Go Ask Alice II (SyFy Channel Movie Review – Spoilers)

In Part I of my “Go Ask Alice” posts, I suggested that your money might be better spent renting the SyFy Channel’s update of the Alice in Wonderland story called Alice and waiting to see Tim Burton’s version on cable.  While I enjoyed much of Burton’s film, I honestly have no faults with the SyFy version (though the lyricism of the original is gone from the latter). Those familiar with SyFy Saturday film offerings should be reasonably skeptical here, but unlike those z-rate bad CGI throwaways, Alice is a medium budget film, has both new comers and accomplished actors and actresses, and a well written script.

James Dittiger/SyFy

Like Burton’s version, SyFy’s Alice also stars a grown up main character in a Wonderland set in the far of future from the time of the original story. This time the mid-to-late 20 something Alice lives with her mother and believes her father abandoned them when she was just a girl. She is drawn into the world of Wonderland through the capture of her boyfriend and potential fiance Jack, who is seemingly kidnapped by the White Rabbit. Thus begins an adventure that is more 1960s 007 than Victorian classic in which Alice holds the key to restoring both Wonderland and the lives of enslaved human beings.

At the center of the plot for SyFy’s version of the classic tale is a sort of Brave New World dependence on drugs to make the Wonderland population docile and obedient. To quote Director, Nick Willing:

“What I was interested in was [the idea of] being able to manufacture your emotions. One of the things I fear may happen to us is that we swap genuine emotions for something that is given to us. We cry at the television commercial and think that those tears are genuine. I was fascinated with, not so much in how these things could be addictive, but how we are slowly constructing a world where we swap genuine emotions or something which is manufactured cheaply. Wonderland seemed to be a good place to set that in because the Queen of Hearts has that kind of personality in the book.” (SyFy)

In this world, the “soma” comes from the milking of human emotions against their will and without their knowledge. The White Rabbit, an organization of henchmen trained to serve the interests of the Queen of Hearts, use the Looking Glass to enter the human world and steal unsuspecting humans for the procedure. These humans, called “oysters” because of the “precious pearl” of emotions inside them, are then put in a trance state and sent to the Casino where neurotransmitters in the floor collect their emotional responses to sexual stimulus, success at gambling, and other similar emotions. Like the oysters in the original Alice and Wonderland, the humans are entirely consumed by the people supposedly caring for and keeping them safe. Their emotions fuel a legal drug trade that is robbing Wonderland of its sanity, strength, and sense of purpose. Among those in charge are the re-imagined Walrus and Carpenter who are in control of the emotions extraction science and who, in the case of the Carpenter, ensure Alice’s import to revolution.

Standing against the tide is the resistance made up of a series of human versions of anthropomorphised animal characters from the book.

Animals

white rabbit/Dittiger/SyFy; white rabbit promo event/unattributed; Mad March/Dittiger/SyFy

There are no animals in Alice, unless you count the completely erased Cheshire cat. Instead, each of the characters has been re-imagined as human on both sides of the war. As I’ve already said, the White Rabbit is no langer a bunny in a top coat but instead a white haired man in a full suit with two ponytails down his back like rabbit ears. Alongside him, and his fellow henchmen who wear the mark of the White Rabbit organization, is Mad March (the hare). Willing’s March is a goon straight out of Goodfellas with a heavy accent and a pension for violence. A previous accident has left him without a head, so in keeping with the animals as human theme, Mad March’s head has been replaced by a porcelain rabbit head.

Tim Curry as Dodo/Dittiger/SyFy

The “animals” on the resistance side are no less imaginative. Dodo has been transformed from a bird into a cunning leader of the resistance played by Tim Curry. Where the original Dodo and the “caucus race” highlighted the problems with governmental caucus during  the late 1800s, the re-imagined Dodo questions the efficacy of a resistance in which winning matters more than the people for whom one fights. Tim Curry’s Dodo is willing to kill both oysters and Wonderlanders to overthrow the Queen of Hearts and he is willing to do so without consulting the rest of the resistance leadership. Moreover, at one point in his struggle with Hatter, he tells the members of his cell (also animals in the original) that they will not have to live in the basement any longer, implying that his real motivation is his own personal power over the political system of Wonderland. Whether you read Dodo as a beleaguered rebel who has sold his idealism for the follies of power over others or as a dogmatic leader who was really never as interested in the people as he was being at the helm of the cause, this re-imagining is a powerful though brief critique of politics on the left.

Alice, Caterpillar, & Jack/Dittiger/SyFy

Perhaps the best re-imagining of an animal character is the Caterpillar, who is now the eccentric head of the resistance. While he is visually stunning in his velvet smoking jacket that resembles the actual animal, gone is the seemingly nonsensical wisdom and condescending majestic of the character. Instead, this Caterpillar knows exactly who Alice is and why she is needed. Though he still seems to float outside of both worlds, he lets Alice know in no uncertain terms what is at stake in the struggle for Wonderland. Like Burton’s White Queen, he also asks Alice to choose the burden she must bear, but unlike Burton’s White Queen, he comes across as both compassionate and burdened by the struggle around him. As the alternative face of resistance, he both contextualizes why Dodo would have grown weary with his underground machinations and why real activism requires a commitment to The People (both the oppressed and those who have not yet learned that oppression exists) as much as the ideas for social justice to be successful.

While all of these characters are truly innovative and seeing how they translate is its own kind of magic, the absence of the Cheshire Cat illustrates what is lost in the SyFy version. Instead of the magical disappearing creature who is both wise and wily, we get an ordinary cat who walks through one scene in order to direct Alice’s attention to where she must go. In the original the animals provided both the biting critique and the whimsy of the text, their poetry and lyrical deconstruction of words and ideology was essential to the wonder in the land. SyFy’s Alice has neither lyricism nor much non-human magic, in fact, in a very literal sense, magic is replaced by technology. For die-hards of the original, the absences here will be a major stumbling block and yet, as some one who loves the lyricism and what it represents in the orignal Alice in Wonderland, I can’t say this version is worse, rather it is unique and intriguing despite its key differences. (I would also add that Willing’s Hatter is in some ways the way I would imagine the Cheshire Cat as human. His spikey hair, humor, and ability to move between the Queendom and the resistance with guile, is very similar to the dual agent I assume the Cat would be in Willing’s Wonderland, and yet, I think Willing really should have put his immense imagination toward transforming the Cheshire Cat as a character in his own right.)

You will also note that the absence of animals also means the absence of comment on the treatment of animals.

Women and/or Feminism

The conflict in SyFy’s Alice is between the resistance and the Hearts. Men outnumber women on both sides of the conflict, and in fact, the resistance is almost exclusively populated by men versus the Hearts which have some key female players. This is obviously problematic; what kind of new world will Wonderlanders have if there are no high ranking female resistance fighters? Nevertheless, the women on all sides of the conflict represent intelligent, savvy, and self-directed characters who do what they want to get what they want.

In the real world, Alice is a martial arts expert with commitment issues. One of Willing’s most subtle comments on gender politics, is the way he consistently blocks the characters in fight scenes so that the men of the resistance try to position Alice behind them but ultimately Alice must come from behind to protect both herself and them. Time and again, it is Alice who rescues them from impossible odds with her physical strength and bravery. Though, like the original, she often marches into situations without a clue how she will handle them, she also comes up with some of the best plans to rescue her father, her friends, and the humans.

