Thursday, July 31, 2008
As you may have noticed, I generally tend to blog whenever I come across something so crazy, so completely flabbergasting that I have no choice but to complain about it in cyberspace. After 7 years of living in Austin, I think it is safe to consider myself a naturalized Austinite; as a Black woman this is not always an easy existence but generally speaking I am more happy with Austin than I am dissatisfied. Like other Austinites, a week rarely goes by when I don't read The Austin Chronicle, the capitol city's version of The Village Voice. With artwork and articles that cover local news, art, and events with a satirical, tongue-in-cheek manner, The Austin Chronicle provides a smart, welcome contrast to our city's less interesting, more stodgy daily The Austin-American Statesman.
Sometimes, edgy and tongue-in-cheek can go too far. Or, hell, I'll just say it -- when it comes to racial, gendered, and sexual politics, there's a fine line between edgy and problematic. And this Thursday The Chronicle totally crossed it.
When I first saw the cover I paused and then grimaced. Why, one might wonder, would The Chronicle have a photo of a Black woman holding an avocado placed suggestively just below her ass on the cover of the paper as the art for a story that has nothing to do with Black women, nudity, or art? Follow that up with the fact that the teaser for the article stated "The Avocado: A Backstory," with extra emphasis on the "back". Now I know racism and sexism when I see it and given the American fascination with Black women's booties (just look at the pop culture empire Beyoncé has built on hers) it's hard not to read racism into things. First of all, I would be offended if the model had not been black -- why are women's bodies always being appropriated to advertise or sell things that have nothing to do with the item (or in this case, article) that is being hawked. Having said that, I don't think it is a coincidence that the photo focuses on her ass and the avocado placed teasingly beneath it.
Images of Black women's asses have been a part of American popular culture since the 19th century; during slavery it was argued that Black women's exaggerated womanly endowments actually proved scientifically that we had a greater proclivity for sexual intercourse than white woman and were biologically insatiable (a convenient explanation for all the white slave masters who couldn't resist tipping out to the slave quarters). The Black woman's behind taps into an entire repository of collective cultural memory and meaning that we may not consciously think about in our daily lives but that shapes our perceptions of the Other on a daily basis. From Sarah Baartman to Josephine Baker to JLo, White America still just can't get enough of dat ass.
Still, not wanting to believe the worst (my homegirl Juli teases me constantly about my relentess optimism and willingness to give folks the benefit of the doubt), I didn't pick up the paper, but walked away and said to myself, "Damn, I really hope this story justifies the cover."
Well, it doesn't.
It's a story about avocados -- that's it. The article is about the avocado, the whole avocado, and nothing but the avocado. It explores the untold story of the avocado from its history as a wonderous fruit that fascinated the Spanish conquistadores to its contemporary prodution and widespread popularity all the way down to how much of it is consumed around the world (not surprisingly, Mexico wins handsdown -- 20 lbs. of avocado per person each year -- !Que Viva!) So why this Black woman's ass? What in the hell was The Chronicle thinking?
Well, apparently someone else must have been thinking the same thing, because by the time I got home to blog my grievance, the picture was not on the site. Gone was the visually arresting, but deeply problematic image of a Black woman's derriere, and in its place was a much more suitable, if less interesting image of workers in a Dole factory, presumably stocking avocados.
Does this mean that a reader pulled The Chronicle's coattails before I could or did someone in the newsroom have the sense to call this photo out for what it was: a cheap play on tired ass stereotypes to push an uninteresting story on readers who would not have given it the time of day had they not hoped to see more of this woman's booty (and it is a pretty pleasing ass...but I digress).
My advice to The Chronicle: stick to smart news coverage and politically edgy and intelligent art. Don't stoop. There's really no need to reproduce racism and sexism in your pages when the work you usually do sells it self. Don't use me or my sisters to reach out to or enhance your readership, just do good work. There's no need to exploit our bodies, leave that to wack music videos and King Magazine, don't bring it into the news. I don't want to feel assaulted reading the local weekly when all I came to do was get my news fix.
I was in Mexico on a work trip that also doubled as my honeymoon when R. Kelly was totally acquitted of 14 counts of child pornography and pedophilia. The victim and her family denied that she was the young woman in the sex tape that showed Kelley having sex with and urinating on a young Black woman that prosecutors said looked as young as 13 years old. Since I was out of the country and basically completely incommunicado I had not heard about the acquittal. The truth is I don't really know what to think or to do. If you can't get the majority of Black people in this country to care about the violence that is enacted against Black women or girls why should anybody else? I was deeply disturbed to see the number of Black women who jumped to his defense and attacked the victim; apparently they too have bought into the logic that all Black women are fundamentally "unrape-able" and in sexual terms are fair game for anyone after the age of 13.
For those who are confused let me spell it out for you: When a grown man has sex with a minor it is rape. Even if she said yes it was rape. If it was midnight and her mother is trifling and didn't know where her daughter was or escorted her to the hotel at it was rape. If she asked for it, it was rape. I am not trying to say that there is no place for personal accountability, we all need that in our lives and I belive it is a vital part of social justice and transformation. But let's not confuse apples and oranges. Even if the girl made a poor decision, that does NOT excuse R. Kelly for sexually assaulting her -- and yes it was sexual assault. If you leave your house unlocked and I walk in and steal all of your belongings, would your neighbors say you deserved to be robbed? Absolutely not. But when it comes to Black women and other women of color, society treats our bodies as if they are public property that can be defaced and devalued at will.
Let me assure you, we and our bodies are not public property.
The day is coming, and soon, where Amerika is going to have to answer for its dehumanizing violence against Black women. Wake up, the chickens are coming home to roost real soon.
