women are not balanced. All the same, Monáe is not afraid to break that mould as she refuses to be consumed by white hegemony or male intention. We should commend her everyday for that.
* This says nothing of the 200-plus school girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram in April 2014. Originally this case received wide international media attention as well as threats of political intervention from the White House. However, the girls are still missing and media attention has already fallen away from this unimaginable crisis.
** The view of the racialised other as a being a menace to society plays a role in the devaluation of non-white lives both in the way we produce history and in the way that people from certain groups are treated in social and foreign policies. While this particular example of the degradation and ultimate control of non-white bodies deserves further expansion and analysis within it’s own blog piece, for now consider the following examples: the lack of international attention paid to the German occupation and extermination of the Herero people in Namibia; the lack of attention paid to the five million non-Jewish individuals who were contained and exterminated by the Germans during the Third Reich, including black French and German citizens; the lack of attention or political intervention given to the ongoing oppression and land and resource grabbing tactics of indigenous people across the world by the descendants of white colonisers; the nonchalance regarding modern-day extradition policies aiding the mass incarceration of Muslim men; the ongoing political silence regarding the blatant racial hierarchy in employed in saving and drowning would be immigrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean into your Europe.
*** General web resources have been cited with the use of in text hyperlinks only and will not appear in the reference list above.
Proctor, A., Krumeich, A. and Meershoek, A. (2011) ‘Making a difference: The construction of ethnicity in HIV and STI epidemiological research by the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment.’ Social Science and Medicine Vol. 71, pages: 1838-1845
The internet is currently buzzing with debate over British actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s referral of his black colleagues as “coloured” when speaking to Tavis Smiley on PBS. The comment has been met with a combination of indignation and defensiveness, with the Guardian’s Joseph Harker summarising that in making the outmoded remark, Cumberbatch highlighted his own point: that the film industry is not diverse enough. Thus, Harker continues, rather than condemning Cumberbatch we should accept that he probably did not mean any harm and the very crucial point raised about the 21st century movie business is what we should be more focused on.
It’s true that Cumberbatch seems like a decent guy, decent enough at least to be one of very few white British actors to speak out against the lack of diversity in film casting. It is also true that he apologised swiftly, taking full responsibility for his comments and noted the added significance of using such a term when discussing, as he puts it: “racial inequality in the performing arts in the UK and the need for rapid improvements in our industry.” While I agree with Harker that we should not be too hard on Cumberbatch and in doing so lose sight of the bigger issue at hand. I also feel that there is room for personal critique or at the very least additional analysis.
We know that Cumberbatch played slave owner William Prince Ford in 2012’s 12 Years a Slave but while Harker states that 12 years “does not even come close to balancing out all the other inadequacies” he also seems to imply in the rest of the article that being a posh white boy, Cumberbatch probably has not interacted with many artists of colour. Somehow, Cumberbatch’s lack of exposure to brown and black folk in life and specifically his profession is a justifiable reason for his linguistic blunder and therefore the industry should apologise for the remark and its treatment of black actors. However, in order to agree with this point of view, one is required to ignore several other facts. Have we forgotten for instance, that Cumberbatch also portrayed William Pitt the Younger in Amazing Grace (2006), a film following the abolitionist movement in Britain, which also starred Youssou N’Dour?
What about the time he played xenophobic Bernard in the BBC’s adaption of Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island in 2009. This two-part series co-starred Naomi Harris who recently portrayed Winnie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom in 2013, and David Oyelowo who plays Martin Luther King in this year’s Selma. Notwithstanding the clear fact Cumberbatch has actually worked alongside numerous black actors throughout his career, I cannot imagine that surrounded by such actors, who would go onto be involved in these timeless projects, that the topic of race did not arise especially when 12 years, Amazing Grace and Small Island are films about race. Furthermore, in all three films his characters were key to the storylines.
Don’t get me wrong, I find it commendable that Cumberbatch has taken on roles in such important works, which have brought what is not just “black” history but British and North American history to a more mainstream audience. I applaud his attempts to draw attention to the persistence of discrimination in the film industry. However this isn’t about intention or personality.
As Pitt, Ford and Bernard, Cumberbatch has built a successful career. Besides all of the actors of colour he has collaborated with, Cumberbatch has actually been faced with the origins of terminology such as “negro” and “coloured” in the material of his work. Thus, did he think not about the mechanisms of dehumanisation carried over in language leading to the social realities that he has helped to re-tell on film? Arguably, without the politics behind the term “coloured”, these narratives would not have existed for Cumberbatch to illustrate and build his career upon. Yet apparently, in preparing for these roles, it didn’t cross his mind how the privilege of each of his characters mirrors his position in society in real life, with regard to class and gender as well as ethnicity. Do actors who portray racists not have some sort of social duty to consider the real life Bernards of Britain who still want all the “wogs” to go home? Should they consider those who claimed that 12 Years’ Ford was a “model of morality” rather than a cruel and racist slave master?
Joseph Harker is right. The film industry in the US and the UK needs to be more accountable for its casting decisions as well as for which versions of history it finds acceptable, as we can see from the treatment of Ava DuVernay’s Selma. Here we have to also consider the diagonal power imbalance of white men and women of colour in a global film business. Having said this, individuals also have a role to play and have a responsibility to educate themselves by being fully engaged in the social meaning of their craft. Rather than shame, that is what I hope Cumberbatch and other actors like him take away some sensitivity as artists from this incident.