Alice and Jack/Dittiger/SyFy

Where her feminism may falter, is in the fact that Alice is motivated by her heterosexual love affair with Jack. All though she will not go with Jack when he invites her to meet his mother, she follows him through the Looking Glass when she thinks he is in danger. Her decision is far from lovestruck, she actually falls into the Looking Glass while demanding the White Rabbit agent tell her what he has done to Jack. Nevertheless, she does not go to Wonderland out of curiosity or interest but rather to find her boyfriend.

Despite all of the stories about the oppressive reign of the Queen of Hearts, during the first half of the movie Alice cares very little about the oppression in Wonderland. Instead, she continues to redirect everyone to her quest to save Jack. When Hatter tells her that she has inspired him to join the resistance in earnest and fight for his people’s freedom, Alice actually gets upset because she is starting to like him and his decision for the greater good means he can’t spend all his time following her around. This is hardly revolutionary sexual politics here. All though her motivation changes near the end of the film, toward saving all of the humans, her story still ends with the kind of family romance tale of patriarchy’s past. (And just to be clear, it is a romantic tale in which I too rooted for the man Alice chooses and was swept away by their reunion, but it is still problematic that Alice’s story ends with “alas dear reader, I married him.”)

Queen and King of Hearts/Dittiger/SyFy

The Queen of Hearts in Alice is true to the original in her myopia and her cruelty. Unlike Burton, who reduces the Queen to a differently-abled meglomaniac whose psychosis is a direct result of her “laughable” physical difference, Willing gives us a Queen drunk on power. She runs the kingdom with a heavy hand not because she is unloved, the King loves her, but because she is easily bored and does not tolerate incompetence. Her commitment to the mining of human emotions is also more complex than simply oppressing one group of people (humans) in order to oppress another (Wonderlanders); in this version, the drugs keep Wonderland’s economy booming and an economic depression at bay. Much like Dodo then, the Queen is a commentary on investment in power by any means necessary.  Like Thatcher, the Queen of Hearts uses the master’s tools to run the Queendom and those tools are based upon and honed in oppression. For those who support a feminist narrative invested in female leadership at any cost, the Queen of Hearts has done her part. She employs a vast amount of the population, works to keep the economy prosperous, has ended overt war, and is respected as the most powerful person in the land and yet, she is a violent, slave-owning, leader who spies on and terrifies her people and revels in the psychotic aspects of her rule. Hardly the woman anyone would want in charge or representing the face of feminism.


The Duchess/ Dittiger/SyFy

Rounding out the female cast is the Duchess, Jack’s fiance. I must admit that what I love about her is that she looks like she was torn from the pages of Barbarella with her long tresses, heavy eye make-up, and go go boots. As implied, where Alice represents female brain and braun and the Queen of Hearts represents corrupt female leadership, the Duchess is all female sexual power. While many will dismiss her as just another pretty face in a short skirt, the Queen of Hearts tells us the Duchess is one of her best operatives. Not only is she good at getting information and manipulating men around her, but it soon becomes clear that the Duchess is no coquette. Instead, she understands that in the largely male world of Wonderland her survival depends on the ability to both manipulate men and align with powerful women. Like Alice, in the course of the story, she never compromises her own integrity for power. And while she does feel considerably jealous of Alice, Willing makes sure not to play up unilateral violence or internalized sexism between the two women beyond the Duchess’ reducing Alice with a glare. There is something wonderful about how Willing allows the Duchess to work while still making Alice the object of desire in the room; in lesser hands, these moments would have come off as trite, useless female infighting, or simply a game of who is prettier (which they do play but only until everyone’s motivations are finally on the table).

The Duchess, Jack, and Alice/ Dittiger/SyFy

While I would not say that these characters are all feminist or even that the majority of them are, they are far more complex than either the orignal Alice in Wonderland or Tim Burton’s film make women out to be. I liked that each one of the main female characters had both positive and negative characteristics, that they were motivated by both individual feeling and larger structural issues, and that at no time did the script degenerate into a “cat fight” that demeaned one or more of the women involved. Instead Willing’s directorial eye seems to treat each of these women with respect even as he remains true to the critique of the Queen and her Queendom.

This is not to say that film is without unnecessary eye candy. The casino is populated by Vegas Show Girls and mini-skirted black jack dealers whose job is to look pretty and keep the peace. Most of these girls have no names and no lines and are simply background. And while the femme in me revels at the Duchess’ outfits and thinks they are appropriate for the role she plays, some will likely take offense to how much skin she shows and that her major power comes from seduction.

The only woman on the side of the resistance, besides Alice, is a mouse; literally a woman playing what was once a mouse in the original text. She dresses like a 1950s housewife and squeaks her way through her role. However, when she believes the resistance is threatened she steps up, showing a steely resolve that is otherwise absent from the character.

Race

10 of clubs/dittiger/SyFy

Willing also does a great job of taking a film originally set in England and remembering that it can populate it with anyone. While there are no people of color in major roles, there are two in recurring ones. Both the Nine and Ten of Clubs are played by men of color, one Asian-Canadian and one Latino. Both of these characters are high ranking officers in the Queens court and empowered to put even her son and her spies in check when they are not following the Queens demands. The Nine of Clubs, played by Alessandro Juliani, formerly Commander Gaeta on BSG, is so important that the King of Hearts stays his execution when the King orders him killed in a rage.

There are no major female characters of color in Alice. However, Carmelina Cupo, who is 1/2 Italian and 1/2 Latina, plays the only dealer in the Casino with a speaking role. Like the men of color in the Queens court, Cupo holds a position that is seemingly interchangeable and yet integral to the running of the entire Queendom. Cupo also tries to stand up to Alice when Alice begins the overthrow of the Hearts.

The near absence of women of color calls the Duchess’ role into question. As the femme fatale, her blonde-haired blue-eyed, alabaster skinned, presence as the woman everyone wants reaffirms white hegemony through sexual desire. Not only is she Barbie but she is a Duchess to Cupo’s black jack girl. And yet, in a world in which woc are absent, Willing really does take the Barbie as beautiful myth to task by making Alice the center of everyone’s attention and desire and recasting Alice as a dark haired, intelligent, and physically strong woman. Ultimately, the critical eye he takes to white women does not negate the need for more women of color in this film.

It is always easy to excuse away why there are no characters of color in fantasy or sci-fi, especially when the material was written in the past. What astounds me about how easy it is, is the fact that people are willing to accept talking animals, singing plants, or even aliens and twenty tentacled demons before they are willing to ask why there are no people of color or queer folk in fantasy land. While Willing doesn’t offer us major poc characters, or any queer ones, I for one am grateful he at least tried.

Ability

Frewer as the White Knight/Dittiger/SyFy

As I said in my review of Burton’s Alice and Wonderland, the ableism of that movie is entirely invented when it comes to physical difference. Willing therefore neither needs nor uses similar devices in his plot. In fact, he has stripped Hatter of his supposed madness, which readers of the book will know was more of a disguise than an imbalance anyway, and replaced it with cunning and know-how.