Here is a link to an article from The Chicago Tribune covering the acquittal. All I can say is that for the Black women who defended R. Kelly, who sold out the victim, and who celebrated his acquittal, think long and hard about who you will call when you find out that a 35 year old man has just sexually assaulted your son or daughter. I believe with all of my heart that the metaphysical structure of this universe is a circle and the consequences of all the choices that we make individually and collectively find their way back to each of us in the end. But don't worry, the kindness of this universe is infinite, and when you come looking for justice, those of us who still believe in it will be here to help you fight for it.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
So I was riding the bus this morning. I love being on the bus despite the amount of time it takes to get where I want to go because of the interaction I am able to have with people I would otherwise never come into contact with. Of course, sometimes you meet people you would have been totally happy to never meet or speak to but often there are small, wonderous little moments that affirm your faith in people and reveal our quirkiness as a species.
So I'm sitting on the bus and two gentlemen board and take their seats. One asks the bus driver "Do you know where the Social Security Office is? It's downtown, right?" The bus driver tells him that she has no idea where the Social Security Office is located. Then two of the passengers, both Black women, tell him at almost the exact same time that the Office is located on Cameron Road, not downtown. Then the conversation turns to how they can get to the office riding the bus. As the passengers begin to talk about it, I think to myself, "I've never even needed to go the Social Security Office in my car, let alone the bus, guess I can't help these guys, oh well."
Then I hear one woman say, "Well you can take the 320."
The other woman responds, "Yeah, but then they'll have to walk a little ways before they get to the office. The 339 will drop them off right in front of it."
She then turns to one of the men and says, "You can take the 339, but you got to get to the mall, the Highland Mall."
Suddenly, before I can think about it I hear myself say, "Well, the 15 stops downtown and that'll take you right to the transfer station at the Highland Mall." I had forgotten I even knew that and suddenly I was a part of the conversation, the building of this new knowledge that all of us, a woman in nursing scrubs, three black women, and two scruffy looking white guys had created by pooling our collective wisdom. Silly as it sounds, I actually felt really good having been a part of the process.
Interestingly enough, this ragtag group of bus riders had just demonstrated the scientific/social phenomenon of "emergence." According to one of my favorite podcasts, Radio Lab and Wikipedia, emergence refers to the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. An example would be looking at how ants or bees, relatively simple creatures with unsophisticated forms of communication, are able to build architecturally complex structures like their colonies (see the termite "cathedral" produced by a termite colony pictured above for a perfect example of emergence in the natural world). In a recent book, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, author James Surowiecki discusses the aggregation of information in groups, resulting in decisions that, he argues, are often better than could have been made by any single member of the group. According to Radio Lab, what separates us from the ants is that as human beings we are aware of our ability to do this and often do this for advantage as a species.
I was totally bowled over by this theory of emergence, not just because it demonstrates that the practice of cooperation is a central part of the structure of the natural world, but because the science of emergence demonstrates how the world "organizes itself into being without a plan...or a leader." The logic of capitalism and dictatorships or even the need for leadership or the state is actually sort of antithetical to how much of the natural world and human beings as a part of the natural world operate. Much of what we do from giving bus directions to building cities and communities is done without the need for a master plan or a leader telling us what to do. We cooperate on our own because it helps to survive and because as social beings we need each other in both a practical and emotional sense.
So it turns out that when it comes to the best form of governance for human beings, Mother Nature seems to support anarchism.
Friday, July 25, 2008
If we had run into each other on the street, we might not have remembered that we had met briefly, several times at poetry readings, slam competitions, local gatherings for emerging poets and young performers in Austin, TX.
If you had known her, you might be surprised that such a small woman, such a young woman could write with the intensity, beauty, and wisdom of someone who had known this planet many times. You might flinch when you heard her curse, spitting venom and sugar with equal parts grace and fearlessness. You'd be surprised to run into her again, randomly, on the street; later on you'd think to yourself, "Somehow, I remembered her being taller."
I did not know Shannon Leigh well. I just loved her work and admired her strength and her willingness as an artist to push up against the limits of what the world would have allowed her. A white girl spitting hip hop lyrics simply for the love of it; a tiny woman with a throaty, voice who refused to mutter in a world that rewards women for muttering in inarticulate, Minnie Mouse tones.
Her words moved me and now after hearing about her death, and the work that she has left behind, I am deeply grieved. How to end this post, when it feels there are not enough of the right words to honor this woman who built her life on words. When I heard Shannon read, when she shouted with no shame "Fuck me like my skin" in a crowded theater of slam fans, I thought to myself, "Now that's a woman who will say and write whatever the fuck she wants to, feelings and consequences be damned." I know that I have not always done this for myself; many of us don't. We long to write, feel it in our blood, and yet, when it comes time to put pen to page, whether it's a blank computer screen or our journals, we balk. I can't write that! I shouldn't even have thought it. Maybe I can soften it up. My mom's feelings would be so hurt...and so it goes.
I want to live my life, write, and move in this world however I want to, feelings and consequences be damned. There is no time to wait, for a better time, to avoid hurting feelings, for the sake of being nice. The world deserves all that we have to give, our most true and honest selves, while we are on this planet. I believe with all of my heart that Shannon Leigh walked this earth as her truest self, perhaps not perfect, but honest in all of her flaws and beauty. For that I thank her and wish her love and blessings as she crosses over to the other side. She's eternal now and making the heavens shake with her fierceness. Peace, Shannon. Thank you for everything.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
So follow the link because I can't type about it without getting a little bit verklept...my homegirl, Juli wrote about our wedding/relationship on her blog, Sentimos/We feels it, and it's really just very moving in its simplicity. Click on the image to check it out and see her awesome blog (w/ amazing graphic design, all done by her) for more of her pithy reflections on the nature of life, love, and the pursuit of liberation. If you love it, give her a shout, artists need to know their work is valued.
Love and blessings to all,