There is one character who is clearly “mad”: The White Knight. Matt Frewer, who usually delights, was grating as the seemingly unstable man who has taken on the White Knight persona in lieu of there being any surviving Knights from the war. His madness however is indistinguishable from his actual psychic abilities and pure luck. In many ways, Willing offers us a character whose abilities are more in keeping with the idea of people, regardless of ability, as differently-abled; while the sane characters in his script are prone to inexplicable behavior, the mad man in Alice is often able to use his “madness” to get the job done. When he fails, he fails due to cowardice not mental instability.

Conclusion


What Alice lacks in whimsy and lyricism, it more than makes up for in intrigue and innovation. The story is compelling from beginning to end. Instead of giving us trite and transparent venues and flat characters, Alice and it’s Director, Willing, gives us a vibrant, three dimensional, reimagining in which each and every character is complex. (Though I didn’t spend time on them in this review, It should also be noted that Potts does a superb job as Hatter and the re-imagining of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum as mindbending torturers for the Queen is inspired.) Willing also retains both the class critique of the original and adds to it a critical eye to modern societal issues and what they mean for who we are becoming. His criticism of leadership and his subtle exploration of resistance are far more powerful than much of what we get in this world of blogging, twitter, and headline news.

My only criticisms are that the Cheshire Cat is missing and the White Knight is truly annoying. When Frewer is centered in the scene, I literally found myself holding my head and looking away. But other than that, I did not want to miss a minute and neither should you.

If you didn’t see it on cable in December, you can rent it at your local video store, check it out through Netflix, or buy it for fairly cheap on both itunes and local video stores. I guarantee you that in comparison to the over-hyped and underwhelming Burton version, you will think it is money well spent.

BHM: Lucille Clifton

Today’s Black Herstory Month post is both in honor of an amazing poet and a sad announcement that Ms Clifton died early this morning.

Lucille Clifton wrote her first book of poetry, Good Times, while still employed as a social service worker for the state of New York. Despite critical acclaim for her premiere collection, she stayed with the state for 2 more years out of a commitment to doing social justice from within.

In 1971, she became a full time poet and frequent artist in residence. She was part of a contemporary African-American and black poetic re-imagining that posited a black aesthetic into poetic form. Thus she used a number of free form and “unconventional” techniques to centered the lives, language(s), and vision of black people in her work and also combined several spiritual traditions from Christianity to Hinduism to Yoruba. The radicalism of her first collections, especially Good News, led some white reviewers to conclude that she “hates whites” rather than to see her complex confrontation of racism and her hopeful positing of poems about black leadership and religious figures as a way to over come them. Her collections also centered women’s lives and women’s issues. Two such collection, The Good Woman and the Two-Headed Woman were nominated for Pulitzer Prizes. She also received several female poet awards, local artist awards, and two fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts. The Good Woman in particular addressed many of Clifton’s personal triumphs and tragedies as a woman, wife, mother, daughter, and sister. Many of these poems also addressed mental and physical disabilities in her family and the way they intersect with the women in her family’s lives. In her collection Quilting, she uses the quilt forms often associated with black female quiltmakers to tell a story of black female history from unnamed slaves, to Fannie Lou Hamer, to Winnie Mandela, embracing the diasporic identities of black women around the globe and highlighting specific liberation struggles. Her poems to her uterus and about menstruation are oft-quoted amongst feminists and women’s groups as well.

Clifton reading her poem “Homage to My Hips”

She was also a prolific writer of children’s books geared toward African American children and showing them in a positive light in literature. Among these books was her Everett Anderson series that centered the adventures and life lessons of young black boy living in the inner-city. Everett Anderson’s Goodbye won the Coretta Scott King Award in 1984. Her collaboration on adaptations of her books led to an Academy Award. Her children’s books about women and girls often centered black girls lives but also included a story with a white female protagonist showing Clifton’s commitment to the progress of girls across the color line. Among my favorites is The Lucky Stone, that shows three generations of black women made who have been blessed by possession of a wish granting stone; each generation of women has used the stone wisely to enhance their community and the position of women, at the story’s end the stone is passed on to the granddaughter with the hopes she will carry on the tradition.

Whether speaking about her poetry or her children’s books, Clifton’s thematic issues remained largely the same. She was deeply concerned about inequality based on both racial and gender prejudices in N. America. She often wrote characters and poems that directly challenged images of women and people of color as predatory, evil, impotent, or constant victims, refusing to take on either the vilification or victim stance often required of women’s and ethnic lit/poetry by publishers and instead gave us characters and poems that were complex and independent. While her focus was often on the racism and sexism experienced by black women, she also made important connections to Native Americans, Asian Americans, Indian women, and the black diaspora in general. One such poem connected Gettysburg, Nagasaki, and Jonestown. Her words worked to highlight the interconnections of women and girls even in conflict and to celebrate the resilience of women and black people even as the scathingly critiqued racism and sexism.

While her prolific publishing rate in a declining market and her endless list of awards and accolades help to credential her, it is her poetry itself that matters most.

Sisters

me and you be sisters.
we be the same.

me and you
coming from the same place.

me and you
be greasing our legs
touching up our edges.

me and you
be scared of rats
be stepping on roaches.

me and you
come running high down purdy street one time
and mama laugh and shake her head at
me and you.

me and you

got babies

got thirty-five
got black
let our hair go back
be loving ourselves
be loving ourselves
be sisters.

only where you sing,
I poet.

L. Clifton

BHM: Marisa Richmond – Rocking the Intersections

In 2008, Dr. Marisa Richmond made herstory as the first trans woman to win an election in the state of Tennessee. Though some have disparaged her win of 99.7% because she ran unopposed, they are ignoring the massive election based movements around the country designed to shove queer people out of politics. Dr. Richmond’s candidacy was so solid in her district that no such concerted opposition led to an oppositional candidate on the ballot. In fact, only 6 people who cast a named vote in her district voted for someone else. Her overwhelming win thus tell us a story of powerful success against an increasingly hostile national political climate.

Dr. Richmond is also the first black trans woman to be elected a delegate to a major party convention from any state in the union. She worked tirelessly to ensure increased representation of queer people at the DNC in 2008 and specifically requested that more trans people were included in the Democratic Party and its representation at the DNC and other critical caucuses. She was also an active participant in the Women’s Caucus there advocating for women’s rights. (You can read more about her impressions of the DNC in a 5 part post here – brief discussion of immigrant rights, black caucus and LGBTQ caucus meetings, here – some discussion of women’s safety at the DNC and her response to both anti-Obama hecklers and “get over it” anti-Clinton delegates, here – where she talks specifically about creating an impromptu trans women’s caucus on the DNC floor, here, and here- where she talks about the Women’s Caucus and Michelle Obama)

She has also worked tirelessly to ensure transgender equality, and equality between white and poc transgender people, in TN. As such she is President of the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition and served on the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Equality Project & Board of Advisors of National Center for Transgender Equality. she was also a Board member of the Nashville’s Rainbow Community Center, helping to provide leadership, publicity, and critical funding for the now defunct queer hub. Her work on the planning committee of Nashville’s Black Pride 2004 also represented a critical intervention into the whiteness of Pride events and the dominance of gay and lesbian people in leadership positions for Pride events in general.

Her work has also had an important impact on education and social discourse. She served on the Boards of American Educational Gender Information Service and the International Foundation for Gender Education working to create and support gender inclusive education at the local, national, and international levels. In 2008, she started a column for the Triangle Journal News in Memphis, an area with one of the highest rates of murder of black trans women in the nation. Like her participation in Pride, her column helped serve the dual purpose of re-inserting black and trans identities into the queer alphabet for readers. Since the column is also written in Memphis is gives voice to the plight of black trans women in the area and hopefully helps to humanize black trans women in the eyes of those who are systematically killing them and the people (both in the community and in law enforcement) who are doing nothing to stop it. When the Triangle Journal News made the decision to stop print circulation, Dr. Richmond began contributing to Out and About Today, a feature on local news.

Dr. Richmond’s tireless work to create and sustain transgender communities and equality for transgender people is an important part of black herstory. Not only has she participated in milestones in both trans and black history but has taken on the sometimes difficult task of representing black people in the queer and straight communities, trans people in the queer and straight communities, trans women and trans women of color in the trans community, and black trans people in these same spaces. More than just working on representation, she has been a strong advocate and activist for multicultural trans inclusion in education, media, government, etc.

As a black woman representing her district in local, state, and national politics she also increased the visibility and inclusion of black women’s perspectives and leadership in our government. She works actively on women’s and feminist issues at the national level as well. She was a Clinton delegate, hoping to support female leadership at the highest level of office and a strong Obama supporter. She has offered women’s and gender analysis at the structural and personal level throughout her career. And she is able to talk about “women’s issues” while actively resisting the mainstream urge to reduce those issues to white, straight, able-bodied concerns. Her ability to move across intersections from a feminist perspective is invaluable to women’s equality.

BHM: More than My Hair

To start this year’s Black Herstory Month (BHM) posts, I thought we would keep up the tradition of doing a puzzle of a famous and groundbreaking person.

click image for puzzle

Melba Tolliver was the first black woman to anchor a network news channel. She did so in a 5 minute segment called “News with a Woman’s Touch” centering women’s opinions of key news stories. Unfortunately, that job required Tolliver to cross a week long picket line by broadcast journalists. Though she was already working for the network at the time of the strike, this promotion still made her a scab.

Tolliver has over 30 years of journalism experience and during that time the bulk of her writing has been on women’s issues including breast cancer, covering the Houston Women’s Conference, and the controversy inducing invitation to the White House to cover the Nixon wedding. She also did numerous guest spots and articles addressing race, key black figures, and racial consciousness.

Tolliver is best remembered for the controversy surrounding her hair. In 1967 she made the decision to stop processing her hair just weeks before she was supposed the Nixon wedding. Despite having one of the strongest followings on local news, Tolliver was taken off the air until she either processed her hair or committed to covering it with a hat or a scarf. Her refusal sparked national conversation about black female beauty and the offensive stereotypes and racist stereotypes surrounding the enforcing of straight hair as good hair in our society that cast black women with natural hair as ugly, barbaric, and unsuited to middle class jobs. Unlike the discourse that surrounds hair now, the conversation hinged on the idea that this hair hatred did not come from within the black female community but rather from colonialism turned post-slavery economic and sexual policing of black women and that internalization of these stereotypes was a direct result of survival techniques in the black community that understood that white employers with middle class job openings were only willing to hire women with processed hair in the most blatant version of liberal bigotry which had white people hiring black people against the unspoken proscriptions but only if they “didn’t make them uncomfortable” just like today.

While the Tolliver hair controversy helped increase conversations about black as beautiful, encouraged women to embrace the features they were born with and celebrate them, it also overshadowed Tolliver’s journalism career. Despite her tremendous body of work and her firsts as a black female journalist, she is often still reduced to her hair.

You can read more about Tolliver at Heats Up! and The Maynard Institute or read her blog Accidental Anchorwoman

Teacher Emotionally Assaults Student & Still Gets to Come to Class

The website for Congress Elementary School in Wisconsin proclaims its lofty mission statement with pride:

Congress Year Round School is committed to creating a well-prepared and caring community of learners, where students work hard to be successful and the learning never stops.

and images of happy black children smile out to website visitors as if to confirm both the schools diversity and its stated commitment.  No doubt a week ago, there would be no irony here.

This week however, is different.

An unidentified teacher at Congress Elementary humiliated a 7 year old black child in front of her peers for playing with her hair. According to the 7 year old, her teacher called her to the front of the room after she did not stop playing with her braids during class. The teacher then took out the large scissors issued to elementary teachers from her desk and cut off  one of the child’s braids. The 7 year old went back to her desk and cried. Her peers laughed while the teacher is reported to have said “Now what you gonna go home and say to your momma?” (see KCCI) a clear threat to an already broken child.

If the story ended there, it would already be inexplicable. In the state where I teach, you cannot touch a student for any reason except an emergency. In most states, there are rules governing how you can and cannot touch your students even when they are adults in university. On the basis of these rules alone, the teacher was out of line. But even if these rules did not exist, the blatant violation of this black child’s bodily integrity for the sole purpose of humiliating her in front of her peers would be inexcusable.

Or would it?

According to the 7 year olds mother, Helen Cunningham, the teacher attempted to explain away her behavior by saying, “I was frustrated” (ibid) though she did also offer an apology.

The school leadership claims they are “pursuing district policies” with the handling of the teacher; but so far, they have allowed her to remain in the classroom. Instead of putting the teacher on leave pending an investigation (hello look into the garbage can, find the braid, case closed), they have moved the 7 year old child into a new class. While this certainly will help mediate anxiety the child likely has about returning to school it sends the message to her and to her peers that there are no consequences for violating the physical integrity of little black girls.

To add to the insult, the little girl’s name and photo have been circulated by the media, as they contacted the media after hearing the teacher was not being suspended, but the teacher’s name and image have been withheld. The official website for the school no longer has a viable link to the staff roster either. So the offender is being protected while the victim is on display. And while the child’s mother has given consent, one has to factor in that Helen Cunningham felt the media was a better bet for helping her child after the school failed to do anything to remove the teacher from the classroom. (I was able to find a backdoor way into the staff roster, unfortunately, there are 11 different 1st and 2nd grade teachers at Congress Elementary, so I am not sure who the teacher in question is.)

The Wisconsin police on the other hand, have been trying to resolve the issue with appropriate sanction. Initially they referred the case to the District Attorney’s office for possible criminal charges for mental or physical abuse charges. THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY DECLINED.  So the police, believing this incident needed to be reprimanded, cited the teacher for disorderly conduct. The crime carries with it a $175 fine.

Ultimately, this is a story that has become all too familiar. Congress Elementary is a school with 94% black student enrollment and 78% of students qualifying for free lunch, ie the bulk of their students are black working class and subsistence level children. (see student stats here) At the same time, slightly less than 1/2 of their teachers have 5 years or more of teaching experience and less than 40% have a Masters Degree of any kind, including a Masters of Arts in Teaching. (see faculty stats here) In other words, this situation is a reflection of an ongoing problem in which schools that serve primarily poor and working class children of color are taught by underprepared and under-educated teachers. Teachers who are easily frustrated by common childhood behaviors. And in this case, as in the case of the black child handcuffed by her teacher in NYC and the black child beaten by a school security guard in CA last year, it is becoming far too common for school employees to respond to their frustration with violence against black youth.

While many have commented on the racial overtones of this case, the teacher’s race has been withheld. It would be impossible to argue that cutting a black child’s braid was not an act of racial violation. Whether that violation was enacted by someone who understood how profound that violence was because they internalized the history of the auction block and the meaning of interfering with a black girl’s hair or because they simply understood racial dominance from the role of oppressor, is irrelevant. The bottom line is that cutting that child’s hair was an act of intimidation predicated on the intersections of age, race, and gender.

This case highlights a growing problem of emotional and physical violence against both poor children and children of color, especially in poor neighborhoods, by school officials. Given the high profile attention that the President and several long time, some famous, community advocates have placed on unsafe schools the boldness with which this teacher, the District Attorney’s Office, and to some extent the school itself (which did issue a public apology via the media) have handled this case cannot be ignored. The message sent is that black children are not safe in school and when they are abused, it is their fault. If they can’t prove fault openly, it’s ok because the public perception of black criminality will be underscored by the failure to punish anyone who perpetrates against them. Ultimately, we must decide as a society that violence against any youth for any reason is unacceptable and that violence against black girls is not some proof of black barbarity but rather proof that schools are failing all of us.

—-

images

  • the child, whose name you may note I am not using on purpose, whose hair was cut/AP
  • Milwaukie County District Attorney John T. Chisholm/unattributed

BLBG: Staceyann Chin Other Side of Paradise a Review

This is the second review of books from our Black Lesbian Book Group at Swandiver’s blog. My review for our first book, which I didn’t like, can be found here. As I committed to at the beginning of the summer, I will review the rest of the books as we read them.

Staceyann Chin’s The Other Side of Paradise begins with a mythic birth scene that imagines Chin as wholly unto her own. It is a metaphor that foreshadows the main point of the nearly 300 page autobiography in which Stacyann figures as a precocious, unwanted, and abused child. For the bulk of the book, she is shuttled between relatives and caregivers who provide the littlest amount of care possible. In this version of her childhood, Chin is a victim of overzealous religiosity, classism, colorism, and sexism long before she stumbles on homophobia.

A poor child, abandoned by her mother and rejected by her father, Stacyann spends her early years with her protective brother and her God-fearing, hard working, grandmother. Though they don’t have much, the three of them live mostly happy lives of Bible study, school, and dreams of their mother’s return until they inexplicably lose their house and have to move in with the first of many Aunties. While women unrelated to Chin are often depicted as Aunties who care for her during her stormy childhood typified by severe beatings and humiliation punctuated by Bible passages, her blood relatives are mostly “long suffering black women” who see her as an undue burden. Through it all, her grandmother and her brother do their best to help tame the rage that Staceyann feels at not receiving enough love or being punished for being “too” inquisitive, “to0″ self-directed, and “too” forthright.

At age 9, even they fade into the background of increasing poverty, sexualized abuse, and desperation. By the time Staceyann passes her exams to go to high school, her brother doesn’t even talk to her. By the time she is ready for college, he has immigrated to Germany without a word. For most of her tweens, he lives with his father on the other side of town and barely waves at her if they pass by one another on the way to school. Her grandmother is gone from the story all together, left behind when one of their Aunts decides to punish their mother by sending the children back to her. Both of them reappear once or twice in the later half of Staceyann’s story but the ease with which they disappear from her life and her narrative illustrates how fragile and fleeting human relationships are in Chin’s childhood.

Her brother’s slow and unexplained abandonment is typical of the men in The Other Side of Paradise. Men in the book represent a fleeting yet significant presence in Chin’s life. Most of the adult men in her early life are sick, drunk, and/or mentally ill. Their absenteeism is ever present whether it is physical absence or psycho-social.

Her father, who is the most important man in her life b/c of his ongoing absence, denies her to her face. Though he does pay for her schooling, and help her get into college, he treats her as a somewhat unwanted associate never his flesh and blood. While his indifference chafes, her brother’s father’s seeming care is soon undermined in similar ways. Both men write checks, but neither offer love. Worse, though he gives Staceyann money and food, he also makes uncomfortable and unexplained advances on her that often leave her feeling violated by his touch. Other men, like the Preacher in her church make overt sexually advances, behaving in predatory ways that Chin inexplicably avoids.

Young men in the book are almost all sexual aggressors. She spends her tweens and teens dodging three of them in her own home. They try to catch her in the bathroom or changing her clothes, and corner her in various parts of the house. Her first attempt at a boyfriend results in a sexually explicit letter asking for favors she has made clear she is unwilling to give. And tho she has a seemingly normal relationship with her second boyfriend, the normalcy is undermined by his unwillingness to make any real commitment to her, transforming him into another emotionally distant man who uses her for sex. When she comes out in college, these boys transformer into a raving band of rapists in a scene that not only rings true but also reflects a general sense in the narrative the young men are just old rapists and drunks in the making.

Lest anti-feminist readers see this as yet another example of  “feminazi man-hating,” women and girls fair little better in Staceyann’s text. Staceyann’s mother starts out as a sympathetic character whose return transforms her into a self-obsessed violent woman. Her erratic behavior and violent shifts from cooing at her children to raking them with her long red nails and bitterness mirror that of clinical schizophrenia so much so that I expected to be told she hadn’t abandoned the children but instead been sent away. Not so. Though Chin makes her mother sound clinically ill, this too is a function of the child narrator, who experiences the terror of her mother’s behavior but has no explanation for it.

The other adult women in Chin’s life, with few exceptions, seem to take great pride in humiliating her in front of classmates and female peers. They demean her because of her heritage, her class, and her inquisitiveness. Most importantly, they check her outspokenness with swift violence designed to silence her voice and teach her to become invisible. Their anxieties about her precociousness and blunt struggles with social norms and religion, speak to the fears of working class and lower middle class women about “respectability” and male power. Yet while Chin is thoughtfully introspective about why she acts out against them, her child narrator is unable to provide similar introspection about the reasons they discipline her so harshly. There is no excuse for their abusiveness, but Chin’s corrective look back on it in the epilogue is lacking in the story itself.

Not only do adult women figure prominently in her ongoing physical abuse, but young girls seem to torment Staceyann wherever she goes. Whether they are relatives or kids at school, the girls Staceyann meets mock and humiliate her because of her color, her class, and sometimes her diction. Colorism and classism dog Staceyann at every institution, in ever person’s home she visits, and even causes a bitter fight between her and her brother.  Despite what she says about juxtaposing homophobia in Jamaica to racism in the U.S. in the book promo clip at the beginning of this post, her book makes race (colorism) a central plot point in which it is no less salient to her life than racism would have been in N. America. Her prose is never more honest nor poignant than when lessons about color and poverty hit home in the text.

All of these characters represent the pain and abandonment that is at the center of the entire story. They figure far more prominently than the nuns, teachers, and friends who are actually kind to Staceyann in her childhood. The underdevelopment of the latter gives her story a sense of urgency at the same time that it makes her narrative seem somewhat overdetermined. The truth value of one’s memories is less important to me than what falls out as a result.  Because Chin gives us no concentrated description of mentors or heroes her memoir gives us no insight into how she became an artist. Subtle glimpses of her being assigned journaling or finally finding a home in the theater department are like footnotes in the long and painful story of abandonment and abuse. When did she decide words were her refuge? When did she find the excitement in sharing her voice instead of the shame that was almost always put upon her every time she spoke in the book? Where are the inklings of the poet in her childhood?

Those looking for a poignant coming out story that mirrors the powerful and beautiful poetry Chin writes, will also be disappointed. Chin has two crushes in her early childhood but neither are written in a way that foreshadows same sex attraction or the awakening of same sex desire. Instead, one of her crushes isn’t even identified as an object of desire until they mutually come out to one another in college.  Her desires for the other girl are easily overlooked by both girls pursuits of boyfriends and Christian morality that permeates their lives. There are subtle ways the prose lets those of us who know what we are seeing, know we are seeing it, but for those uninitiated, much of the subtlety will be lost. In both cases, Staceyann’s emotions for them are wrapped up in class longing, desires for friendship and popularity at school, or gratefulness for the kindness of adults these other girls experience. Thus for many readers, only the very blunt jokes about not marrying boys will hit home in these passages while the homosocial commitment to one another, the subtle care in the way they are with one another, etc. will be lost.

Chin doesn’t speak about her sexuality until the book is almost over. With only 70 pages left, she embarks on the subject of her coming out and trying to find women to be with at a break neck speed that barely leaves any time for character development, internal reflection, or some other narrative device that would make the sea of rejection and hookups crammed into this section as insightful as her poetry on the subject. It’s unfortunate because this portion of the book has an adult narrator who could be introspective and multi-viewed about the characters introduced. In many ways, it feels as though Chin is still holding this part of herself back from her readers, afraid of what prose, as opposed to poetry, might tell us and her about these tumultuous days before she immigrated.

As a result, her coming out years whiz by, literally punctuated by cliched lesbian music and the shaving of her head. While Chin hints at a thriving underground queer culture, she never lets her prose linger on it long enough for us to get a sense of what queer Jamaica looks like to her or how GLBTQI ppl navigate homophobia there. As an insider, her insights on these issues could have been a critical counterpoint to a colonialist gaze on Jamaica that elevates violence against the queer community there while erasing it in the West. It’s unclear if she is trying to protect the women she left behind by not describing them or their encounters in detail or if she has sacrificed this aspect of the story to make her larger point about the homophobia in Jamaica that drove her to leave. If it is the latter, homophobia has not only robbed her of her home but her readers of a story about sexuality and (fraught) communities, for one of violent homophobia. Both are clearly present, but as in other identities represented in the book, the latter dominates.

Thus while women, female lab partners, sexual encounters, and her growing attachment to the stage moves so quickly they blur into nothing, the homophobic potential gang rape Chin survived in her college bathroom is described in detail. For survivors it will likely be triggering. For people inclined to vilify Jamaica as the most homophobic place on earth,  it will provide perfect fodder. And yet, this moment is a defining one in Chin’s life. The prose she uses to describe it not only reflect the way time works for some survivors during abuse but also ensures that readers cannot look away from the intersection of sexism and homophobia, fear and male-sanctioned violence. Its familiarity opens the doors for talking about global homophobia, sexism, and male violence in ways that expand rather than contract feminist discourses on the subject for anti-imperialist readers. Not only is this moment critical to understanding Chin’s critique of homophobia, it is also perhaps the most feminist moment in the book because it not only exposes male domination but also demands bodily integrity for all women and feminism from men.

Ultimately, if you commit to the story Staceyann Chin has set out to tell, you will not be disappointed by this book. For those looking for the feisty feminist lesbian who bellows out the words in proud defiance of social norms, you will see glimpses of her here but never quite connect the dots. And those looking for an immigration based bildungsroman ala other Caribbean-American writers, you will have to look elsewhere, as Chin acknowledges the ever-presence of immigration while also proving how life in sending communities is about the dailiness of living not just a holding pattern until one goes abroad. In a world where we have come to expect artists lives to be unique and special, punctuated by clearly defined awakenings, it is an act of extreme bravery to depict oneself as rejected, broken, and yearning for love just like everybody else. That is the story Staceyann wants us to know, the story of a girl who overcame, who makes her living speaking when so many tried beat her into silence. And tho it isn’t the story I was expecting, I for one, respect that.

The Black Lesbian Book Group is discussing this book now. The current discussion question from Luna Kiss is: what were your impressions of the title before you read the book? (Obviously this question is meant to go beyond Chin’s own statement that she was referring to the class divide in the town of Paradise where she spent her formative years.)

Book I’m Looking Forward to Reading

So, I promised myself this semester I was not only going to teach the overload our department desperately needs with so many on leave, but that I was going to continue my summer commitment of reading for pleasure. I know . . . I’ve over-estimated access to time and space (physical alone time) again. Nevertheless, I have already picked out a book from my vast shelf of  “things I meant to read but life got in the way”:

Not only does this book sound exciting, but since it does dovetail with a core course I have to teach in Spring, I can call it work when I have to and free-time when I don’t.

I’m curious, does anyone else find that they have stopped reading for pleasure during the term? It’s really a shame.

After the two cancer scares this summer (a pet and a human family member), I promised that all the things I put off for work, I’m going to somehow fit in. Don’t want to breathe my last breath having failed “to suck the marrow out of life.”

2050 and the Coming Race War?

rush-20090717-race

A white relative of mine always seems to respond to the latest news about hate crimes and/or racially motivated oppression with the same statement: we [white people] need to get it together b/c in the next 50 years we won’t be the majority anymore and if we don’t start acting right, it’s gonna be on.

I usually respond by rolling my eyes, questioning his assumption that we [people of color] are interested in violent revolution, and pointing to Apartheid. I remind him that Apartheid existed unchecked for 46 years; majorities had very little impact on power cemented by racial ideologies, access to sophisticated weapons and acts of state sanctioned terror, and ultimately coupled with criminalizing and control of “difference” through a series of passcodes, ghettos, failed schools and health care, undesirable-stigmatized jobs and prisons.

He always responds that Apartheid ended and it ended through violence.

But I point out to him, that while violence was part of the equation, that violence was often carried out by the state not the people. Moreover, while the ongoing fight against Apartheid by black people made up the core of the struggle it took a shift amongst both whites and so-called “coloreds” to bring the system down.

Many Black  South Africans had been fighting Apartheid since it was implemented, and their efforts cannot be minimized; without their own self-determination and self-advocacy no one would have cared about what was going on in South Africa. The British, who have often crafted themselves as the “kinder, gentler” colonizers in a similar way to the French and Spanish in the Americas and Africa, thought of themselves as “good people” b/c they managed to restructure a few oppressive laws, prevent some from passing, and otherwise make minor gains against a system that remained intact under their efforts. Like the Boers, they benefited from the system of Apartheid both passively (thru unearned privileges and economic gains) and actively (through the exploitation of domestic and public labor by stigmatized black people). Foreign diplomats, the wealthy, and the famous all vacationed and/or performed in South Africa while multinational companies based in the U.S., Canada, and around the world not only did business there but also occasionally dumped tainted product on black people. Many mainstream feminists both within and outside of South Africa were also silent on its atrocities more often than not, seeing feminism as divorced from racial inequality that left black women open to both sexual and economic exploitation, disease, and death. It was only when corporate interests, social capital, and concerted grassroots efforts from black people themselves and their allies coalesced that Apartheid began to fail. Majority or minority had very little to do with it.

I’ve always thought these conversations, which should tell you what holiday dinners at Susurro’s house are like, were specific to our multi-cultural-over-educated family. Afterall, we will argue over the finer points of Foucault and Trosky in a heartbeat to make a point connecting S-21 to Abu Ghraib. My father once disowned me for saying that I liked Doris Day and Gidget (Sally and Sandra), only to forgive me when I could deconstruct the ways in which their characters and films subtly challenged gender norms while seemingly reinforcing them. The jury is still out about bourgeois acutrement and race relations . . .

However, two things made me think perhaps the conversation about numbers, power, and “race wars” is going on in a larger, scary context outside of our little fireside chats:

Last night the boys and I fell asleep with the tv on after a QAF marathon to celebrate the fact that conferences will always bring us back together in la casa. When I woke up, there was a televangelist on the television reading headlines from the day’s news. Her voice shook with panic as graphics of each headline popped up on the screen. They referenced the economy, famine, war, disease, etc. Then she turned to her male co-star and asked him to explain what the Bible tells us about “Obama’s one world government.” (I kid you not.) The two then began weaving a talk of biblical apocalypse, racial tension, and Obama as anti-christ. They blamed him for everything from swine flu to terrorism and implied he was invested in judging and condemning those who disagreed with him (ie race war).

One of the boys woke up beside me, as I muttered under my breath, and said “Oh yeah, those two come on all the time. They’re in national syndication.”

That factoid made me immediately think about the number of people whose news comes solely from their church or Christian programming (as in television programming) and how that connects to ongoing views of “reverse discrimination” and fear of “end times” that have less to do with the typical liberal image of the “backward backwater bumpkin” and more to do with a concerted effort to mis-educate people. By using televangelists, conservative pundits, and pharma funded pseudo-grassroots “organizers” from “the neighborhood”, a certain hegemonic narrative about race and racial conflict is being reinscribed into the white imaginary as white nationalism. White nationalism being defined as the equating of a commitment to a prosperous and just nation with homogenous racial identity and a return to supremacy imagined as “simpler times.”

That thought transported me back to the elections when just days after the state I was in, had voted, I went to buy a niece a Bible at one of the largest Christian bookstore chains in the nation. It caters to mainstream and evangelic Christians, stocks items in English and Spanish as well as from a wide array of racial and ethnic musicians and writers, and has storefronts in most major malls; often it is the first stop of new youth groups for gifts for the Pastor or his wife, or church members experiencing rights of passage or in need.

I remember buying the Bible and a book mark with a quote about love and watching the woman at the register look at me sideways before putting the free monthly newspaper the store produces into the bag with my items. At the time, I only wondered if she had “smelled the Catholic on me” b/c you know, some Protestants still think we belong to a cult . . . but when I got home and opened the newspaper, I realized the look was about Obama. There was a 2 page spread on how Obama was the anti-christ and we should all be worried about his “ascendancy to power.” In other words, “don’t vote for that black man, he wants to get us.” It was illustrated with images of a race war in which black people and Latinos were oppressing “god fearing” Christians who were all white. The “fair and balanced” paper had a single column on the adjoining page praising the multicultural advancement that Obama represented and encouraging people to pray before voting. Clearly this paper had been designed to influence the vote toward white supremacy. When the cashier put it in my bag after the vote was over, one can only imagine that she wanted to make a racial point that she believed to be fundamental to our shared faith despite the cognitive dissonance necessary to believe so.

I remember wrapping the Bible and the bookmark in the two page spread, putting it in an envelope and mailing it back to the headquarters of the company with a note: Do you believe that Heaven will be segregated, with occasional concerts and guest speakers from the poc side like some kind of Jesus’ led  Jim Crow, or simply that none of us, including those who produce the items sold in your stores, will actually enter the Kingdom at all? I received a convoluted reply about racial reconciliation being different than the biblically predicted anti-Christ and the coming race war. (Needless to say, my niece got a lovely rosary for her confirmation and a stern reminder to always engage her Protestant friends in discussions about equality.)

The second instance was a little more rational:

I’ve just finished reading this fascinating piece at Imagine 2050 that connects Y2K, the Northwest Imperative (for those who don’t know that was an attempt to make the pacific NW into the new Aryan Nation), and white nationalism as espoused by Pat Buchanan and Senator Graham. The connections author Eric Ward makes are perhaps most interesting b/c they move away from the “ignorant fears don’t matter” thesis that currently seems to dominate a lot of liberal analysis of various conservative movements in N. America. Instead, he points out how easy it was to frighten people and have them stock piling food and water over a computer glitch and how much easier it was for supremacists to put the word out to move North and West without much sustained criticism or intervention from the region itself. (While there were racism taskforces and a large Sharp presence in pacific NW, the long term impact of supremacist groups was not a priority. The resulting “no wo/man’s land” in various parts of states in the region and the increasing hate crimes and anti-immigrant graffitti in both rural and urban centers in the area speak to how little was done to address underlining issues while pouring tons into ending overt ones.)  Finally, his analysis also steers clear of the “good people” theory that has also continued to be a major stumbling block in addressing loyalty to whiteness (as a system of unearned privilege) and concludes that the problem is not only the willingness of some to commit totally and fully to white supremacy but also those who excuse it away as “fringe” or “opinion” or otherwise fail to commit to a concerted effort to addressing underlining systems of privilege instead of the latest overt ones.

Here’s a quote from his conclusions:

Regardless of their strategic decisions, by far the best weapon of the white nationalist movement has been the unwillingness of liberals, conservatives, progressives and their respective institutions to reject the advances of white nationalism. Unlike Y2K the shift from white supremacy to white nationalism was successful. White nationalism is now mainstream, not because of its success as a movement, but due to our willingness to remain silent.

Ultimately, the post and the blog take the fears of white racial minority status and its potential meanings to race relations seriously. In so doing, it hopes to avoid the “it’s on” moment I doubt is actually coming, by fostering conversation about the connections between seemingly small but significant acts and the mundane realities of racial hegemony. These conversations are clearly things we on the “left” need to be having not only amongst ourselves but in the larger societies in which we interact.

We have already lost the opportunity to discuss the prison-industrial-complex presented to us only weeks ago to claims of equal responsibility and irresponsibility. Yet every day is a new opportunity to have rational conversations about supremacy and fear with one another. And we have to start by making similar connections between what some want to see as the “crazy fringe” and the mainstream, dailiness, of the Pat Buchanans, the bookstore, or even your neighbors. It is particularly important to outreach to those whose own marginalization in other arenas might make them particularly blind to the ways in which they can still oppress others, without becoming oppressive ourselves.

Returning to Apartheid for a moment, I often tell my relative awaiting the “revolution”, that long after the system of Apartheid ended, the unequal and unearned wealth and control of resources continued to create racialized inequality and encourage despair driven violence against ones own. As the regime came to an end, the exporting of techniques we all claimed to be so horrified by to Western countries like Israel and Northern Ireland and militias paid by governments like the U.S. and with training facilities on U.S. soil were planned and implemented.  Some of the most powerful nations in the world employ both police and military trained by former members of the Apartheid regime. And the people who crafted it predicted that they would make millions on speaking tours, and they did.

Much like the export of Nazi military techniques and scientific research after the end of WWII, whiteness as a global system of oppression (not a race of people) continued unchecked precisely because those techniques and innovations developed in the petree dish of rampant nationalized racism has always been adaptable to “peace time.” The narrative of exceptionalism, that says these regimes are not part of a larger ideology that permeates our world, continues to be one of our biggest stumbling blocks to ending atrocity and global inequality based not only on race but all other oppressions that go unchallenged to avoid disloyalty to whiteness.

The fear of the “coming race war” is little more than the fears that have mobilized violence against people of color, immigrants, LGBTQI people, and women, in any given location, in any given nation. Only by admitting that can we began to dismantle a system whose fruits come from both “good” and “bad” trees.

Please go read the whole article from Imagine 2050 blog there and then let both the author and I know what you think of the piece.

POC in Sci Fi Meme: Derrick Bell’s Afrolantica Legacies

The Meme: Recommend, review, and/or discuss poc characters/authors in sci fi

Afrolantica Legacies

al

Derrick Bell’s Afrolantica Legacies begins with a question: how to explain the innovations of the present to President Jefferson if he were to appear in the present. The answer: start with how a black man has the right to explain anything to a white one.

As this question and answer imply, the book explores the progress of African Americans while questioning the legacy of racism that remains constant in our nation even amongst liberals and the working class. Often the discussion goes beyond the stereotypical white=bad: black=good discussion and starts to interrogate black leaders, civil rights tactics, and the meaning of oppression in general. Unlike both traditional race and science fiction narratives, it also includes strong female characters and discussions of feminism. Where it falters is in the execution of some of its ideas and characters, clunks dialogue, and a section of Jewish-black issues that is problematic at best.

The Form and the Content

The mythic island of Afrolantica is resurfacing equadistant from the U.S. and Africa. It’s previous appearance prompted African Americans and members of the African Diaspora to pack up their lives and attempt to establish a free society on the island oasis only hospital to black people. Instead, they received a list of 7 principles with which to confront oppression and empower themselves while the island returned to the ocean.

As the nation and the world prepare for its return, several parties prepare for critical discussions about race and what it will mean for black people to leave N. America for good over inequality. Among them is a speech by the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, apologizing for racism and the author of the speech, Derrick Bell, and his alien/sorceress colleague Geneva Crenshaw, outlining illustrations of the 7 principles to light the way.

Each chapter of the book is an individual story illustrating a corresponding principle and introduced by some stilted banter between Crenshaw and Bell as they “relax” on the island of Afrolantica. Some stories are more succesful than others as pieces of fiction; the majority operate more as intellectual essays on the issues barely passing themselves off as part of the semi-fantastical world that supposedly frames them. On the positive side, these essays/stories are full of cited research and law cases that illustrate how race, privilege, and moderate or liberal (defined as changing laws to equalize representation and protections in the existing system) politics have worked in the U.S. over time. Many of these essays ask the reader to think about how power is amassed, retained, and learned, all important things to understand if we are ever to dismantle oppression.

On the negative side, the essays/stories will appeal more to academic readers interested in the subject than to science fiction or fantasies readers who might become interested if introduced through their favorite genre. Worse, the genre itself seems to be a mere prop that is often falling down. Thus while the first two stories involve an alien and a fantasy land respectively, others take place between academics on campus or are review essays of novels or significant historical figures.

While Bell makes several key points about race that remain critcally salient today (and resonate with current events), he is less successful or consistent with other identities presented in the book. Though Bell fills his book with strong women, many of the descriptions or internal narratives about his attraction or lack there of to them arer completely out of line and out of place. Moreover, the recognizable women of color in his novel are all aliens or sorceresses whose concerns are largely for their own agendas. The one exception is a character named Tamara, who functions as white in a story about a Citadel full of people with unearned privilege who lorde it over lowlanders. Tamara is described as extremely intelligent and passionate both of which she gets from her father b/c her mother is dead, and these characteristics are written as gifts from her father rather than hard earned traits. In attempting to solve race relations, Tamara champions lowlanders in typical bleeding heart fashion, remaining silent in public when it will cost her prestige, feeling both attracted and distracted from the “best” lowlander in the area, etc. It is not until the end of the story that we discover that Tamara and the rest of the Citadel dwellers are people of color and that they got their power by taking it from the white lowlanders who use to oppress them. In terms of a racial discourse, this is a fascinating twist that calls up Fanon and/or Lorde. However both Tamara and Offred (yes that Offred) are the most developed female characters in the book. They are written clearly as feminist revolutionaries from which the rest of the characters in the stories can and should learn. There is no similar championing of  Chiara who is duplicitous, occassionally judgmental, and seems as various points to use or advocate violence or Crenshaw, who is judgmental, unattached, and also weilds power in ways that do not take into account Bell’s schedule or needs.  Thus Bell gives us a world in which all the men are black and all the feminists are white, or passing for it, and everyone is straight. (Interestingly, the Chiara story does include a critique of gender and gender binaries, tho there are no transgendered characters in the book.)

At the same time, Bell has to be commended for including women as powerful presences in almost all of the essays/stories in the book. All of them are strong, intelligent, and outspoken. Many of their struggles symbolize the struggle of African-Americans in the book drawing and clear and important line of connection between women’s rights and those of people of color (regardless of gender). Often Bell, as narrator, takes time out to point out the efforts of women, breakdown their activism, and champion it. And in at least one story, he promises a brand new world founded by a woman who chose to be cast out rather than collude any longer.

Unfortunately, he is less successful in discussing antisemitism and the conflict between some Jewish people and some African Americans. His essay/story “Shadowboxing” dispenses with any pretense of science fiction or even much fiction in order to posit a conversation between Bell and a fictional Jewish colleague who Bell feels is unreasonable and slightly racist. Hirsch, the colleague, comes across as a hyper-sensitive, self-obsorbed, colleague invested not so much oppression olympics as oppression eclipse in which only Jewish people suffer. In other words his character is an offensive stereotype. Worse the way that fiction Bell interacts with him about race and ethnicity exempts antisemitism while holding Jewish people accountable for racism. I’m unclear what is worse in this chapter, the insistence that Jewish people overreact to antisemitism to the erasure of other forms of oppression by a character who is guilty of the exact same thing, or the fact that important events in which Jewish boycotts of black leaders and companies led to their demise are eclipsed by the profoundly negative narrative of this chapter. It took me days to push through this chapter and its presence in the collection ensured that I could not recommend this book or gift it to anyone else.

Ultimately, despite pedantic and clunky metaphors and dialogue, inconsistent use of the genre and depiction of women, and the essay above, the book has some incredibly insightful things to say about race and racism and gender and feminism. Better still, it backs up much of its argument like a traditional academic essay, chalked full of references to research, court cases, novels, and historical figues and events. The endnotes alone make this worth perusing in your local library. But if you choose to read it, you should know only some of it is science fiction and only some of it is truly committed to equality.

The Angel of Harlem

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s death. Her soulful sound timelessly inspired so many and her song Strange Fruit dared to talk about the unspeakable in a time when we most needed to be discussing the politics of killing black folks.

22

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the divine Lady Day:

  • “Somebody once said we never know what is enough until we know what’s more than enough.”
  • “If you copy, it means you’re working without any real feeling.” (plagiarists, I’m talking to you)

And a song you may not have heard as often as some of her other hits, but which you might here playing on a Sunday afternoon at our house: